Ka-Ka-Ka-Kawaii: Pop Stars and Their Racial Struggle

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By Jake Pitre

The great feminist and race culture writer bell hooks has written often about how the issues of feminism and racism are inextricably linked. In other words, how could someone push for the cause of feminism and stand as a representation of that movement without also engaging with the issue of ethnicity and racism? This intersectional perspective has defined her career and has acted as a powerful strategy to critically consider both cultural issues.

“The struggle to end sexist oppression that focuses on destroying the cultural basis for such domination strengthens other liberation struggles,” she wrote in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre. “Individuals who fight for the eradication of sexism without struggles to end racism or classism undermine their own efforts. Individuals who fight for the eradication of racism or classism while supporting sexist oppression are helping to maintain the cultural basis of all forms of group oppression.”

Our current roster of pop stars apparently need to brush up on their racial studies. One would be hard pressed to find a star that has not been involved with some form of accusations of racism – Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez, Avril Lavigne, Kesha, Lorde, Lily Allen, Sky Ferreira, and so on (Beyonce is absent, but has her own problematic dealings with feminism). Many of these women are feminists, some loudly so, but seem to be blind when it comes to race.

There are a few aspects of this worth critically exploring. First, and most simply, how does it keep happening – especially with repeat offenders? For example, Katy Perry was heavily criticized online for her Japanese geisha performance of “Unconditionally” in November at the American Music Awards. You would think that this would make her, or at the very least her team, aware of future potential offenses and stop them before they occur. Perry’s music video for “Dark Horse” hit in February and sparked outrage from Muslims because Perry plays a Cleopatra-like Egyptian who zaps an Allah-encrusted necklace. Then in her latest video, for “Birthday”, she dresses up as a variety of characters, including a very stereotypical Jewish bar mitzvah entertainer named Yosef Shulem. How has she not learned to stop dressing up in such a way?

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But perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps these stars (and probably more importantly, their teams) are believing too fully in that old adage: “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. This is a cynical theory – these stars keep going back to this well (Stefani’s harajuku phase, Avril’s kawaii-dubstep trainwreck, Miley and Sky’s blacks-as-ornaments, Gaga’s burqa takedown, etc.) because it gets them publicity every time, they receive little punishment beyond internet outrage and thinkpieces, and their cultural domination continues. They revel and engage in racist acts and cultural appropriation in order to heighten their publicity and their image suffers little, comparably.

I think that the fact that it is almost always women is not a coincidence. In what bell hooks would call our white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, men typically do not have to engage in controversial acts (particularly racially controversial) in order to raise their publicity or exoticize their images. Put a man like Justin Timberlake or Robin Thicke in a nice suit surrounded by nameless attractive women and call it a day. For female pop stars, the cultural situation and the constant, nagging worry about remaining in the spotlight creates a vacuum that men in the industry do not usually experience, at least to the same degree.

Relatedly, that bit about exoticizing their image. Whether the intention is to make them appear dangerous or to simply exoticize through appropriation (Selena’s Indian-indebted “Come & Get It”, Avril & Gwen, etc.), these attempts to tie in these stars’ images with other cultures and ethnicities is a fetishizing of the exotic, something that show business has always done. The difference is that we should really know better by now. We shouldn’t have to force our female pop stars to resort to this in order to capture our attention. These things become spectacles, the same as the Duck Dynasty guy or Donald Sterling. It squanders their actual talent (and most of these performers are truly talented people), and leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you still like their music or their personalities. We are complicit, and we shouldn’t be, but these performers should not be so complicit either. It’s a sad situation when the best I can do is defend Gaga’s burqa takedown as some sort of well-intentioned attempt to fight for female freedom. Too bad she, along with the others, have forgotten to fight against racism and racial oppression, too.

Inexplicable Double Review: The Conjuring & Selena Gomez

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To be honest, the primary motivation for this double review is because I’m too lazy to write two different posts. What am I, a miracle worker? That being said, I realized that these two things – The Conjuring and Selena Gomez’s new album, Stars Dance – do have something in common (stay with me). They both borrow heavily from their predecessors to the point of bloating themselves, although only one of them does it with finesse.

First, I’ll tackle The Conjuring. James Wan’s newest horror film is this time based around two real-life paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (played perfectly by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who take a look at the case of the Perron family. It’s 1971 and the Perrons have just moved into a new farmhouse in Rhode Island, and pretty quickly things start getting scary. The Conjuring has received a lot of attention for seemingly getting an R-rating in the States just for being too scary. According to executive producer Walter Hamada (who is, of course, trying to sell the movie), “When we asked [the MPAA] why, they basically said, ‘It’s just so scary. [There are] no specific scenes or tone you could take out to get it PG-13.'” Maybe, but I can definitely confirm that this is a legitimately scary movie. The more time I’ve had to digest it, the more I realize how much I liked this movie.

What I most appreciate about it is how it expertly blends jump-scares with a generally creepy atmosphere and mood. Wan has been a grower as a filmmaker, starting with the first Saw movie, leading to 2011’s under-appreciated Insidious (although appreciated enough to warrant a sequel, which comes out in September), and The Conjuring is assuredly his best effort to date. Throwing a bunch of horror elements together (demons, ghosts, witchcraft, evil dolls, etc.) does end up making the film feel a little bloated, but it also avoids feeling desperate in favour of creating a chaotic environment with scares coming from every which way. Wan and his writers (Chad & Carey Hayes) have crafted a horror story with likeable characters worth rooting for (something so many horror movies omit), creative jump-scares (SPOILERS: (highlight to reveal)that sheet in the wind getting caught on an unseen body is so, so perfect in terms of playing on ghost imagery as well the outstanding execution, and the hide-and-clap game gave me my biggest scare with the hands appearing behind the mother…fuck /END OF SPOILERS) and that atmosphere I was talking about. All the best horror movies have such an iconic atmosphere (The Shining, Suspiria) and that sometimes gets lost. Here, the anticipation kills and the eventual release delivers, but often what’s not in frame is just as disturbing.

