Shopping For Girls

Shopping for Girls.
Shopping for Girls (Oy Vey Baby, 1991).
Shopping for Girls (ChangesNowBowie, BBC, 1997).

Kham Suk is 13 years old. She is a small child with a delicate face. When she giggles, she sounds like any little girl at play. But Kham Suk doesn’t have much time for fun. Three months ago, her mother walked her across the border from Burma into Thailand and sold her to a brothel for $80. Kham Suk’s family desperately needed the money. Kham Suk still is paying the price: $4 a customer.

“Children in Darkness,” Sara Terry, Christian Science Monitor, 30 June 1987.

In 1987 Sara Terry, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, wrote a series of articles on exploited children in developing countries, centering on the Philippines and Thailand.* Her husband, Reeves Gabrels, accompanied her on research trips and helped his wife’s work by, for example, paying for child prostitutes so that Terry could interview them in privacy. Bowie had been to Thailand as well, during his 1983 tour, and had seen similar horrors. So when he and Gabrels began collaborating, they decided to pool their experiences into a song about the child sex trade.

It took Bowie years to write a lyric. The problem, he later said, was that the subject was so awful, so immune to irony or nuance, that it seemed impossible to make a rock song about it. Bowie scrapped draft after draft for being too sensationalist, for being too didactic. “The moment I got fingerwagging about it, or moralistic, the whole thing just went to pieces and became embarrassing,” he told Musician in 1991. The would-be prophet-of-rage voice he’d used on the likes of “Crack City” and “Under the God” would’ve been disastrous here. An inspiration possibly came from Lou Reed’s New York, in which Reed was more an amoral narrator of urban blight than a polemicist, letting the details pile up, letting their collective weight do the work for him.

So the final lyric for “Shopping for Girls” is a mix of narrators, starting with a cold, clipped third-person perspective for the first three verses and shifting to second person in the last, abbreviated verse. Ian McDuffie, when he wrote on this song, argued convincingly that the entire lyric could be in the first person, the removed perspective of a sociopath numbed to his actions. The shadowy perspective is paralleled by the song’s murky tonality—while the verses seem to shift between E minor and its parallel major, the B-flat chord that kicks off the chorus puts it in F major.

What’s striking here is Bowie’s phrasing, a type he had rarely used before. When a singer in his or her mid-forties alters their phrasing, it’s often to compensate for the strains of age—a move to a lower register, for example—but in Bowie’s case it was to attempt to create a new character, a shabby narrator on the margins, singing lines in a croaking, rapid patter which barely rises above the conversational—an unnerving recitative. (He would develop it further on Outside and Earthling). It was a voice that seemed to have wormed into the song, a disreputable person muttering things that you don’t want to hear.

So the first verse begins with Bowie dashing through lines without taking a breath, dispensing with rhyme or meter, as if he’s breaking into what was supposed to be part of Gabrels’ intro. It’s a consonant-heavy string of phrases that culminates with there are children riding naked on their tourist pals. Only then does Bowie allow the song proper to begin, sinking into the first eight-bar verse. He sings the first “shopping for girls” coldly, then gives the phrase more and more triumph as the song goes on. Details fill up the verses: a Michael Jackson song playing (Bowie spitting out Jackson’s name); a john emptily talking about how back home there’s winter; a brothel room that smells of the tropical flower frangipani, a favorite image of the Victorian decadents (it figures in Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Huysmans’ À rebours), made pathetic here.

“Shopping for Girls” bricks itself up in older songs, as if trying to distance itself from the coarse transactions at its heart, and calling into question all of the swagger and promises of love and bliss that pop music offers, which are lies when the songs play on the radio in some Phuket child brothel (yet the songs could be the only thing keeping the child sane). It could be a David Bowie song playing there, after all—”Let’s Dance” or “Golden Years” tinnily chirping away during some routine $4 sale. So the song’s title references the Coasters’ “Shoppin’ for Clothes.” The distorted guitar riff that follows the second chorus, and which crops up throughout the rest of the track (including all of the last verse), parodies the hook of “Raspberry Beret” (the joy of discovering sex in Prince’s song curdled into disease here). A striking line in the last verse, “her eyes for a million miles,” is a near word-for-word Captain Beefheart quote.

