Thursday, November 28, 2013

Cultural Appropriation

Just recently, pop star Katy Perry did a video for the Video 2013 American Music Awards.  In this video she used a large amount of Japanese/Asian imagery, from kimono to fans to aesthetics of set design, and even taiko.

I won’t link to a video here, because some of them are being taken down.  If you search for “Katy Perry American Music Awards” you’ll probably find it easily enough.

There are a lot of people angry at Katy for what they perceive of her appropriation of Japanese culture in this performance, because to them it comes off as racist or perpetuating a stereotype.  They argue that she is portraying Asian women as submissive and dependent on a man, especially noting the song title “Unconditionally” and some of the lyrics.   Others have argued that Its not racist, that it’s actually a way to positively show Asian culture of which Katy is a fan.

Some people have commented on how the people playing the taiko had form so bad that they couldn’t have actually been taiko players.  I tend to think they were dancers or musicians that don't normally play taiko.

So, two things:

First, I have seen people with form similar to the people playing in this video.  Maybe they were very new to taiko, maybe they lacked good instruction, maybe taiko doesn't come naturally for them, but it doesn't really matter.  Yes, there were some major fundamental issues to note regarding stance, striking, etc., but I don’t think it’s fair to critique these performers based on their skill just because they were in this wacky event.  Does their skill make them any less of a taiko player than someone more competent?   If the answer is no, then we can still critique these particular taiko players in terms of form but not in terms of validity.  If the answer is yes, then is someone who plays taiko “badly” for a year less of a “taiko player” than someone who plays well for a month?  That opens up a huge can of worms.

Second, cultural appropriation is a tangled, messy issue.  Some people feel very strongly on the topic due to personal experiences, often negative ones.  I am far from an expert in this area.  In art and pop culture, people will often take what appeals to them without context or knowledge of what they are taking or how they are offending people.   But I caution the taiko community when pointing fingers towards the outside when there are things within our own community:

  • Rising Sun symbols on clothing/costumes
  • Costumes/outfits that are sexy/inappropriate/worn in "interesting" ways
  • Japanese words/phrases taken out of context and used in group names, song titles, or "lyrics".
  • Taiko groups using Japanese instruments in unusual/questionable ways (taiko included!)
  • Taiko groups using non-taiko instruments/arts (from other cultures) in questionable ways
This list can beg the question: when is something “innovative” vs. “disrespectful”?  Or can it be both?  When it is worth pushing the accepted cultural boundaries in order to present new works?  The point is, some taiko players are not trying to offend or intend to perpetuate stereotypes, but may still happen anyways.

Anyways, am I defending Katy Perry?  Not really.  I don’t particularly think it’s a good song and I don’t really care for that genre of music.  I think this performance portrayed an immature version of Asian culture and lacks anything more than a big, in-your-face spectacle.  Is it racist?  Perhaps, depending on your definition of the word.  But is it worse that what sometimes is done in our own taiko community by groups who actually love the art form of taiko?   And if we are telling the world that these things are not acceptable to us, then what should the world think when they look at some of our members who are doing those very things?

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