There’s been a predictable Internet shitstorm about the cringe-inducing video for Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty,” three-and-a-quarter minutes of cultural cluelessness that make Katy Perry’s VMA performance look like a nuanced examination of Orientalism and the changing nature of East/West cultural interchange since the abolition of the Sakoku policy in 1853. The Lavigne video is awful, obviously — it’s a sort of checklist of idiotic Japanese stereotypes, including candy stores, cupcakes, sake, sushi, random Japanese phrases (“Kawaii! Arigato!”), and, of course, four identikit Harajuku dancers who get used as silent stage decoration.(There’s also the curious fact that Lavigne appears to be wearing some sort of colored contacts in the video, that seem designed to accentuate just how blue her eyes are — although if anything, they end up making her look like an extra from David Lynch’s Dune who’s hit the spice a bit too hard.) It’s all like a budget knock-off of Gwen Stefani circa 2004, only without the Neptunes/Nellee Hooper production and the hooks.
There are a couple of things to be said here. First, a caveat: cultural appropriation isn’t necessarily always the cut-and-dried issue people want to seem to think it is. There’s a general assumption (on the Internet, anyway) that people of color will react with inevitable horror when they see white people attempting to engage with a culture not their own. This isn’t always the case — take this Billboard Q&A with Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, for instance, where she was asked, “Do you think the use of the bindi and Indian garb in American pop is a polite nod to Bollywood or insulting to traditional Hindu faith?” and replied, “I would like to think of it as an embrace of Indian culture more than anything else… I think it’s wonderful to see more and more people around the world embracing our culture.”
There’s a trend toward being COMPLETELY OUTRAGED on the behalf of minorities/underprivileged groups, instead of asking whoever’s supposed to be offended what they actually think. This doesn’t really serve the interests of whoever’s supposed to have been appropriated; instead, it just allows white people to prove that they are Good White People by being as offended as humanly possible.
So, no, I suggest that the Internet not react with frothing-at-the-mouth rage at the very existence of this video, and that we shouldn’t necessarily condemn it a priori because it involves Lavigne trying to engage with Japanese culture. (If anything, the video looks like it’s meant as a gesture of affection to Japan, albeit an entirely tone-deaf and ridiculous one.)
No, we should condemn it because it’s shit. And because it’s lazy. And because it’s the most egregious form of cultural appropriation — the type that reduces a culture that’s thousands of years old to a bunch of cardboard cutout imagery. That’s the real problem: not that Lavigne is engaging with Japanese culture, but that she isn’t, not really. All she’s doing is cherrypicking a few images to create an artificial pseudo-Japanese aesthetic.
Lavigne has been to Japan on tour, and must know that the version of the country this video purveys is no more reflective of reality than a stripey-shirted, beret-wearing Frenchman clutching a baguette, or an Australian who looks like Crocodile Dundee, or any other silly, two-dimensional national stereotype you can think of. And even if she is so genuinely clueless as to not know such things, there must have been someone involved with this video who knew the reaction it’d elicit.
The real question here is: why do pop stars keep doing this? Because as well as the aforementioned Stefani and Perry, there has been waaaaay too much of this of late. There are pretty clear-cut examples: Iggy Azalea’s Bollywood/India pastiche, Lady Gaga’s characteristically clueless outing in a burqa, and no doubt a whole heap more that I can’t remember off the top of my head. And there are those who were the subject of debate, like the ongoing shitfight about Miley Cyrus and her alleged appropriation of African-American culture (an accusation that, it must be said, not everyone agreed with).
Part of it is genuine cluelessness, I imagine. There’s a theory that your maturity gets frozen in time at the age you become famous — and, to wit, the perma-teenish Lavigne released a single last year called “Here’s to Never Growing Up.” If you’ve led a life of privilege and being closeted from the real world, you probably don’t really have any idea how people in that world might respond to having their culture portrayed as a fashion accessory. (Hint: it’s not following you down the street and dancing happily while you wave maniacally at “fans” like you’re some sort of visiting royalty.)
Perhaps the answer is that neither Lavigne nor her fans care what a bunch of quibbling Internet social justice types think: one imagines that the vast majority of tweens won’t see this video and think “racial cluelessness!” — they’ll think “pretty colors and Japanese people!” Still, it’s not a good look for Lavigne or her record company when the first results you see when you google “Avril Lavigne Hello Kitty video” are these:
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.