It took the plantation-era utterances of Donald Sterling, and the NBA’s subsequent lifetime ban of the Los Angeles Clippers owner, to bring back the old topic of race to the national watercooler conversation for the past 10 days. But, as outrageous as Sterling’s views on racial co-mingling were, many were quick to point out that they were coming from an 80-year-old white man, and that a lot more old white men than we care to admit may still harbor such sentiments. But, ethnic stereotyping and racial insensitivity coming from 20-something pop stars? That’s another matter.
And yet, it’s pretty remarkable how in recent months — and particularly in recent weeks — some of pop’s leading ladies seem to be trying to outdo each other in the co-opting of cultural images with the potential to offend, on stage and in their music videos. Only a week before the Sterling unpleasantness broke, Sky Ferreira turned up in the hood for “I Blame Myself,” hanging out and dancing with all African-American extras who were apparently meant to be hustlers or bangers. And then, there’s Katy Perry. Since the fall release of Prism, Perry has bull-in-a-china-shopped her way through an "It’s a Small World"-style collection of ethnic stereotypes: a kimono-clad “Unconditionally” on the AMAs, which brought accusations of glorifying geisha culture; an ancient Egyptian “Katy Patra” character in the video for “Dark Horse” (which included a guy wearing an “Allah” pendant that drew more flak); and now, in “Birthday," donning a yarmulke and Jewfro as “Yosef Shulem,” a pasty-faced bar mitzvah DJ. The fact that that last one has gone largely unchallenged still surprises me.
What didn’t go unchallenged was “Hello Kitty,” the latest from the Benjamina Button of pop, Avril Lavigne. The woman is physically in stasis and creatively, 29 going on 12. How else to explain the boneheaded offering that was this video? Candy! Sushi! Cute Japanese people! It wasn’t cute when Gwen Stefani appropriated “Harajuku Girls” in song and on stage 10 years ago; it’s not cute, and, to boot, unoriginal, now. Personally though, I found “Hello Kitty” more an un-listenable affront to the ears than the eyes. And, that’s the thing, so much of one’s reaction depends on what one brings to the table. I would never suggest that these possibly thoughtless moves by pop artists are anywhere near on par with Donald Sterling’s apartheid-leaning views. But, that’s me. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people legitimately offended by Avril’s goofy, clichéd take on Tokyo or Katy’s Allah pendant, by Sky’s boys in the hood or Miley’s cultural appropriation. But, for every person who feels Perry’s kimono fetishizes geishas, others just find it silly and still others shrug and say we’re too touchy.
“People are just too sensitive.” It’s the pushback point of view I encounter a lot around ethnic brush fires like these. It’s an argument I hear from friends and family members — I heard it at brunch from a friend on Sunday — and one that seems especially prevalent in the music, art, and fashion worlds: the idea that we all need to collectively develop thicker skins. Lady Gaga herself, in defending Katy, months ago decried our overly sensitive culture. (For the record, I remain pretty “sensitive” about Gaga’s meat dress) I’ve got Jewish friends who weren’t especially bothered by “Birthday” and gay friends who don’t seem fazed when Eminem, Tyler the Creator, or Azealia Banks let loose with homophobic talk. We’re post-racism, post-homophobia, the thinking goes, so can we please all be less hung up on this stuff? Still, few of them would likely tell the Clippers or the NBA to lighten up over Sterling.
Would Wayne Coyne agree? Wayne is, of course, the brainy, charismatic leader of Oklahoma psych-pop futurists The Flaming Lips — no young pop novice, a provocateur to be sure, but a veteran musician who you would think knows what racially tinged lines one does not cross. And yet, according to Kliph Scurlock, until recently the Lips’ longtime drummer, Coyne fired him from the band last month in retaliation for Scurlock standing up to racism. The racist offense in question was a photo posted on Facebook by Christina Fallin — daughter of OK’s Republican Governor Mary Fallin, front woman for the band Pink Pony and reportedly a friend of Coyne’s — of herself wearing a Native American headdress and captioned “Appropriate Culturation.” Poor judgment or in-your-face provocation on Fallin’s part, we don’t know. But, we do know American Indian groups were not amused, and neither was Scurlock, who says he told Fallin to “go fuck herself,” and in an exhaustive telling of the story on Pitchfork, contended that’s the reason Coyne dismissed him from the Lips. While Scurlock has said he does not consider Coyne himself a racist, and expressed nothing but love for the other members of the band and regret over his departure, a since-deleted Coyne Instagram of humans and a dog wearing similar native headdress seems to suggest that Coyne believes there is nothing wrong with the depiction.
And, maybe you wouldn’t think so either. Maybe you’ve played cowboys and Indians as a kid, or put on a Native American headdress for Halloween, and think it ought to be seen as no big deal. The fact is, it’s very much a big deal to some, and that’s enough for me. It’s all well and good to think we need to chill and not get so hung up on stereotypical images with “innocent” intentions. But, as long as there are Donald Sterlings in the world, maybe we ought to be not quite so flippant in our appropriations, even if they are deemed "art."