So lately the blogosphere has lit up with talk of white pop artists trying their hand at Asian pop music. In particular, I’m going to talk about these two:
Now, before I continue with my analysis, I’m going to make it very clear that I am not interested in wank. I’m not trying to be an arbiter of what’s offensive and what isn’t or declare my opinion to be the One True Opinion to Rule Them All. It’s just an opinion. I enjoy analyzing pop culture, and the above artists and the reactions to them interest me. I also enjoy debate and discussion, so if you have a comment of substance to leave (whether you agree or disagree), then feel free to do so. But any stan whining and/or complaints about “SJW” or “overly PC” or whatever will be ignored.
I fear the fuckery surrounding the “Hello Kitty” video is so dense, it will form a black hole, thus sucking all intelligent commentary into it leaving nothing behind but snark, tears, and .gifs unless I get it over with right away. So here we go.
Hey, I didn’t say I wouldn’t use any gifs at all.
So why are people calling this video racist, anyway?
Having listened to the song and watched the video, I can say that nothing about the song, musically, is J-pop (I can also say nothing about the song is not microwaved shit, but that has nothing to do with racism). It’s tween pop-rock circa 2004, basically. But I guess throwing in “K-K-K-KAWAII!” and mangled Japanese makes it J-pop.
Supposedly, the video was made for Avril’s Japanese fans. Yet “Hello Kitty,” comes off as less the product of any kind of creative spark and more the product of lazy pandering, for completely pure motives I’m sure.
Aside from the “Hello Kitty” references and Japanese phrases, the lyrics have nothing to do with Japan or Japanese culture. They are also mind-numbingly vapid even by Avril standards. My personal favorite line:
Let’s all slumber party
Like a fat kid on a pack of Smarties
Someone chuck a cupcake at me
How about a pie?
As for the video, it’s merely a haphazard hodgepodge of images that this tumblr poster so eloquently summed up as JAPAN (not to be confused with Japan). Here’s how you know the song and video are about JAPAN:
- Hello Kitty
- Japanese backup dancers/extras in weird outfits
- Brightly colored cutesey shit
In other words, it’s weeaboo throw-up in audio/visual form.
Of particular note is the charge that the Japanese backup dancers were portrayed as accessories, much like Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku phase (which was also widely criticized). Avril’s dancers are styled and dressed identically, move robotically, and remain expressionless throughout the video.
For a video/song supposedly done out of love for Japan and Japanese fans, you’d think Avril or her creative team would do some research. Oh wait—she had a JAPANESE director, JAPANESE choreographers, JAPANESE label, etc. Because it’s not like people of color are ever capable of involvement in anything racist or shitty. Ever.
Frankly, all it tells me is that her Japanese team are as lazy and half-assed as her North American one.
But Japan doesn’t find the video racist!
According to who? Did someone poll every single Japanese citizen and come to a unanimous conclusion? A handful of sources being interviewed for media outlets are hardly any more representative of the Japanese public than random people on English-language blogs are of North America. Shit, I’m not about to declare myself Ambassador of Japanese-Americans’ Opinions on Avril Lavigne any time soon, mostly because if that were a real title bestowed upon me I’d have to shoot myself in the face.
There are a number of reasons why the “Hello Kitty” video would not generate the same kind of negative attention in Japan as it would overseas. The main one, obviously, is that Japanese citizens have access to a myriad of representations of themselves in their mass media, since it’s, you know, controlled and run by Japanese people. A portrayal such as the one in “Hello Kitty” does not contribute to an ongoing narrative of limited, narrow, stereotypical representations as it would in a North American mass media dominated by white voices and faces. It is from this context that North Americans view the video, so naturally they are going to see it as significant while Japanese audiences probably could not care less.
Furthermore, while the opinions of Japanese viewers who do not find the video racist should not be overlooked, neither should the opinions of Asian Americans who expressed concern about racism in the video and in Avril’s response to criticism. There can, shockingly, be multiple points of view on an issue—and both viewpoints can be credibly supported.
