When Rolling Stone magazine recently asked about the accusation that she was culturally insensitive Perry said: “Can’t you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don’t know. I guess I’ll just stick to baseball and hot dogs and that’s it … If there was an inkling of anything bad, then it wouldn’t be there, because I’m very sensitive to people.” In its incredulity and doggedness, this was an answer that reminded me of an exchange in the First Wives Club; Goldie Hawn: “I drink because I’m a sensitive and highly strung person.” Bette Midler: “That’s why your co-stars drink.”
In a similar spirit of cultural insensitivity, Avril Lavigne, pop punk’s Benjamin Button girlwoman, released her video for Hello Kitty earlier this year. In it, we see the probably 49-year-old Lavigne surrounded by four identikit, glassy-eyed Japanese dancers as she enjoys sushi, sake and shouts random Japanese phrases (“KAWAII!”, “ARIGATO”) in an exaggerated child’s voice. Lavigne responded to accusations that it was cultural fetishisation by tweeting: “RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture” – a response pulled from the same chapter in the pop star charm-school book as: “LOL!!! Some of my best friends are black, you know.”
Questions about Perry and Lavigne’s intent (or lack thereof) are less significant than the end result of using these cultural stereotypes. Admitedly, pop stars can be a confused bunch – I was once asked by a white singer if I thought it would be OK if he called his song Blackface – but the power of Brand Perry and Lavigne Inc can’t be denied. Dark Horse has had nearly 500m YouTube views, and Perry’s audience includes the very young (my five-year-old niece and nephew loved Last Friday Night (TGIF)). In not taking the minstrel-y feel of these videos and performances to task, we are somehow complicit in a reductive treatment of non-western cultures. The road of cultural insensitivity leads very quickly to the slipstream of racism, because racism isn’t just someone calling you a name in the street or in the playground; it’s a subtle, creeping thing that hangs about in words left unsaid and moments not challenged when they should be. As Maya Angelou said: “The plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstreams.” Racism is born from cultural stereotypes and the idea that “other” is a thing we don’t fully understand. This is an argument powerfully articulated by the Native American voices in last week’s article about the backlash against headdresses worn at music festivals. It’s like looking at cultures through the distorted glass of a display box in a museum. For privileged pop stars such as Perry or Lavigne, it’s hard to understand the subtleties that create a feeling of outsider-ism when you are not white.
When Missouri citizens protest over the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, they’re a “lynch mob”…
…but when armed militia members protest over a cattle rancher having to pay fees for grazing on government land, they’re "Freedom Riders.”
The absurdity runs deep: America is using American military equipment to bomb other pieces of American military equipment halfway around the world. The reason the American military equipment got there in the first place was because, in 2003, the US had to use its military to rebuild the Iraqi army, which it just finished destroying with the American military. The American weapons the US gave the Iraqi army totally failed at making Iraq secure and have become tools of terror used by an offshoot of al-Qaeda to terrorize the Iraqis that the US supposedly liberated a decade ago. And so now the US has to use American weaponry to destroy the American weaponry it gave Iraqis to make Iraqis safer, in order to make Iraqis safer.
It’s not just ironic; it’s a symbol of how disastrous the last 15 years of US Iraq policy have been, how circuitous and self-perpetuating the violence, that we are now bombing our own guns. Welcome to American grand strategy in the Middle East.
"When I was young there were beatniks. Hippies. Punks. Gangsters. Now you’re a hacktivist. Which I would probably be if I was 20. Shuttin’ down MasterCard. But there’s no look to that lifestyle! Besides just wearing a bad outfit with bad posture. Has WikiLeaks caused a look? No! I’m mad about that. If your kid comes out of the bedroom and says he just shut down the government, it seems to me he should at least have an outfit for that."