Should Bowie have dispensed with the word games** and references? Should Gabrels have used a less zippy guitar hook, which he even kicks up an octave at the close, as though the song’s ending with a blast? Yet what would have a more serious song accomplished but be unbearable to hear? (The Specials’ “The Boiler” comes to mind: one of the most harrowing protest-realist songs ever recorded, and all but unplayable.) The Christian Science Monitor series on child exploitation disturbed its readers, embarrassed governments, won prizes, but the child sex trade thrives, a quarter century on. What could a song buried on a forgotten Tin Machine record have done?

“Shopping For Girls” confesses its impotence. It offers no means of revolt, no incentives to rally, no heartfelt cries of support, no communal singalongs: it’s not “Biko,” it’s not “Free Nelson Mandela.” “Shopping for Girls” is just distanced reportage, a stew of unstable narrators, a collective disgust, a curse. Because in the end, Bowie and Gabrels couldn’t come up with a song worthy of the awfulness of its subject. All they could do was levy a guilty verdict on everyone—the song’s subjects, its narrator(s), its writers, its performers, its listeners, its compilers, its critics.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, 301 Studios, Sydney, and with overdubs in 1990-1991. Performed on the 1991-1992 tour, and revived as an acoustic track for Bowie’s 50th birthday radio broadcast, ChangesNowBowie, which aired on 8 January 1997.

* Terry developed the series with fellow reporter Kristin Helmore and photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman.

** Bowie’s bizarre line that opens the second verse (“a small black someone jumps over the crazy white guard“) seems an apparent spoof of the English pangram.

Consider supporting: The Grey Man, ECPAT International.

Top: David Alan Harvey, “Child Prostitute,” Bangkok, 1989.

20 Responses to Shopping For Girls

  1. david says:

    Beautifully written, a perfect encapsulation of an overlooked gem. For once the didactic sermonizing worked, although the kiss off line “You wanna give her a name and a clean rag doll”, always grated as a lumpen cliche for me, but perhaps that was the point-the singer only able to procure an empty trad gesture.

    I think the Michael Jackson reference came before the Jordi Chandler accusations too didn’t they-oddly prescient given the songs subtext.

    • Roman says:

      That’s interesting that the Michael Jackson scandal occurred a few years after the song. I’d always assumed that the manner in which Bowie spits out the line “Michael JACKson song”, and the spite it contains, was because the line both emphasised the child’s youth and the irony of her favourite singer being an accused paedophile and thus perhaps emphasising the lack of safe havens for so many unfortunate kids.

      I was a Bowie fan when TMII was released, so I obviously couldn’t have thought this at the time. But until now, I was convinced I did!

      • david says:

        Running in showbiz circles,Its conceivable that there had been a rumor mill rumbling for some time, so its entirely possible that our man was just prefacing something that was already knowledge amongst the glitterati.

  2. Frankie says:

    A well-written piece of intriguing analysis that explores a vulnerable song about vulnerability.

    (I haven’t posted comments in a while, but I’m still around enjoyably reading!)

  3. princeasbo says:

    This was a particularly good piece of criticism on a difficult topic. The acoustic version is a bit of a gem, really, and seems a lot more sympathetic than the TM take which, as per usual, is over-egged.

    Re: Bowie’s enjambed scansion, I think something similar occurs in “Sons of the Silent Age”‘s verses.

  4. Ian McDuffie says:

    This song is the reason why Tin Machine II works and Tin Machine I mostly doesn’t. It was the soap-box that just didn’t fit under Bowie’s shoes. He was no good at trying to wrench global change with a song— it was too far out of his element. Kudos for trying, but even “Cygnet Committee” is more successful than “Under the God.”

