Lavigne’s celebration of Japan is lost in translation

Avril Lavigne’s presentation of Japanese culture follows the recent trend of cultural appropriation in pop music

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.

4 comments

  1. 29 Apr ’14 at 4:58 pm

    Isidore of Seville

    Cultural appropriation is a serious issue (the Lady Gaga burka incident or the legendarily awful Navajo panties clusterfuck illustrates just how offensive it can be), but this case has been blown out of proportion. There haven’t been many, if any, criticisms of the video’s racism coming out of Japan itself. The Japanese think it’s just a hilariously bad video, and if they’re aware at all of the Western ‘appropriation’ claims, they’re utterly confused by them. It seems just a tiny bit disingenuous of white people to call out other white people for cultural appropriation when the people of colour who are the supposed victims don’t actually care about it at all. We have an obligation to *listen to* and broadcast the opinions of PoC when it comes to racism, not to assume we speak for them and that we, not they, are the arbiters of what constitutes bigotry.

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  2. @Isidore of Seville –

    Agree with you to a point, but surely you don’t have to be a victim of racism to be offended by it? Also, it seems a bit contradictory to talk about listening to the alleged victims, while simultaneously making rather sweeping statements like “the Japanese think it’s just a hilariously bad video?”

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    • 30 Apr ’14 at 12:32 pm

      Isidore of Seville

      Well, no, you don’t have to be personally affected to be offended. But when the response has been almost entirely manufactured by white Americans claiming to speak for Japanese people, it’s rather inappropriate. Also, bit hard to link to sources while on mobile, but people who speak Japanese have translated Japanese language TV news and blog posts about the Avril Lavigne incident and almost all the posts are laughing at the video and, when they’ve been informed about the US appropriation narratives, their response is mostly ‘what the hell are the westerners on about’.

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      • 30 Apr ’14 at 12:37 pm

        Isidore of Seville

        Basically tl’dr, in this instance its white people calling out other white people for cultural appropriation when the actual PoC affected haven’t asked them to speak out, and that’s problematic.

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