Avril Lavigne and I have some things in common. We were both really into “Sk8r Boi” when it came out over a decade ago. We’ve both done some crazy stuff to our hair. And we are both ignorant Western white girls who happen to really like Japanese culture.
That’s not a crime. And technically, neither is Lavigne’s new single, “Hello Kitty”, a mediocre dub-step infused pop ‘song’ that feels like a sad puppy begging for attention. It’s the third single from her self-titled album that, were it not for the video, would have flown under the collective cultural radar – just like the two singles that preceded it.
The problem with the video is not that it is set in Japan. It’s that the version of Japanese culture displayed in it is misappropriated. “Hello Kitty” does not celebrate geisha tea ceremonies or otaku in 10-storey Akihabara arcades, though they would be equally hackneyed stereotypes. Instead, Lavigne takes the Western idea of what “kawaii” is and runs with it, with no attempt to engage with a deep and multi-faceted culture beyond merely face value.
Her backing dancers – four identically dressed Japanese girls – never interact with the action beyond robot-like synchronised dancing, perpetuating the stereotype of submissive Asian girls. There’s sushi, sake and gratuitous Japanese phrases thrown into the lyrics for good measure. There also aren’t any eponymous Hello Kittys, but the song doesn’t seem to be about cats anyway so I’ll let that slide. It’s all very reminiscent of Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls phase circa 2004, but more baffling and less interesting musically.
Sadly, cultural appropriation seems to be the latest trend in the world of pop music. Just think about all the controversy surrounding Miley Cyrus and her ill-advised propensity for twerking. Or Katy Perry performing at the VMAs in a kimono and parasol. Or Lady Gaga wearing a burqa. Or Selena Gomez et al wearing bindis to Coachella with no clue, nor care, what they represent in the Hindu religion. A cynic might even argue Lavigne has deliberately produced a poor video just for the resulting media furore. Considering the last noteworthy thing she did was marry Chad from Nickleback, maybe insulting an entire nation didn’t seem that much worse.
These all point towards the Western tendency to treat the East like an exotic grab bag, something that can be turned into a commodity and used as a sales technique. It also reeks of imperialism, and the fascination with anything Eastern becoming shorthand for “mystical” or “exciting”. It’s like the token Chinese mentor in karate films, who exists only to be wise and teach the white hero something useful before disappearing off, lending the premise a veneer of plausibility while reducing an ethnicity to one marketable aspect.
So no. I don’t care if Avril Lavigne does spend half her time in Tokyo. If that’s true, she should have known better than to produce something this clichéd and offensive. It’s true that kawaii-ness is prevalent in Japanese pop culture – for further proof, try any J-Pop video, and I recommend “Pon Pon Pon” by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – but there is so much more to the country than that. You cannot reduce any one culture to a lazy facsimile of its most egregious aspects and commodify it to sell your latest crap song. Especially when you can’t even pronounce “kawaii” properly. Lavigne sounds more like she’s stuttering out “kowai”, the Japanese word for “scary”. Which, you know, describes her video rather better.