Sadcore singer Lana Del Rey recently released “Tropico,” a 27-minute art film/music video, and the first image I saw was of the white artist dressed as a woman bearing many of the stylistic hallmarks associated with Latino gangster culture (right down to the teardrop tattoo). Now, was that a polite way to start my day?
But before I rolled my eyes completely in my head, I braved the entire clip and reserved my judgement until the credits. As I watched, I asked myself, maybe Lana was earnestly playing a role? Maybe she wasn’t vilifying urban life? Okay, fine. But perhaps she didn’t realize that dressing up like an actual person is wrong for so many reasons?
The Anthony Mandler-directed “Tropico” opens with Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Elvis Presley and Jesus impersonators loosely advising Lana as she prays while wearing a veil in what looks like Heaven. She and her albino boyfriend, model Shaun Ross (cast as Adam to her Eve), are seated at attention in front of the four icons. Later, in the garden of Eden, Lana and Adam eat the apple from the tree of knowledge and suddenly she passes out. Lana comes to as a stripper with teardrops and a Tupac-esque belly stamp that says something like "Trust No Bitch." I'll just leave that there for a second.
Elsewhere, Adam, wakes as a low-level store clerk-gangster, — or a square who hangs out with gangsters but wants to be cool? I couldn’t figure that out — and eventually robs a group of businessmen during a party featuring Lana’s stripper friends in a home invasion. In the next scene, Lana and her boyfriend are driving into the wilderness, where they park their vintage car in front of a symbolic looking tree and shed their Latino gangster clothes. Then the duo dress in white and ascend into the heavens. In between, there are scenes of Lana sucking on lollipops and painting her nails dark colors with Latina tattooed women on a porch.
So yeah, I wanted to try and give Lana the benefit of the doubt, but it's pretty clear where she's going with this. Dressing up like an entire culture and calling it "fashion" is offensive. In the same way Miley Cyrus was taken to task for her use of black background dancers as props, and Gwen Stefani was called out by Margaret Cho for doing the same thing with her Harajuku dancers during the “Hollaback Girl” phase, using another person or culture as an outfit to make your art edgy is in poor taste.
(Also, what's the strategy for a person of color who wants to turn all of this cultural appropriation on its ear? Dressing like Martha Stewart? Maybe Donald Trump or Brittany Spears? But let's be honest: Even if a POC did that, mainstream America probably wouldn't even notice because white culture is mainstream culture.)
Styles are often associated with certain groups because they were created within a culture and have a history specific to that culture (like Rihanna's latest doobie hair "style" at the American Music Awards, which sort of came off to me like she was wearing her rollers outside of the beauty salon to go get some snacks at the corner store). But take Gwen Stefani's "Luxurious" video — a song that I admittedly adore:
In the 2005 clip, Stefani dresses like Mexican artistic powerhouse Frida Kahlo as more of an homage — but then she surrounds herself in a classic block party scene and presents herself like an extra from "A Lighter Shade of Brown." (She even glues rhinestones to her face; anyone else remember Sad Girl from "Mi Vida Loca"?)
As a kid growing up in Northern California, one of my neighbors was Mexican. In the mornings, her sister used to drop us off at our middle school in her low-rider, playing oldies like Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools." We thought we were the coolest — but come Halloween I didn't want to dress up like her because that would've been offensive. "Imitation is the highest form of flattery" doesn't apply to a group of people.
Sorry, Lana, but culture can't be tried on like a sweater at a J.Crew sample sale.