Asian Culture and the Pop Music World
Hello readers, I have a question. What’s going on when Westerner pop artists - let’s take Nicki Minaj and Gwen Stefani as examples - use Asian imager..
Woah. … woah. Yes, I guess that’s a lot of it. Check out this article here that argues Nicki Minaj (eg. in her Your Love and Check It Out videos) “steals” Asian cultural imagery, perpetuates Western stereotypes of Asian people and cheapens Asian culture (or, more acurately, a diverse complex series of Asian cultures) by treating them as little more than window dressing in video clips to make herself seem more ‘exotic’ and interesting.
But woah…. woah. Isn’t Nicki Minaj taking the piss? She plays up her ridiculousness, and is fiercely hyperbolically non-serious so when she sings lyrics like “Me love you long time like I’m Asian” she’s doing that knowing it’s a ridiculous thing to say, right? It’s so obviously offensive and silly that it’s offensiveness is kind of the point. Should the ‘I’m being ironic’ argument let her off the hook? This article here tosses that up.
The same ‘stealing’ Asian culture claims were leveled at Gwen Stefani. It all started with that bindi craze she pioneered in the 90s (and FYI, she’s recenly launched a bindi encrusted sunglasses range. It’s a Hollaback to herself!) and it intensified, as this article here argues, with her (ab)use of Harajuku culture in her album Love Angel Music Baby.
But this article here counters, wasn’t she genuinely and thoughtfully engaging with Harajuku culture? She wasn’t toting herself as superior to Harajuku Girls or merely cashing in on their otherness. In fact, Stefani was doing the opposite: she drew on Harajuku culture because she related to it, wrote an entire song on what it is about the culture that fascinates her (rather than just using the imagery as backdrop for a basic pop love song) and her lyrics show her being more an adoring fan of Harajuku girls placing them in the position of prominence (or at least seeing them as kindred spirits and thus her equals).*
Lastly, this article here argues that maybe someone like Nicki Minaj has kicked open the door for Asian pop stars to enter the American market? Is our beef with American musos simplifying and ‘exploiting’ Asian cultures weakened by the fact that there could be real world benefits to this practice for Asian musos?
There are, of course, others that have used Asian imagery in their music (eg. Madonna used it in her Ray of Light days to show how mature and spiritual she had become; Murs and 9th Wonder have a song called ‘Asian Girl’**). My final thoughts, however, if I can get Jerry Springer on your ass, is this: I’d rather Western pop artists try and engage with Asian culture than pretend it doesn’t exist. And I’d rather they venture to talk about race and cultural differences and get it wrong, than just not talk about it at all. The more they do it, the better they’ll get at it and as we’ve seen they are all engaging with Asian cultures in quite distinct ways. So I can’t help but, by default, give artists a bit of kudos for incorporating Asian imagery into their work - but I reserve the right to take that kudos away if they’re only doing it for self-aggrandizing reasons or just being downright lazy with rehashing old lame slanty-eyed, buck-toothed cliches.
* Gwen Stefani even got upset with how other people were treating her Harajuku Girl backup entourage, as discussed in this article here.
** For a close reading of ‘Asian Girl’ check out this article here.