News Column

G2: Katy Perry and Avril Lavigne say they are showing love for other cultures, but racial stereotyping is always dangerous

August 5, 2014

Priya Elan



Of late, the world of pop music has witnessed some woeful examples of cultural stereotyping, mainly thanks to Katy Perry. There was her performance of Unconditionally at the 2013 American Music Awards - trussed up in a kimono and busting geisha moves with the slightest hint of slanty-eyed makeup. There was I Kissed a Girl from her Prismatic tour, featuring faceless mummies with massive butts and breasts who looked like anonymous black sex dolls. There have also been a couple of troubling music videos - Birthday, with Perry dragged up as "Yosef Shulem", a yarmulke-wearing, afro-sporting Jewish comic who "for a price" will "do a funeral" - and Dark Horse (currently the most played music video of 2014), which showed a man wearing an Allah

pendant being burned to the ground.

Perry started out as pop's doe-eyed minor irritant, seemingly conjured from the not-too-deep spiritual well of a 14-year-old FHM reader. This fed into the pandering, dreadfully infantilised

approach to sexuality of I Kissed a Girl and UR So Gay, and her whipped-cream-spurting bra, which took Madonna's iconic, emancipated conical lingerie and reduced it to the wink-wink, nudge-nudge of a Benny Hill sketch. It was easy to ignore her when she wasn't really saying anything at all, but of late it has been hard not to wince in anticipation of her next move, like fielding a conversation with an elderly relative at Christmas. Sure enough, her new single This Is How We Do features a line about getting your nails done "Japanesy".

When Rolling Stone magazine recently asked about the accusation that she was culturally insensitive Perry said: "Can't you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don't know. I guess I'll just stick to baseball and hot dogs and that's it . . . If there was an inkling of anything bad, then it wouldn't be there, because I'm very sensitive to people." In its incredulity and doggedness, this was an answer that reminded me of an exchange in the First Wives Club; Goldie Hawn: "I drink because I'm a sensitive and highly strung person." Bette Midler: "That's why your co-stars drink."

In a similar spirit of cultural insensitivity, Avril Lavigne, pop punk's Benjamin Button girlwoman, released her video for Hello Kitty earlier this year. In it, we see the probably 49-year-old Lavigne

surrounded by four identikit, glassy-eyed Japanese dancers as she enjoys sushi, sake and shouts random Japanese phrases ("KAWAII!", "ARIGATO") in an exaggerated child's voice. Lavigne responded to accusations that it was cultural fetishisation by tweeting: "RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture" - a response pulled from the same chapter in the pop star charm-school book as: "LOL!!! Some of my best friends are black, you know."

Questions about Perry and Lavigne's intent (or lack thereof) are less significant than the end result of using these cultural stereotypes. Admitedly, pop stars can be a confused bunch - I was once asked by a white singer if I thought it would be OK if he called his song Blackface - but the power of Brand Perry and Lavigne Inc can't be denied. Dark Horse has had nearly 500m YouTube views, and Perry's audience includes the very young (my five-year-old niece and nephew loved Last Friday Night (TGIF)). In not taking the minstrel-y feel of these videos and performances to task, we are somehow complicit in a reductive treatment of non-western cultures. The road of cultural insensitivity leads very quickly to the slipstream of racism, because racism isn't just someone calling you a name in the street or in the playground; it's a subtle, creeping thing that hangs about in words left unsaid and moments not challenged when they should be. As Maya Angelou said: "The plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstreams." Racism is born from cultural

stereotypes and the idea that "other" is a thing we don't fully understand. This is an argument powerfully articulated by the Native American voices in last week's G2 story on the backlash against headdresses worn at music festivals. It's like looking at cultures through the distorted glass of a display box in a museum. For privileged pop stars such as Perry or Lavigne, it's hard to understand the subtleties that create a feeling of outsider-ism when you are not white.

Ten years ago Gwen Stefani released her first solo album, Love Angel Music Baby. It was an

excellent record and closed with Long Way to Go, a song about mixed-race couples featuring a sample of Dr Martin Luther King. Despite this, the

album's visual language heavily featured the Harajuku girls: Japanese backup dancers who never spoke, dressed alike and were an "ethnic posse" - accessories for Stefani to use at will. Despite the best efforts of MAD TV, which parodied Stefani with the song Aren't Asians Great? sung to the tune of The Great Escape, and comic Margaret Cho, who likened it to "blackface", many were only dimly aware of the cultural missteps. Listening back to the lyrics of her song Harajuku Girls ("the language of your clothing is something to encounter/a ping pong match between eastern and western") it becomes apparent that Stefani managed to get away with a) absolutely no attempt at rhyming couplets and b) some dangerous stereotyping. It's depressing that a decade later, pop's powerful are still peddling the same lazy fodder.


For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel



Source: Guardian (UK)


Story Tools






HispanicBusiness.com Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters