This was a useful foundation with which to think about appropriation, and I think it begins to show why certain examples of appropriation are troublesome while others are not. Here are examples that come to mind immediately:
An argument could be made that, historically, the vibrancy of any given pop scene can be measured by the amount of appropriation going on.
So maybe the question I’m really after isn’t “Is this sentence that Jonathan Bogart wrote true?” but “In what ways can this sentence that Jonathan Bogart wrote be true, and how can we maximize this sort of thing happening in this positive manner?”
If that’s an invitation…
The term “appropriation” has developed a singularly negative connotation here on Tumblr, which, as Jonathan Bogart and the entire post at Occupied Territories point out, is an unfortunate development for a word that is morally neutral and should be an analytical tool rather than a judgment on a particular work. It is descriptive rather than condemnatory; it should open the door for further inquiry rather than serving (as it currently seems to) as a stamp of dismissal.
To appropriate something is “to take for or to oneself” - in our instance, it is to take a particular speech act or piece of culture and claim it as one’s own, to incorporate it into oneself and how one relates to the world, and to seek recognition of this new self from an audience. There is a certain commitment involved in appropriation, and we will see this in an example below.
What I notice about the so-called appropriation that’s often criticized here on Tumblr is that it usually involves producers of culture taking a foreign piece of culture in order to highlight its different-ness (exotic-ness, strangeness, deficiency) from their norm - in essence to own it temporarily, without commitment, while distancing themselves from the actual content and implications of that piece of culture. This is not appropriation as defined above. Perhaps a more fitting term for this phenomenon would be “cultural exploitation.” I have addressed this in more depth as it appears in kpop using the term “concept.”
- That time Ke$ha decided to wear a Native American-style headdress. I’m not sure many people really sat down and thought about why this was wrong. They simply reacted to it instinctively, which is okay. The thing is, a headdress cannot help but convey “different-ness” because we only ever encounter them in that context and because we don’t wear anything like them today, in our culture. But they don’t just convey the idea of something foreign in a pre-modern sense: that would be something like a powdered wig. Instead, they seem unintelligible and alien because we don’t understand their purpose, which is why we reduce them to the merely decorative. Native American understandings of clothing are actually quite fascinating because they involve the interplay of many different forms of being (I guarantee you that what birds the feathers come from matter for whoever wears a headdress—sharing in the birds’ being is what matters). This means that it’s probably impossible for anyone to truly adopt headdresses as their own without first understanding Native American worldviews, which isn’t something you could do without first spending at least a year of your life immersing yourself in them.
- Somewhat similar is T-ara’s use of Native American imagery in their “Yayaya” video. Specifically, they use this imagery to convey the idea of “savagery,” playing a group of “savages” kidnapping a man who crash-lands on their island. Again, in this case, the appropriation’s explicit purpose is to convey foreign-ness. However, I think it’s more complex in this case, and I have to admit that I really like this video. Why do I like it? Because, for one, if T-ara are the “savages,” then aren’t we supposed to be sympathetic to them? One issue here is that we tend to read these images pejoratively. I wonder how many people, though, attack depictions of certain people as a way to attack the people themselves without really realizing that they’re doing that, not that T-ara’s video captures anything realistic. I once had a conversation with a young woman (a person of color, I might add) who reacted strangely when I told her about what I thought was one of the great scenes in Terrence Malick’s film The New World: the scene in which the Native Americans, upon first making contact with Europeans, approach and sniff them. I thought this scene seemed very realistic, and it plays upon a contemporary prejudice against the sense of smell. But it’s also true that the sense of smell was an important way of knowing others in various cultures, and there’s nothing “savage” or “primitive” about that. But she reacted in a kind of reflexively PC manner and wondered if the scene wasn’t, in fact, a little racist. I think this is a case of her prejudices being exposed: she was uncomfortable not with the depiction itself but with the otherness it conveys.
I like T-ara’s “cute savagery,” especially because it ties into a kind of subversion of aegyo in that they are displaying aegyo without being submissive or deferential (they kidnap and tie this man to a post). But ultimately, what’s problematic about this example of appropriation is that they use Native American imagery in a rather interchangeable way. Why use that specific imagery when there’s nothing intrinsically Native American about this concept? Thus, it encourages not to look any deeper into the images they associate with Native Americans, but given that this is a Korean video, it’s hardly as harmful as the perpetuation of similar stereotypes here in the Americas. A video like this makes me realize why creatures like vampires, zombies, witches, etc. are useful for us and attractive to us: these beings provide ways to explore otherness in a manner that doesn’t exploit our prejudices against people who actually exist (well, it’s tricky with witches, because there’s a hidden subtext of misogyny often there, but Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, one of my favorite feminist films, does something with witches that is similar to what T-ara try to do with “savages,” making them sympathetic despite their “otherness”). Think about how much greater the “Yayaya” video would have been if they had bothered to create an entirely new group of “savages,” in no way tied to any already existing group of people.
- Those two examples involve the appropriation of imagery, but one of my favorite examples of someone who blatantly appropriates other forms of music, including music that reads as “ethnic,” is Bryn Jones, aka Muslimgauze. Sadly, Jones passed away in 1999, at the young age of 37, but even in his death, he is still releasing music, and his discography spans over 200 releases. One of these releases is, in fact, called Occupied Territories, and this is where I got the name for this tumblr. I’ve been a big fan of Jones’ work and have foolishly dreamt of one day hearing all of it. His early work (from the early 1980s) is very unique, but it’s more or less what most of us would call “industrial.” It was apparent even then that he was interested in politics (an early 7” record is called Hammer & Sickle, one of his standout early LPs is called Buddhist on Fire, and then there’s this note on the entry in his discography for Flajelata from 1986: “side one is dedicated to the Occupied Lands of Afghanistan and Palestine” / “side two is dedicated to all dissidents from the Soviet Union”).
Early on, he was interested in oppression in a very general sense, but over time, he came to refine his focus specifically to Muslims. His music became less industrial and more immersed in the music of the areas that interested him, primarily the Middle East and Pakistan but occasionally other places as well. From the music, which often incorporated authentic instrumentation from these areas (Jones claimed to play all the percussion on his records himself) and samples of, for instance, Arabic speakers, to the imagery and design of his records, which was radically pro-Muslim and pro-Palestine (one of his best early records is called The Rape of Palestine), Jones internalized these worlds that fascinated, and he truly made them his own.
Often, when approaching a Muslimgauze record, what stands out is how aggressively uncommercial it is. He certainly liked to push people’s buttons, it would seem, but in interviews he came off as exceedingly sincere, often claiming that the oppression of Muslims was the central political issue of the time. If you didn’t know that he was a white guy from England, you might suspect he was a radical Arab Muslim himself. Even after finding out who Bryn Jones is, the records still seem hermetic, mysterious, and unknowable. The music contained on them doesn’t really help either: it often doesn’t really “do” anything, unlike even experimental electronic music of the time. It just revels in grooves, soundscapes. Sometimes, a track is nothing more than a loop that modulates over time, never changing its fundamental form. Nonetheless, I happen to love it and even crave it sometimes, because Jones had a great sense of creating worlds, wielding exoticism as a weapon.
Listening to his music, you do feel like you are in the midst of otherness, and if you listen diligently and sympathetically enough, I do think this music can change you and broaden your political thinking. Grappling with these records, I know I had to do the research to find out just what he’s making a reference to at any given moment (his song titles are brilliantly allusive and mysterious, e.g. “Harakat-Ul-Ansar, Speak for Us”, or just plain confrontation, e.g. “Israeli Bullet Passing Through the Body of a Palestinian Child”), and I learned many things in the process. Faced with so much otherness, you have to either reject it or cut through your own ignorance, and Jones’ music is too good for me to do the former. The fact that he committed his life to making music that he thought would broadcast his political message, a message that didn’t really concern him given that he was neither Muslim nor the type of person likely to be mistaken for a Muslim, and that he attracted only a small, albiet dedicated, following, never achieving widespread success, is a good sign that this manner of appropriation is legitimate. Unlike Ke$ha, for sure, he dedicated an immense amount of time learning about the people whose music and imagery he appropriated, and unlike T-ara, his music demands that our prejudices be confronted and analyzed, never merely accepted.