But she made the video for her Japanese fans! It’s not for you (Asian Americans)!
… And? As an adult who reads and reviews young adult novels, I’ve heard the whole “No one outside the target audience can have a valid opinion!” spiel so many times I’ve lost count. And every time, my response is always the same. So if only the target audience is allowed to critique something, then does that mean only children can critique children’s books/movies/etc.? I imagine that would be news to many professional movie critics.
Furthermore, the fact remains that Avril is not a Japanese artist. No matter how much she loves Japan and how much time she spends there (and I say the former statement with a huge grain of salt), she is not, and never will be, a Japanese artist. Avril is an international celebrity, one whose career began in North America and who still has fans there following her work. In this age of streaming video and social networking, mass media is not limited to audiences in the country it’s meant for. Like it or not, Avril’s Japanese work will be viewed by international audiences, and is not immune to criticism from that perspective. Nor should it be.
Every time people use stuff from other cultures someone gets offended! What about globalization/mixing of cultures?”
I have always found this an exceptionally weak argument, if only because I’ve only ever seen it used in defense of white North American celebrities ganking elements of foreign, indigenous, or minority cultures. It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the dominance of western (and by western I mean, loosely, North American, English-speaking, predominantly white) pop culture around the world. If you truly cannot see the difference between non-western artists being influenced by western media given its global pervasiveness, and western artists adopting elements of foreign cultures because it’s trendy or cute or a novelty, then there’s nothing more I can say or do for you. Furthermore, the term “mixing of cultures” implies a two-way street. Yet the North American market is consistently unwelcoming to Asian artists—hell, it’s even unwelcoming to Asian-American artists. Now, if a super popular Asian artist released a song in English for all their North American fans, and it was a big hit and everyone loved it, then maybe this argument would hold water.
So what about this Chad Future guy?
Before I wrote this piece, I was planning one on white North American artists in K-pop, specifically inspired by Chad Future (the musical alter ego of David Lehre, who helms his own production company). When the “Hello Kitty” controversy broke, I thought it’d be an interesting tie-in and so I decided to combine the two topics. After all, both Chad and Avril are examples of white foreign artists trying their hand at Asian pop music (and I use this term very loosely), with very different results.
Chad Future and the reactions to him from ifans have always fascinated me. Some ifans love him; some hate him; many dismiss him. Unlike Avril, he doesn’t have much of a following in the market he’s courting (K-pop fans). And unlike Avril, he isn’t an established celebrity—he’s really only known among K-pop fans and maybe some ’NSYNC fans who know of him via his role in the now-defunct, Lance Bass-mentored (American) boy band HEART2HEART. Perhaps most importantly, he did not begin his musical career in North America and achieve fame there before his interests (and profit margin) shifted overseas. Given the small size of his fan base (at least judging by their online presence or lack thereof), it’s doubtful he’s making much profit off of his K-pop ventures. This eliminates more cynical theories of his motivations, which remain very much in play re: “Hello Kitty.”
As far as I can tell from my observations of commentary on various online forums, there are many reasons that international fen give for their antipathy toward Chad, not the least of which is resistance to a (white, North American) foreigner doing K-pop (yes, I am aware of the irony of this opinion coming from foreign fans). This claim is not without merit. Perhaps international fen believe a white American K-pop act could pave the way to K-pop becoming mainstream stateside—and considering how quickly many ifans got sick of “Gangnam Style” after it became a viral hit, nothing kills interest like overexposure. Perhaps they are afraid of the Macklemore Effect—white guy breaks into a genre associated with people of color and proceeds to get more attention than said people of color (considering it’s Chad Future and K-pop, this is highly unlikely, but nonetheless a legitimate concern). Or perhaps they are suspicious of Chad’s motives, as he was part of HEART2HEART, which may or may not have been parody, depending on which of Lance Bass’s statements you believe. There are times when I, too, am unsure if Chad is trolling, but if he is, he’s really committed.
