Adventures in Cultural Appropriation

As white pop stars like Taylor Swift continue their excursions into the fantasy of racial drag, the backlash fails to recognize the deeper structural inequity from which such music emerges. It also ceases to appreciate how cultural appropriation may be liberatory.

By En Liang KhongSeptember 9, 2014

Adventures in Cultural Appropriation

YET ANOTHER WHITE pop star has wandered into the thorny world of racial drag. Taylor Swift, in case you missed her, is an American musician who began her career in a calculated blend of country crossover, the manic articulation of teenage romance and the sheen of bubblegum pop. Lately, the sugary anthems have been winning out. Her upcoming album 1989 is increasingly marketed as a “rebirth,” as Swift’s reach for global commercial domination pulls her further away from the country genre’s obsession with authenticity. And the video for her lead single “Shake It Off” is a thinly disguised paean to the Taylor Swift project: the singer exaggerates her clumsiness alongside troupes of professionally polished dancers in a kaleidoscope of traditions, from ballet through to twerking, before she shakes off the haters by blithely dancing away.

The video’s most controversial shot is Swift crawling through a line of twerking dancers, earning her accusations of cultural appropriation, and comparisons to Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs last year. Cyrus, finally freed from her contractual obligation to Disney, produced a stage act that saw her blasted for its crass mockery of black music, and the reduction of women of color to the status of sexual props. But for music critic Jessica Hopper, Swift’s act of cultural appropriation was even more cheap and cynical than Cyrus’s provocative, sexualised caricature. The confused smile that Swift wears throughout the video to “Shake It Off” is, for Hopper, a smirk that “highlights the chasm between the guileless white pop star playing dress-up with her Cuban link chains and the capable brown ass shaking above her. It’s a really cheap move that plays on the historic, racist mythology about black women’s sexuality in order to underscore her own.” 

This brand of cultural criticism reached its bloodless apogee in the austere leftism of the magazine In These Times. Staff writer Sady Doyle damns Swift’s privilege: “in the ballet scenes, the joke is that Taylor’s not a ballerina; in the twerking scenes, the joke is that Taylor’s not black.” It is merely the latest in Swift’s habit of steadily stripping away “any political charge from every genre she’s passed through,” made all the more egregious given her origins in country, “an implicitly political genre about the concerns of the working poor.” Sady Doyle’s charge that Swift chirps her saccharine ballads at a time of great public struggle and discontent is a predictable resort to the good old Marxist position, that this is merely the anti-progressive musical opiate of the masses.

But since all is subjective, there are of course many other ways of reading the music video to “Shake It Off” and Swift’s innocent whiteness, that go beyond calling it out for lazy plagiarism and base cultural appropriation. For his part, the video’s director Mark Romanek has demanded that audiences remember that the film is “a satirical piece. It’s playing with a whole range of music video tropes and cliches and stereotypes.” I’m not saying any of the views glossed above are intrinsically wrong. In a sense, we see multiple points of view on Swift’s video that all make sense within their own cultural contexts.

But the recent history of Western pop has been littered with instances of racial fetishization. It’s not hard to forget Katy Perry’s performance at the American Music Awards where she happily appeared clad in what appeared to be a kimono and lacquered hair, exclaiming “I will love you unconditionally,” while acrobats alternated between enthusiastic fan-flapping and cavorting across the stage. It was an act of fantasy straight out of the yellowface playbook, delighting in the perpetuation of orientalist coyness for a screaming 21st century Western audience. The critics were swift to slam her racial drag act for floating free in historical and political ignorance.

The thing is, even Perry’s gown, which had been designed by Vivienne Westwood and had attracted all the references to Geisha-glam, was itself a cultural appropriation. As blogger Jen Wang sharply noted, the “gown Perry wore has nothing to do with geishas, and was actually ‘inspired’ by a Chinese flower painting.” It originated in a Westwood collection that had absorbed everything from Mao jackets to 17th century corsets as influences. That’s immediately a clue, to my mind, that we should stop looking at individual cases of cultural appropriation, but rather a far more structural inequity. Our blinkered focus on Swift, Cyrus, or Perry keeps us from addressing the wider cultural milieu from which these acts emerge. 

