Due to what we can only surmise is a rift in the space-time continuum, a blonde, ageless pop star has just released a Harajuku Girl-inspired music video rife with cultural appropriation. Apparently, Avril Lavigne's eyelids were entirely weighed down with eyeliner throughout the early 2000s—there's no other explanation for "Hello Kitty", Lavigne's new single and accompanying music video, which is essentially a carbon copy of Gwen Stefani's 2005 hit, “Hollaback Girl.”
Stefani was using Japanese girls as props, making blank faces at the camera, and repeating meaningless consonant and vowel combinations over a synthetic beat when Avril was still stealing her dad's ties and huffing glue in the bathroom of a Tim Hortons. Unfortunately, Stefani never found a way to trademark white girl insensitivity, meaning we all get to watch Harajuku history repeat itself. The critical response to Lavigne's new single has been swift and harsh—like its pop precursor, the video was condemned for its "pick and choose" approach to Japanese culture, which reduces an entire nation's vibrant aesthetic to sushi, bangs, and enthusiastic Fujifilm product placement.
The video starts with a close up of Avril, who chants a couple of Japanese phrases with wide, black-lined badger eyes. Clearly, someone in the Lavigne camp figured out that remixing Rosetta Stone with an EDM beat would result in an insta-classic. The video proceeds to offer us a vision of a sort-of Japan, while the lyrics describe the most vague sleepover of all time. In definitely-maybe Japan, we watch a sexed up Avril zombie gyrate against a background of high-rises, cupcakes, and sushi. It's like Kyoto as envisioned by a particularly unimaginative fan of Japanese fetish porn—even the grim Asian backup dancers exude an aura of bored professionalism, like they've been forced to don pink suspenders and pose for cutesy Polaroids one too many times.
The only interesting thing about this video is the nagging question of WTF Avril Lavigne is talking about. Even in an age when “baby you're a firework” is considered a convincing and inspiring pop ballad metaphor, the laziness and weirdness of the "Hello Kitty” lyrics is totally insane. Even when presented with a gorgeous sashimi platter, Lavigne still waxes poetic about that commercial Kitty. Sure, she has a super cute time swaying around with her sad gal pals, but she won't be distracted from her crucial mission: saying Hello Kitty as many times as she possibly can before her viewers inevitably realize that this new track ain't no “Hollaback Girl.”
But what does Hello Kitty really mean? Not since Gwyneth Paltrow's “conscious uncoupling” has one term been so intriguing, and so enigmatic. The World Wide Web is whispering that it's actually a reference to Avril Lavigne's own, well, “kitty.” "Hello Kitty" as a double entendre is actually surprisingly modest and sneaky. Then again, my perception of modesty has been skewed ever since Katy Perry shot whip cream out of her bra, so who even knows. What we can be sure of is that while Avril Lavigne's cutesy, vague, super commercial approach to sexuality might be the bread and butter of modern day pop star appeal, Lavigne encounters larger problems when she attempts to similarly mystify, generalize, and commodify Japanese culture at large. Avril can say whatever she wants about her kitty, but appropriating an entire culture is far more scandalous—although, in our current pop culture climate, it is regrettably commonplace.
Last year, Rihanna caused a minor scandal when she posed for photos outside a mosque in Abu Dhabi, donning her own interpretation of a Muslim woman's hijab. Rihanna paired her cultural insensitivity with a bold red lip; you can still see images from the controversial photo shoot on her Instagram account. Rihanna, like Avril Lavigne, was criticized for dabbling in a culture she didn't fully understand, experimenting with the Muslim veil just like she's experimented with joints, thigh-highs, and Drake.
Wearing a hijab just for kicks is incredibly offensive to the millions of women who have to negotiate the complicated politics of donning the burqa day in and day out. It's so easy to just NOT throw on a burqa—so easy that you'd think we wouldn't have to remind celebrities twice. Unfortunately, Lady Gaga also thought it would be a good idea to get in on the burqa trend (burqas=not a trend); in 2013 she consistently sported her own hyper-sexualized interpretation of the hijab, and inspired her fans to engage in similar acts of appropriation by taking pictures of themselves in burqa-inspired garments, accompanied by the hash tag “#burqaswag.” Oy vey.
A complete compilation of celebrity cultural appropriation crimes would result in an arresting collection of mug shots, featuring pouty celebs sporting burqas, bindis, and Harajuku bows. Some scandals, like Miley Cyrus's consistent use of black female backup dancers as props, and her stated interest in creating a “black” sound, are meatier than other. Cyrus's appropriation lies at the intersection of race, pop culture, and gender: it's the stuff of dissertations, or at least lengthy Atlantic think pieces.
Comparatively, Lavigne's "Hello Kitty" feels like a fairly trite example of cultural appropriation—after all, as miserable as those back up dancers look, we assume they're getting paid. Plus, sushi is yummy, and you can't blame a singer who's spent a decade shopping at Hot Topic for wanting to switch up her look. While Lavigne inarguably could have portrayed Japan in a more nuanced, less eye-rollingly stereotypical fashion, it’s not surprising that a song about making out at sleepovers is accompanied by a similarly clichéd and inane music video. How can we expect a song about literally nothing to say something interesting and realistic about Japanese culture?
For me, the sad part of this video isn't just watching an entire culture get reduced to various foodstuffs—it's watching a former pop powerhouse surrender to total stupidity, trying to mask a bunch of lame, say-nothing lyrics with a "hip" EDM beat. Instead of a flashback from Gwen Stefani's insensitive Harajuku phase, I would've appreciated a #tbt to when Avril Lavigne was still moderately complicated.