Trolling or not, it’s pretty clear that Chad knows his genre. I can find no evidence of any KOREAN choreographers, directors, etc., (although I know he has worked with K-pop idols), but he makes it pretty clear he’s a fan of K-pop, based upon his public actions and statements on his official website (granted, we can’t always take such public declarations at face value, seeing as Avril declared her love of Japanese culture on her twitter). More importantly, the influence of K-pop on his own music is clear. He has adopted the K-pop aesthetic, while his sound is, to paraphrase the writeup on his website, a fusion of American pop and K-pop. He attempted some (terrible) Korean in his “Hello” song (or should I say, the guy singing the chorus did), but wisely seems to have switched back to performing in English on his later releases. No, he doesn’t get a pass for bad Korean any more than Avril does for bad Japanese, but I’m more inclined to view his efforts in good faith, since his approach is usually more K-pop and less KOREA. In fact, the K-pop elements in his music videos likely wouldn’t be immediately recognizable to people unfamiliar with K-pop—I imagine the uninitiated would more likely be wondering why this guy is dressed like some late-90s C-list boy bander and why there are Korean people in these videos.
I’ll put it this way–if Chad Future took the “Hello Kitty” approach to his music, he’d have a song called “Kim Chee” featuring a chorus that goes “D-D-D-DAEBAK” and a posse of robotic expressionless Korean backup dancers.
Since initially writing this article, Chad released his “Rock the World” video featuring VIXX’s Ravi, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it here. It’s typical Chad Future, for the most part, but it’s important to note that this is the first time Chad has used all Korean backup dancers. I’m not sure what to make of this, to be honest. On one hand, they’re not following him around like a robot posse, on the other, there’s the uncomfortable connotation of using non-white bodies as props. It’s strange that Chad felt the need to do this, particularly since in his previous videos, he has always had a more diverse group of dancers. If the intention was to make the video appear more authentically K-pop, why is it necessary? The sound and aesthetic is already K-pop. He’s working with an actual K-pop idol. Dammit, Chad. I was rooting for you.
That being said, Chad has come off pretty well in his previous responses to criticism. He shrugs it off with more grace than Avril’s articulate and eloquent “LOLOLOL!” Mostly, he keeps stressing his “follow your dreams” message which, while trite, isn’t exactly objectionable.
It can be argued that comparing Chad Future’s work with “Hello Kitty” is apples and oranges, given how many differences exist between them. Chad has dedicated the bulk of his musical career to his American pop/K-pop fusion act, while Avril threw together one half-assed song/video as a misguided homage to her Japanese fans, with no other motives at all, I’m sure.
However, I believe that a common thread can be found in both—attempts by white North American artists at Asian pop must be handled with care. By virtue of being foreigners—particularly, white North American foreigners—their efforts simply cannot, and should not, be viewed in the same light with those by Japanese and Korean artists, respectively. When one’s work has ties to two dramatically different cultural frameworks, they and/or their fans can’t pick and choose which one to evaluate against when it’s convenient (read: “I can’t believe it’s not racist!”). Chad and Avril have a responsibility as international artists to take the views of their non-Asian audiences into account as well. In this age of streaming video and social networking, audiences have more access to foreign media than ever. It is socially and professionally irresponsible for an international artist, regardless of intention, to produce something for one audience that they know might alienate another, and then cry foul when it happens. There are many, many ways that Avril could have paid tribute to her Japanese fan base without vomiting forth a bunch of tired, stereotypical tropes that any high school anime club could’ve come up with.
I’m not saying that the opinions of Asians in the west should take precedence over the opinions of Asians in the east (I’ve already discussed why I believe both audiences should not be spoken of as monoliths, but I’m oversimplifying for the sake of brevity). They can and should both be able to coexist in peace. What I am saying is that, if an artist plays their cards right, they shouldn’t have to.