AMAs 2013: American Misappropriation Affair 1942

I’ve always loved awards seasons; partly because I love pop-culture, partly because I love the red carpet fashion, and wholly because it provides excellent water-cooler talk for the next day. The American Music Awards a couple of nights ago did not disappoint. Throughout the show, the next-day gossip kept adding up. It seemed as if the tone had been set from the jump with Katy Perry’s geisha inspired musical number. I waited for the dust to settle in the ‘racism’ outcries before seeking out insightful analysis of the event online. Unfortunately, when I search ‘AMAs 2013 racism’, the first page results are all synopses of tweets – “Katy Perry Accused of Racism”. For those who were paying attention, it wasn’t just Katy and it wasn’t just racism (it was just mostly racism).

So the show starts with Katy misappropriating a significant cultural practice that dates back centuries. It feels weird having to say this because you know, common sense, but cultures aren’t commodities! I believe one can have a deep understanding and respect for a culture without themselves belonging to it and through this avenue of respect, can choose to don the customary dress and worship the cultural idols of said culture. I do not believe Katy Perry has this understanding or respect. That the song she was performing had absolutely NOTHING to do with Japanese culture makes it clear to me that the set design and dress were meant to be nothing more than ‘beautiful’ and dramatic. Westerners should be able to appreciate the beauty in other cultures without taking it for their own and removing all traditional meaning from it. Maybe Katy didn’t know that just over 100 years ago 110,000 people of Japanese heritage on the West Coast were placed in internment camps simply for being Japanese. When a dominant group lifts bits and pieces of a culture they previously oppressed, it sends the message that the whole is not as great as the parts and it’s up to Katy to decide which of those parts is greater.

 Occasionally, opportunities present themselves for respectful appropriation. Bindis are now worn as fashion accessories in India. I believe a Westerner could wear a bindi as fashion accessory. Aboriginals do not wear headdresses to grab their morning coffee. Japanese women do not wear geisha dress and makeup to do their Sunday shopping. So, I believe a Westerner should NOT wear a headdress or geisha dress. While I don’t think that Katy meant to be malicious, the “California girl” should have exhibited less ignorance in the history of oppression in California, and the role the symbols and rituals of geishas play in Japanese tradition. Maybe Katy thought it was Halloween and was waiting to meet up with Julianne Hough after the show? Katy isn’t the first to partake in this ignorant behaviour, after all. Selena Gomez put on a Bollywood inspired performance earlier this year and somewhere in America Miley Cyrus is twerking putting on a minstrel show.

 Just when I thought the cringe-worthy moment was over, Pitbull (the host for the evening) pulls out 5 lovely ladies to dance for us like bears in a Russian circus. Ten minutes in and we’ve now reduced two groups of people. But wait! There’s more. Justin Timberlake thought it was his place to tell Taylor Swift how lovely she looks, into the mic, because, you know, a decent thing to do wouldn’t be to tell her that in private but to say it to a room full of people and put a 15 time AMA winner on the spot and reinforcing the  social norm of the importance for women to please men with our appearances (Smile!”, right ladies?)

 This was Justin Timberlake’s first gaffe of the night, but his most innocuous. His next chance on stage, Justin made it a point to imitate Rihanna’s ‘cute’ mother. (This man is so insufferable. Can he be barred from making any judgments on women from now on? They are all so condescending and short sighted.) In what world is it okay for Justin’s comedy to be purely based on someone else’s accent? Monica Fenty didn’t make a single joke in her presentation to her daughter, nor did she make any missteps through unintended innuendo, incorrect word usage, or even discrimination (a rarity at the AMAs it seems). All I saw was a heartfelt speech to her daughter that Justin Timberlake diminished to merely an accent, however ‘cute’ it was (patronization alert!).

 Justin wasn’t done having his moment of ignorant bliss just yet. Due to the ‘instigation’ by comedian Sarah Silverman, Justin kind of got props from stupid people on the internet on this next blunder – and it’s completely undeserved. Before introducing the nominees in the category of Soul/R&B album, Silverman joked that Rihanna should notice the irony if she wasn’t declared the winner (She was up against Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke). Now, if you can argue that this joke was offensive, I will listen because I’m on the fence about it myself. However, to people who are familiar with history and music, it may serve as a reminder that soul R&B music is rooted in African-American gospel music. It’s not so much irony as it is a sad truth that in western culture, appropriation of traditional African-American music by white people results in a more commercially successful genre where the originators are largely overlooked. Elvis did this with R&B in the 1950’s, Eminem with rap in the 1990’s, and to many a rap lover’s chagrin, Macklemore continued the trend when he took the award for best hip-hop album of the year from much more talented Kendrick Lamar (this is one of those rare circumstances where personal opinion doesn’t matter and Kendrick is actually just better than Macklemore, he just is).

 Justin won (*cough* Suit & Tie sucks really bad *cough*). Justin’s speech started with a jab back at Sarah: “I can honestly say that’s the first time I’ve ever been racially profiled by a white woman”. Just having to type out that statement makes me shake with rage. This man, who had moments ago mocked a woman below his “cultural capital” (Salon writer Daniel D’Addario addressed it well here) is balking at the idea that R&B and soul music were fundamentally based in African-American culture? What next Justin, are you going to ask why we don’t have a White History month? Not to mention just how obtuse it is of Justin to compare himself to victims of racial profiling. As much as Macklemore’s music is bad, Ben Haggerty’s politics are endearing. He showed his inclusive and compassionate understanding of the poor treatment of minorities when he accepted the award for best rap album, stating “I want to acknowledge Trayvon Martin and the hundreds and hundreds of kids each year that are dying due to racial profiling and the violence that follows it”. For Justin to be defensive about a joke based in fact and to even use the term ‘racial profiling’ is disrespectful and ignorant. Justin was not at risk of violation of his basic rights as an American citizen like so many of the victims of racial profiling that Macklemore spoke out for. Justin wasn’t even at risk of losing the award because of Silverman’s joke; the decision had already been made. 

Honestly, I don’t even know how to end this piece. As I replay the events that transpired, I’m left shaking my head and muttering “what the… what!? HOW!” while most people don’t seem to be phased by any of this, aside from Katy Perry’s performance. Will I continue watching awards shows? Probably, and the reasons likely haven’t changed. I still want to see the two piece cat bikini donned by Miley Cyrus (that I saw on Tumblr last year) and I still want to know who won which awards. It just seems as though, going forward, it will be pop-culture’s intolerance for and ignorance of minority groups that will dominate my water cooler chat.