SHE DRINKS WHITE WINE, I DRINK RED WINE
As I don’t have a terriblemarketingphotos tumblr I’m going to have to share it with ALL OF YOU. Thanks Kerry for the spot!
Man, you guys, I dunno about this new Taylor Swift album.
“She drinks white wine, I drink red wine….” TUMBLR COMPLETE THE COUPLET
BUT IT’S OKAY, IT’S ALL FROM THE GRAPEVINE
I just wanted to say that the new Justin Bieber video (which I’ve only watched once so far but which I really like and need to think about some more)—written, directed, and shot by Bieber himself—reminds me of Frans Zwartjes’ experimental short film Living. Hat tip to my buddy Mike, from whom I first heard about this film.
GDYB x Miguel - 121011 Twitter Update!
Sometimes I really don’t think K-pop labels know what they have on their hands, and they certainly, quite often, don’t know how to use their artists in the most creative ways they could. When I watched the teaser for Jewelry’s new single, entitled “Look at Me,” I was wowed by what I saw: Jewelry’s female rapper, named Baby J, owning every pixel of the video. Her attitude, her rapping, her fashion: everything was on-point. But then I was really disappointed when I found out the actual single (which is definitely good, albeit in a different way) had nothing to do with that snippet from Baby J. Instead, the music from that teaser comes from an intro track on their mini album. It’s, thankfully, a little longer on the album, and it’s even more phenomenal in that format. Now, take a listen to this and tell me that whoever is running Jewelry’s career has a major untapped resource that they’re just not using correctly. If Baby J was an American artist, I have no doubt that she would fit in well. In fact, I want to see her go head-to-head with Nicki Minaj.
15 K-Pop Songs I Loved in August 2012
10 K-Pop Songs I Loved in July 2012
10 K-Pop Songs I Loved in June 2012
10 K-Pop Songs I Loved in May 2012
Five K-Pop Songs I Loved in April 2012
10 K-Pop Songs I Loved in March 2012
Five K-Pop Songs I Loved in February 2012
Five K-Pop Songs I Loved in January 2012
We Need to Talk About K-Pop (my K-pop mix)
1. T-ara - “Sexy Love”
If you don’t feel anything over the recent T-ara drama, I don’t know what to tell you, because it make me just generally bummed. And hey, check out this video made by Russian fans who seem genuinely crushed by what’s been happening to their favorite group:
I feel like any pop group is sorta like a family—that they usually don’t even get to choose the fellow members of this family makes the comparison all the more apt—and when one member leaves, as singer/rapper Hwayoung left T-ara a little over a month ago, it’s sad. A good pop group is also like a good cast on a television series, and when everything’s firing in perfect unison, any shift seems like a disruption. I can’t say that I was all that good about distinguishing all the members of T-ara, but I don’t think that’s the point. What matters is not necessarily the loss of Hwayoung, though I definitely feel for her, but the manner in which it happened. Pop groups may be like families, but families don’t exist housed within companies overseen by a kinda creepy CEO like Kim Kwang-soo. Pop groups put forth an image, not necessarily untrue, of being a connected, self-sustaining, and autonomous group, but when something like this happens, it creates a sharp dissonance, not so much bursting the illusion as complicating the situation as a whole. Among other things, I see “Sexy Love” as a commentary on that.
One way of removing the threat and challenge of art is reducing it to a form of problem-solving that believes in single, Eureka-style solutions. If works of art are perceived as safes to be cracked or as locks that open only to skeleton keys, their expressive powers are virtually limited to banal pronouncements of overt or covert meanings — the notion that art is supposed to say something as opposed to do something.
An argument could be made that, historically, the vibrancy of any given pop scene can be measured by the amount of appropriation going on.