    This song gets the tone right, the subject right, everything. It actually came on today unexpectedly and I was wondering when this post would arrive— and hey, here it is. It doesn’t disappoint. For me, this song is when Bowie’s 90s output really begin to get good. The fire’s lit, now. He’s just got to run with it.

  5. Paul Kelly says:

    This is one of Bowie’s best songs of the nineties – unfortunately doomed to obscurity due to keeping company with the Hunt Sales songs and the pointless Roxy cover, on this most critically crapped-on of Bowie albums.

    • Tin Man says:

      OK Paul, “Shopping for Girls” is a great song, but i disagree with you when you misjudge Hunt. I think this group was a huge band also because of the Sales Brothers involvement.maybe, they don’t appear as great composers but i think they both have great voices, kind of Sam & Dave Style; don’t forget they come from r’n’b. Did you know their CD “Hired Guns” issued in 2008 but recorded circa 77/79, before Tony’s car accident ?

  6. MC says:

    Also, this track was one of the ones that definitely seemed to stem from Lodger/Scary Monstersland. The guitar hook always reminded me of Townshend’s work on Because You’re Young, and the “eyes for a million miles” line is pretty reminiscent of “The space in her eyes shows through” in Repetition – both grimly appropriate musical starting-points for this song.

    For me, the song always belonged in the “worthy but dull” category, but listening to it again (for the first time in years), and reading this excellent piece makes me think it has a reappraisal coming. In retrospect, as Ian McDuffie points out, and as the write-up suggests, it does seem like the first nineties Bowie song; it’s not the specifics of the song construction or the subject matter but rather the tone and mood that make me think it could be a harbinger of the music to come – the dark melancholia of so much of Heathen and Hours, and the hints of abject terror between the lines, pointing towards Outside.

  7. Barb says:

    Excellent

  8. PH says:

    Just backtracking a bit: Col1234, do you know if it’s possible to find any downloadable files of a couple of songs from your earlier posts, “Needles On The Beach” and Ëxodus”. I’d like very much to add these to my collection of Bowie rarities.

  9. Diamond Duke says:

    Good call, MC. This is yet another of Bowie’s more overlooked songs, and yet another example of Tin Machine II‘s oddly Janus-faced nature, partly looking backward toward the Berlin years, and partly laying the foundations for Bowie’s later ’90s achievements such as Outside and Earthling. (MC makes very astute comparisons with Repetition and Because You’re Young, and the song also anticipates the admittedly more fanciful fictional horrors of The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction (As Beauty) and Wishful Beginnings.)

    Grim, numbly horrified, and incredibly sad, Shopping For Girls treads very lightly in attempting to make a statement about its very disturbing subject matter, deftly avoiding the fire-and-brimstone preachiness which hampered something like Crack City. True, the end result is quite coldly distanced and ultimately impotent (again, a la Repetition), but sometimes the only thing one can do is testify, and there is certainly no shame in admitting one’s powerlessness in the face of such horror. On the contrary, it shows a kind of maturity – one which the first Tin Machine album, for all its strengths, could not really lay claim to. (The exception, of course, being I Can’t Read, and that related more to personal malaise than societal.)

    (And col1234, thanks for the reference to the Specials’ The Boiler. I looked it up on YouTube myself. You’re right, it is quite harrowing. Even though I looked up the lyrics on another website and followed along at the same time (so I knew ultimately how the song would end), I was really thrown by the sheer intensity of the vocal and instrumental delivery toward the end! It was really quite startling. See below…)

  10. piffle says:

    For some reason I’ve never heard of Tin Machine 2 before, but if this is at all representative of the rest of the tracks on it, I can’t see why Tin Machine were met with such criticism.

  11. Maj says:

    To me Shopping for Girls sounds like TM covered a Bowie song from the Low era.
    Good point about the phrasing…it definitely makes it feel and sound very 1 Outside-ish. A pretty good song. I think it’s moved into my TM top 5, though the subject matter of course is just sad…

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