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