But either way, there’s a more fundamental point here: stuff like Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” comes from a deeply ingrained idea that non-Western cultures are sort of aesthetic grab bags from which you can just lift whatever you like. This is an idea that has characterized Western thinking ever since Europe turned its eyes to the world: that other cultures are sources of things to take, either physical (like Cortés pillaging an entire empire for its gold) or non-physical (symbols, ideas, imagery.) As bell hooks wrote in Eating the Other, the really pernicious thing about this idea is that it essentially turns culture into commodity: “The commodiﬁcation of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.”
None of this is to say that there can’t be genuine cultural interchange — denying that possibility just perpetuates the idea of non-Western cultures as disempowered and without agency. (I wrote more about this here, if you’re interested.) It also denies the possibility that a white person can have a genuine and meaningful connection with a non-white culture. But it’s important to be clear that what pop stars are doing ain’t genuine cultural interchange. It’s trying on cultures like jackets in a thrift store, seeing what curios you can pick out to spice up your image.
At this point, trying on an attention-grabbing new image is an integral part of attempting to make any sort of splash in the world of pop music. Sometimes, the image comes from within (Lana Del Rey, for instance, lifting a persona straight from a sort of idealized, stylized version of the 1950s), but more often, it involves lifting ideas from “exotic” places and people. Pop stars are sort of tabulae rasae onto which various aesthetics are projected until something that engages with the public is found. Whether it’s the artist themselves or their svengalis in control of the projector rather depends on who the artist in question is, and what stage of their career they’re at, but the principle is the same: hey, what if we go Japanese? Hey, what if we go Indian? Hey, what if we go African?
Pop music most definitely is a commodity. But culture isn’t. It’s something to be embraced and studied and understood, not something to lifted when you’re running out of ideas. If the pop industry’s obsession with constant reinvention and aesthetic one-upmanship is going to continue, then we should demand better from pop stars than one-dimensional cultural appropriation aimed at a market of kids who don’t know any better than to lap it up.