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It must be noted, because it’s important and because it’s the theme of this piece, that Wan pays homage to 1970s/1980s horror flicks, immediately apparent with the scrolling, old-fashioned title card. I’ve seen some critics refuse to refer to it as homage, and instead use “rip-off”. I don’t agree. Good horror movies take classic horror tropes and do something new with them, because otherwise your film won’t stand out and audiences will forget it as soon as they leave the theatre. I think Scott Tobias says it best in his conversation with Tasha Robinson about the movie: “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” And Wan, Tobias argues, does it very well.

I have to also admit that I wasn’t sure at first how I felt about the ending. It’s not a spoiler to say that you’re waiting for a last-second “Boo!”, like so many other horror movies have done, and it’s even set up so you’re anticipating one. It doesn’t come. Cut to credits. I wasn’t disappointed, just confused. The more I thought about it, though, the more respect I have for Wan’s choice to avoid the standard way to end your 21st-century horror film and instead leave the viewer feeling unsettled not from a last-ditch scare but in a deeper way from what they’ve just witnessed (especially since, spoiler, things aren’t completely resolved so the uneasiness remains //end of spoiler).

I love a good horror movie. The Conjuring is so well crafted and executed that I left the theatre feeling extremely satisfied. The performances are top-notch, there’s real stakes involved with an emotional resonance, there’s terrific scares, and there’s a creepy fucking doll. This is how you make a modern horror film.

Four and a half CREEPY ASS FUCKING DOLLS out of five.

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It was a bold choice to open Stars Dance with “Birthday”, because it is an absolute fucking mess. Still, it kind of sets the tone for the entire album since so much is just thrown together with very little cohesion and a lot of it is just ridiculous (I laugh every time she exclaims, “Jazz it up!”). It’s an absurd song, just with so many elements flung at you, and yet…it’s very catchy and fun. That is also pretty representative of the album as a whole: it’s a mess, but I kinda like it. Linking back to my theme, much of the music is clearly and shamelessly inspired by other pop acts. “Slow Down” is extremely evocative of Britney Spears. “Like a Champion” is like a weird Nicki Minaj reject as Gomez takes on an is-this-offensive? Jamaican accent. “B.E.A.T.” sounds like Ke$ha (I think it’s more deliberate here, and it actually mostly works). And most of the rest, including lead single “Come & Get It”, brings to mind Rihanna.

Unlike with The Conjuring (I’m committing to this connection I’ve made, okay?), all of this comes off less like homage and more like a lack of ideas. It also creates the problem of establishing a singular personality for Gomez as an artist, with the result being a figure with so many influences taking over that there’s no real person left. This isn’t necessarily always a bad thing in pop music (who is Nicki Minaj, really?), but it’s usually better when a pop artist has some sort of identifiable character (Lady Gaga has such control over her image that it’s fascinating).

As for the music itself, it gets kind of exhausting after a while with its onslaught of synths and drum beats (“Save the Day” has a chorus surrounded by Skrillex-esque beats, sans the excitement), almost as if the producers wanted to distract you from how hollow most of these songs are. Obviously, much concern was given to what are popular sounds in contemporary pop music, but that needs to be paired with good songwriting, and this album is decidedly hit-and-miss in that respect.

Here’s the thing. That all sounds horribly negative, and it is. But I still found myself enjoying a lot of Stars Dance. The back half, thankfully, is much stronger than the first half. Simpler songs like “Write Your Name” and ballad “Love Will Remember” are far more memorable and pleasing to listen to. Gomez’s voice is consistently more than capable, reliably up for anything and always sounding strong and smooth. “Undercover” reminds me of The Fame-era Lady Gaga, but in a good way, and its build-and-release structure really does it for me here (although not elsewhere on the album). The title track is sultry and slick, definitely a standout. The unfortunate thing is that too much of the album is focused on clamoring for what sounds are club-ready today and on making Gomez a blank slate lacking personality. There’s half a good pop album here, I just wish the rest had taken more account of who Gomez is as a performer instead of looking at everyone else.

6.5 cries of “Jazz it up!” out of 10.

Et Cetera

  • I’d like to re-state how good the performances in The Conjuring are, especially Vera Farmiga (maybe I should finally check out Bates Motel), and how crucial this is to making it all work.
  • Spoilers are such a difficult, complicated thing with reviews. Do you completely remove anything remotely spoiler-ish? Do you include whatever you want? I’ve tried to have it both ways by keeping them hidden, mostly because I can’t decide what the best course of action is.
  • Wan is back directing Insidious: Chapter 2, so after seeing this and the fact that he distanced himself from all the Saw sequels but wanted to handle this one himself, I’m very excited to see how it turns out.
  • You don’t measure how good a horror movie is based on how many times it makes you jump, but this movie had a higher count than most.
  • If I ever have kids and they want to play hide-and-clap, FUCK. THAT.
  • I wasn’t lying!!!!!
  • Stars Dance Highlights: “Stars Dance”, “Undercover”, “Love Will Remember”, “Write Your Name”
  • Selena Gomez is gorgeous. That is all.
  • Jazz it up!

– Jake