I wanted to single this out because I think it’s a really provocative statement that I instinctively agree with, but also because it’s the kind of assertion that, because it’s not accepted without effort, is rather illuminating. A lot of people write about that concept, appropriation, and an inordinate amount of that writing is here on Tumblr. I doubt Bogart would deny that there are problematic aspects of appropriate, and what he is talking about is more sonic appropriate than the abundantly problematized cultural appropriation (though, of course, it’s even hard to separate those two concepts), but I think that, at the risk of creating a certain messiness in the way that we look at these issues (where many would like to cleanly divide right from wrong), there’s a lot of truth in this assertion.
Perhaps an important aspect of what Bogart wrote is that he is using appropriate in a much more neutral, descriptive sense rather than the starkly exploitative meaning it often connotes (again, it’s hard to draw a sharp division between these two), but I think what matters to me is that beneath the politicization of the concept of appropriation (a politicization that has served an important purpose), there is something innately human about appropriation. I think back to a course in undergrad where we read about a ritual that emerged in certain parts of Africa after contact with Europeans: men would allow themselves to be possessed by the spirits of Europeans (okay, I generally don’t like to use the word “spirit” for complicated reasons, but it’s the simplest word here) as a way of knowing these very foreign and mysterious people, and this phenomenon would then lead to the ritualistic carving of figurines that would represent these spirits in an embodied form.
It’s hard for us to understand quite what it was like then, but we know that this encounter between two vastly different cultures is almost inherently traumatic, and rituals like these functioned as one way to make sense of how strange Europeans were, relatively speaking: it was a process of getting to know someone and of acquiring knowledge about them. I don’t at all mean to bring this up in any way that would be condescending either in a “we’re so much smarter than that now” kind of way: the focus of my undergrad work was indigenous religions and cultures, and I honestly learned more from what little of them that I could study than just about anything else in life (and I think our knowledge today, even with something as vast as the internet, pales in comparison to their knowledge). (And yes, I definitely “believe” in spirit possession and other similar rituals more than I disbelieve them, but that’s another discussion…)
Of course, things are different now, and all such exchanges are now fraught with politicizations that didn’t exist before (yes there were real disparities in power, but these didn’t manifest in the way that they do now, as depersonalized relations of privilege and access), but I think there’s a lot of truth to this example. Human beings, I truly believe, are innately curious, and their curiosity is well-intentioned. It arises out of a recognition of difference and asymmetrical aptitudes and bodies of knowledge. In the example I gave above, the Europeans almost certainly had colonization as their primary and malicious objective, but before they became transformed into historical victims, the men who performed these rituals of possession expanded their knowledge of the world through these interpersonal, cross-cultural encounters.
The same thing happened in the Americas: in one instance, a Native American man told the Europeans that he started believing in Jesus because he had a dream in which Jesus told him where to find animals to hunt (and, sure enough, the man went there and the dream prediction panned out). This isn’t a case of conversion, though: the man was simply adding Jesus to his cosmos, which included a number of other similarly powerful beings, each of whom played different roles. In this case, your world becomes that much bigger, which is certainly a good thing. There’s not a finite amount of ways we can be, but it takes hard, creative work to discover new ones, which makes each something worth cherishing.
I don’t know to what extent this state of affairs, in which cultural knowledge and ways of being could be shared so freely and productively, is even possible today, but I’d like to think of it as an ideal, because the truth about human beings as individuals is that we are all limited, only able to experience a fraction of existence. You could have Beethoven at work for centuries, and he would never be able to invent gamelan music, but give gamelan to Debussy, who first experienced it at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, and suddenly, the wealth of options available to him doesn’t just double: it is refracted, multiplied exponentially, and his whole compositional universal mutates into a new shape. When human beings can truly share culture in this way (and culture always retains some semblance of embedded ways of being and thinking, even when extracted), openly (not overtly respectfully, which tends to overemphasize distance, but without malice or a desire to exploit) and creatively, there’s nothing better than that. So maybe the question I’m really after isn’t “Is this sentence that Jonathan Bogart wrote true?” but “In what ways can this sentence that Jonathan Bogart wrote be true, and how can we maximize this sort of thing happening in this positive manner?”