During the 1990s, the legendary black feminist bell hooks took issue with those who regarded Madonna’s sexual politics as liberating, in a broadside which demonstrates that there is nothing new about white pop star acts bearing the brunt of vicious cultural criticism: “many black women who are disgusted by Madonna’s flaunting of sexual experience are enraged because the very image of sexual agency that she is able to project and affirm with material gain has been the stick this society has used to justify its continued beating and assault on the black female body.” People like Miley Cyrus may well delight in the fantasy of racial drag. But the rotten core at the heart of these outrages over cultural appropriation is not whatever getup the pop star of the day brings to the VMAs, but rather an economy in which white consumers direct the public representation of blackness.

There are no easy boundaries to draw between influence and exploitation, however. We really need to think through the ways in which the critical approach to cultural appropriation may unfairly paper over a perfectly natural aspect of liberatory cultural encounters. These are important questions, because they determine how we might imagine ways of making identity and art in the future. 

There are pitfalls in both the demarcation and erasure of difference. Mimi Nguyen’s essay “It’s (Not) a White World: Looking for Race in Punk,” written for the Punk Planet zine in 1998, about her assimilation into the punk scene speaks to stakes involved in drawing identity boundaries: “to get our official membership card, we’re supposed to give up or put certain parts of ourselves aside. Differences are potentially divisive. The assumption is that somehow we — because punk is so progressive — have ‘gotten over’ these things, and never mind the psychic erasure I might have to endure.” What Nguyen gives powerful expression to is the fear of hybridity, by which not only the mainstream but any established narrative, even that of punk, may be contaminated.

The concept of hybridity is not one of multicultural bliss. Rather it leaves us in a world full of ambiguity and uncertainty. But then again this is the messy world we live in. And I believe Taylor Swift’s video amplifies this with an unprecedented directness, in her infringement upon multiple identities, and acknowledgement of clumsiness at each attempt. If anything, Swift’s series of aborted attempts at all these pervasive dance styles, far from being an exercise in (failed) cultural appropriation, highlights the basic awkwardness and uneasiness that live in each moment of cultural transgression.

Pop music is by its very nature playful, unapologetic, full of an impulsive sensibility. It liberates and with the same hand it exploits. This is not to put an end to calling out the worst forms of cultural imperialism, of calling a halt to privileged musicians who disremember the structural advantage of whiteness. The question of who exactly is tearing down the cultural barrier is always an urgent one, because the answer nearly always points to the most privileged in society. But if the critique of cultural appropriation wants to be more than a blunt tool, it must have something more to it than a reliance on the exclusionary mode of identity politics. 

There is after all a great tradition of white musicians appropriating and misappropriating black musical traditions, and this has as much to do with a progressive rejection of the white pop cultural mainstream, of disrupting the dominant psycho-geography, as it has to do with blind triviality. What may be cultural appropriation in one place may well be cultural cross-pollination in another. Think of the often quoted and apocryphal remark, sometimes traced back to Thelonious Monk, on crafting a sound that would be impossible for white musicians to imitate. And then think of the European jazz scene, profoundly engaged with its African-American influences, and using them to liberate the European tradition and identity. I often listened to Peter Brotzmann’s 1968 record Machine Gun as a teenager, its devastating walls of noise making it a seminal piece in the history of European free jazz. And I can remember that there are moments on that record that exist almost in pure imitation of John Coltrane’s Meditations.

Such cultural appropriations might be akin to what Gayatri Spivak calls “strategic essentialism.” They always run the danger of being essentializing, but can also be strategic in the sense of using these essentialist signifiers to contest and disrupt the dominant narrative. The criticism of cultural appropriation can be valuable, but it is also a concept that is hindered by an implication of boundedness and closure, an assumption that there is no precarious zone between fixed identities, and no possibility for hybridity.

It is only in the embrace of hybridity that we may change the mode in which we collectively imagine new ways of making art, in which identity has as much to do with the future as it does with the past. Let us return to Stuart Hall’s grandiose demand, that we begin to think not “of ‘who we are’ or ‘where we came from,’ so much as what we might become.”


En Liang Khong is a submissions editor at openDemocracy and an editorial assistant at Pluto Press.

LARB Contributor

En Liang Khong is a submissions editor at openDemocracy and an editorial assistant at Pluto Press. He is on the editorial collective of Red Pepper magazine. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New Inquiry, Frieze, the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph, the New Statesman and New Left Project.


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