• 04.24.14

Are These 3 New Music Videos By Pop Singers Culturally Offensive?

A spate of music videos appropriating various cultures are added to an ongoing conversation on where lines are drawn on what is considered racist.

It’s weird that during a week in which Lily Allen released a new video containing the lyric “Periods, we all get periods”, the music public’s wrath was focused elsewhere. The lightning rod of outrage instead rested atop Avril Lavigne’s Skrillex-shorn head, as her new “Hello Kitty” video was about as well-received as an umbrella-less torrential downpour. The video has been accused of everything from sub-Harujuku Girls-level clumsy cultural appropriation to out-and-out racism, with even reluctant defenders conceding that it’s at least in poor taste. Between this song, and a couple other questionable videos, it’s no wonder Allen’s menstruation situation didn’t raise more eyebrows.

Still from Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty”

Although Lavigne herself insists that her video is more of a tribute than minstrelsy, it’s hard to view the video as anything less than problematic. (Never mind that the song itself seems to have culturally appropriated a nightmare that dubstep had.) Either the artist is unaware that a deeply misguided “tribute” can come off as insulting, or this was a calculated move to capitalize on the old “no such thing as bad publicity” trope. Some people seem to walk around all day, waiting to be offended, and some pop stars and PR strategists seem to spend their time concocting ways to offend those people. But even with content that seems designed to invite outrage, there has to be some sort of governing principle at hand to ensure it’s not too offensive. Potentially, there are people who work in the advertising and entertainment worlds whose job is to gauge the line at which something could be considered racist on one side, and laughed off as tribute on the other. We do not envy this person this job.

As mentioned above, there have been some other videos recently that have lead viewers and cultural critics to cry foul. Sky Ferreira’s ’80s-inflected “I Blame Myself” finds her leading around what appears to be a gang composed of occasionally dancing black dudes for reasons that can’t help but feel ornamental on some level. People were upset about it.

Still from the Katy Perry video, “Birthday”

Elsewhere, in the just-released Katy Perry video, “Birthday,” the deeply religious singer acts like the Improv 101 student people neglect to invite out for drinks after class as she dives deep into the caricature of Jewish bar mitzvah entertainer Yosef Shulem. It’s even more playful of a depiction than the above-examples, but it’s bound to cause upset. Especially considering that Katy Perry’s father has ben in the spotlight before for perpetuating Jewish stereotypes.

Untangling what is too offensive is impossible, because it’s a subjective and personal matter of taste. However, given that these videos have been making waves recently, we invite you to weigh in below with your comments on why any of these videos definitively are or are not racist.

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.