The Absurd History of American Pop's Asian Fetish


After Avril Lavigne released the music video for her song "Hello Kitty" last month, the Internet erupted in both outrage and confusion. Yes, Lavigne prides herself on her iconoclasm and seems always to have both middle fingers up, but this was different. Provocation is one thing; shameless cultural appropriation is another.

Lavigne's response to the uproar was perhaps more confused than the reaction to the video itself.

Lavigne isn't wrong: She did go to Japan to shoot the video, her director was an Asian man and it's been met with reasonable goodwill in Japan. But the issue here isn't whether or not she loves Japanese culture — with its cupcake dresses to the homogeneous women who wear them — it's that that is the only Japan that most of the Western Hemisphere ever sees. The issue is that "Asian cultural appropriation" is even a valid critique of something like this, as opposed to Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Korean cultural appropriation.

Lavigne is just one among many musicians who misrepresent or selectively represent Asian culture and use it as a "prop." Her "Hello Kitty" video might be innocent enough if it were an isolated incident, but "Asian" cultures and sounds have been taken out of context for far too long.

Recently the trend has been picking up steam as more and more American pop stars find that using eastern influences — whatever the country of origin — in their music seemingly differentiates them from the pop masses. Take Selena Gomez's "Come and Get It," which features tabla percussion, saris and a bindi despite having literally nothing to do with India.

Image Credit: Hollywood Records

The stereotypes of Asian culture, as if that's one monolithic thing in the first place, have made for powerful music gimmicks for a long time now. They can be seen at their most harmful in post-World Ward II America, when Asians — and specifically the recently-interned Japanese — needed true and positive representation most. After a devastating world war, when the dominant musical representations of Asian culture are the word sayonara and the cliched riffs of Sam Cooke's "Japanese Farewell Song," the nation could have been a bit more considerate. But it wasn't, and the last 59 years have given us infinite variations on the following clip from 1955:

Lavigne's direct inspiration for "Hello Kitty" is more easily traced back to 2004, when No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani went solo and soon after introduced the world to her "Harajuku Girls." She hired a crew of four Japanese and Japanese-American women as her backup dancers and entourage whenever she went to events. Many were excited by the novelty of Stefani and her platform boot and tiny hat-wearing posse, but others only saw a boatload of bad stereotypes and cultural exploitation.

As Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho put it, "I want to like them, and I want to think they are great, but I am not sure if I can. [...] A Japanese schoolgirl uniform is kind of like blackface."

Image Credit: Mart/Flickr Creative Commons

Though the Internet occasionally and rightfully takes down instances of this sort of Asian fetishization, the waves of criticism are inconsistent. Last summer, Day Above Ground came under fire for its cringeworthy hit "Asian Girlz." A few months earlier, though, hardly anybody spoke up when Chris Brown put out his single and video for "Fine China." In that song, he sweetly tells a (Korean, mind you) woman, "You're irreplaceable / A collectible, just like fine China." In the opening shot, the Korean woman playing a Chinese woman is eating sushi as her stern and wealthy father lectures her (in the future) about her "thug" boyfriend. She's shamed herself and her family. Just like fine china.

But backlash or not, all you need to do is look at the No. 7 slot on the Billboard Top 100 to see that still nothing has changed. Jason Derulo's smash-hit "Talk Dirty" is closing in on nearly 200 million views on YouTube. That video begins with an Asian woman sounding out his name in a thick accent. It concludes with the same woman giggling, "I don't understand!" Don't worry, though, it heavily eroticizes women of all races equally — around the world, women's "boot[ies] don't need explaining."

This wouldn't be as big an issue if there were more Asian-Americans represented in the industry, but they're seriously absent from American pop. Even in classical music, a genre in which Asian men and women are thought to flourish, they're still few in number. According to Mari Yoshihara's Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music, the Orchestra Statistical Report estimated that "Asian-American and Pacific Islanders comprised approximately 5% of all musicians." Yoshihara attributes this to the fact that "Asian musicians are racially marked in ways that white musicians are not."

Even when Asian musicians do break onto the American pop music scene, they're forced to market themselves parodically. Take Psy, for instance — the South Korean singer/dancer/TV personality behind crossover pop hit "Gangnam Style." Though the song is catchy, there's a reason we can accept Psy so easily. Crystal Anderson, an associate professor of English at Elon University, describes Psy as the epitome of the "comedic Asian male trope."

"He's this chubby, happy guy. We can embrace that in a way we can't embrace other Asian male bodies that challenge the constructions of Asian masculinities that have occurred in the United States," said Anderson. "He fits neatly into our pop cultural milieu wherein Asian men are either kung-fu fighters, Confucius-quoting clairvoyants or the biggest geeks in high school."

But pop music isn't reality. Bold Asian-American musicians like Yuna and Baiyu are fighting to break through these blanket perceptions and hopefully will inspire others to do the same. When there's a Korean female rapper like Awkwafina making noise in New York, it's clear times are changing. But this issue can't just be fixed from one side. It's up to our biggest pop stars to stop reinforcing these dominant Asian cultural tropes. Because when you ask someone to name three Asian musicians, it should be tough because there are so many — not because they draw a blank.