Attempting to “appreciate culture” and failing miserably suddenly seems to be the new trend at live music award shows.
Alleged culturally appropriative performances have occurred with increasing rapidity over the past year, coming to mainstream attention with Miley’s now infamous performance at the VMAs and continuing through to Katy Perry’s geisha number at the AMAs and Ke$ha’s Native American costumes at the same show.
Besides the massive amount of circle-jerking that goes on, televised music award shows serve two purposes: 1. artists get massive publicity and 2. artists get to go crazy and see just how far they can push the envelope. Music award shows are particularly fantastic platforms because they come at no cost to the viewer and are easily accessible and conducive to viral sharing in the days after the show.
But I’m not about to engage in a debate about what cultural appropriation is or whether Miley and Katy were being culturally appropriative. We have the Internet and its awful comment sections for that, and nothing I have to say on the topic will add to the conversation.
Instead, the reverse question must be asked: Can these artists somehow meet the stringent demands of contemporary cultural critics? Can they somehow make their performances culturally appreciative instead of appropriative? Given that we demand artists express themselves with “nuance” in order to be appreciative, the depressing answer is no — it is not possible in the current context to be culturally appreciative at award shows.
I cannot think of a single way in which a white artist can dress up as a minority ethnic group, perform within the span of five minutes and not have it come across as stereotyping — if Katy Perry had dressed up as Mexican and worn sombreros and danced around, it would’ve been offensive; if she had used blackface, it would have been absolutely horrendous; if she had gone the path of Selena Gomez a la the Billboard Music Awards and donned a bindi to celebrate Indian culture, it would’ve have been downright wrong.
Cultural appreciation takes much longer than a five-minute cursory dance — choreography is not enough to represent interaction; costume cannot replicate hybridity. At this point in time, I can’t conceive of a form in which a “cultural” performance by a mainstream white artist could be done in an appropriate manner — I only say white artists because the entertainment industry is dominated by white people, and it seems that only they are having this problem right now.
A question I’ve asked throughout the semester is how does all of this, all of what goes on within the context of television, affect me or you as an individual? As an Asian American woman attending an elite university, I do not face oppression or discrimination on a day-to-day basis. When someone like Katy Perry comes around and performs a Japanese-Chinese-fusion dance on national television, it has no bearing on my day after or my month after.
Commenters across the Web gripe at people to “get over it” and quit complaining about trivialities because “it’s not a big deal.” Some of these commenters proclaim, “I’m Asian-American and this performance neither offended me nor does it affect me. Who cares?” And it’s true — not everyone is going to be affected, nor is everyone going to be sensitive to such matters. After a few weeks, Katy Perry will fade from relevance.
What these commenters fail to understand, though, is that nothing in America is ever trivial. If it doesn’t offend you, great, that’s fine. But such trivialities certainly affect you — a series of “no big deals” eventually culminates into one huge deal, as snippets of representations aggregate to build a national depiction of an ethnic group.
Ultimately, pop culture is the single greatest influence on our people-to-people interactions — government remedies can’t enforce tolerance, and state solutions can’t teach respect.
What is trivial is accessible, and what is accessible is absorbed.
Lynn Yu is the arts columnist. Contact her at [email protected].