Stop Pop Stars
Matthew Munhall | Monday, April 28, 2014
Dear pop stars of the world, why does this keep happening? It has been a decade since Gwen Stefani’s use of the Harajuku Girls, her Japanese and Japanese-American backup dancers, was widely perceived as fetishizing Asian women. Just last year, the discourse surrounding Miley Cyrus’s use of black women as props in her “We Can’t Stop” video and VMA performance was widely publicized. So why does a new instance of cultural appropriation by a pop star arise seemingly every week?
These conversations were revived most recently with the release of Avril Lavigne’s new music video “Hello Kitty.” While the song itself is an offensive aural assault, it is its terrible video that has proved controversial. Like Stefani, the Japanese women Lavigne uses as backup dancers are presented as expressionless props. The clichéd representations of Japanese culture continue as Lavigne dances around a neon-colored Tokyo, eats sushi, drinks sake and screams, “Arigato, Kawaii.”
Earlier this month, Sky Ferreira’s video for her brilliant pop anthem “I Blame Myself” faced similar charges. The video, which plays on her 2013 drug arrest, finds her portraying a gang leader. Like Cyrus, her recent tourmate, Ferreira was criticized for using black men as props in her drug dealer fantasy. Although Ferreira envisioned the video as homage to Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” her black dancers were seemingly cast as signifiers of toughness to contrast with her image as a white woman.
Katy Perry’s video for her new single “Birthday” features the pop star dressed in elaborate costumes as horrible party entertainers. Though most were harmless, if cringe-worthily unfunny, one of these characters was a Bar Mitzvah MC named Yosef Shulem. The character traffics in well-worn Jewish stereotypes, with Perry donning a prosthetic nose and yarmulke while joking about circumcision. This follows her similarly offensive performance at last year’s American Music Awards, a stereotypical representation of a “geisha” in which she wore a kimono and powdered face.
What is most frustrating—if expected—is the way these pop stars go on the defensive in the face of backlash. “RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan,” Lavigne tweeted last Monday in the midst of the controversy. “I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video specifically for my Japanese fans, WITH my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers AND a Japanese director IN Japan.”
In a Facebook post, Ferreira defended her video, “No, I did not use black back up dancers as “props.” I never have and never will look at any human being as a prop. … Should I consciously only cast white dancers for now on? If I’m racist does that mean you’re pro-segregation?!”
The criticism these artists face stems from a genuine place; rather than dismissing it outright, I wish pop stars would listen to the honest complaints about videos that are racially insensitive and engage in the conversation about cultural appropriation taking place. These controversies allow for moments of learning and dialogue—for both the pop stars themselves and their audiences. In his recap of 2013’s pop culture phenomena, Grantland’s Rembert Browne wrote, “Cultural appropriation has been occurring forever, but it has been long addressed in homogenous silos. … A ton of uncomfortable things happened in 2013. But we finally began talking about them together.”
The first four months of 2014 alone have proven pop music will continue to produce “uncomfortable things.” Yet, I’m also certain that pop stars can create interesting, even controversial art without reducing peoples’ identities down to simplified stereotypes. This certainly won’t be — and shouldn’t be — the last time we talk about race and cultural appropriation. And while I hope pop stars learn from these instances going forward, at the very least we’re finally having these conversations together.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.