In her latest Rolling Stone feature, Katy Perry addresses the accusations of cultural appropriation that have followed her throughout her career. Based on her response, it's clearly something she's thought about quite critically: "I guess I'll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that's it," she says. Oh, boy.
Back in June, Perry was criticized for presenting her dancers as stylized mummies with big butts, boobs and full lips. The intention was supposedly to critique plastic surgery culture, but that's not how it came off.
As my colleague Callie Beusman wrote:
Regardless of intent, ...these get-ups really do look like yet another attempt to commodify sterotyped black female sexuality. The butts and breasts of their bodysuits are extremely padded; on top of the fake mummy wrappings, the dancers have no defining features save for exaggerated lips, dark hair, hoop earrings and long nails. The effect, overall, is a bit like the Hottentot Venus in the age of white girl twerking.
In Rolling Stone, Perry explains that, yes, she "based it on plastic surgery," adding:
"Look at someone like Kim Kardashian or Ice-T's wife, Coco. Those girls aren't African-American. But it's actually a representation of our culture wanting to be plastic, and that's why there's bandages and it's mummies. I thought that would really correlate well together… It came from an honest place. If there was any inkling of anything bad, then it wouldn't be there, because I'm very sensitive to people."
Perhaps Perry is "sensitive to people," but she's doing a poor job of showing it. From "I Kissed a Girl" to her geisha-inspired performance at the last AMAs, she's set up a bit of a pattern of ripping off other people's culture in order to profit and sell more records.
It's highly doubtful that Perry sets out to be offensive and it's believable that she could have stumbled into that mummy situation with no idea of how it would come off. That said, it's her job to educate herself — even if it's just so that she no longer says stupid shit like this:
"I know that's a quote that's gonna come to fuck me in the ass, but can't you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don't know."
Yes, you can appreciate a culture that you didn't grow up in. Yes, you can pay homage to a culture that you didn't grow up in. But that does come with a certain responsibility, especially if you're going to use that culture to profit you and you alone.
It's not worth crucifying Perry over this. People make mistakes and, ideally, they learn from them. But unfortunately, rather than do that, Perry has decided to see this issue as a set of absolutes (you're either for appropriation or you think "everybody has to stay in their lane") when really it's much more complicated than that.
It's hard to think critically about something as personal as your own art, but it is possible. Just look at Lorde's response to the issues people took with "Royals":
I mean, it's one thing for kids who fight in the comments section of YouTube and who use "gay" as an insult to take offense at what you're doing; but when it's highly intelligent writers, all of whom you respect, you start to question what you're doing and if you have done something wrong. I have grown up in a time when rap music is pop music, and I do think people were maybe a little bit selective about the parts of that song they used to make those arguments, because a lot of it is examples of rock excess, or just standard pop culture "rich kids of Instagram"-type excess. But I'm glad that people are having discussions about it and informing me about it.
Katy Perry doesn't have to stop doing what she's doing. She's allowed to express herself however she wants, but it would be interesting if she engaged criticism in a more introspective way.
Images via Pacific Coast News