Cultural appropriation, the act of imitating something outside of one’s cultural group, is almost always discussed and framed as a problematic, even violent, practice. However, pop culture provides many examples of art containing elements that could be considered cultural appropriation, whether that is costume, imagery, dance styles, music styles, or instruments. We discussed in class that some kinds of appropriated art are considered less problematic than other pieces.
For example, Justin Timberlake’s soul/R&B music or Eminem’s rap music seems to be higher-quality and more “authentic” than Robin Thicke or Iggy Azeala’s music. Picasso is another interesting example: he traveled frequently to Africa and adopted some of their techniques into his artwork, in a sense imitating their painting style. However, he was not trying to be an African artist and still retained his identity as an European painter.
This begs the questions: is appropriation intrinsically a bad thing? Is there a difference between appropriation and cultural sharing? For our post, we wanted to consider how appropriation, while not always done with a violent intent, can create an end product that feeds into pre-existing racist discourse.
While many artists, including the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Wonder, have sampled or have been otherwise influenced by Indian culture over the years, George Harrison of the Beatles was the first Western musician to play sitar on a pop song. As described in this Guardian article, Harrison heard Indian musician Ravi Shankar on the sitar and sought him out for private lessons, leading him to later incorporate the sitar into the Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood.”
“Norwegian Wood” – The Beatles
On the one hand, Harrison’s seemingly sincere expression of interest in Indian culture makes the incorporation of the sitar in “Norwegian Wood” seem less like an example of wholesale thievery from Indian culture and more like an act of cultural mixing, incorporating an element of Indian culture into American rock music while not trying to be Indian music.
However, the production of “Norwegian Wood” must be considered within the larger fetishization of Indian culture in the 1960’s. Harrison’s incorporation of the sitar–while initially produced in contact and collaboration with an Indian musician–was part of an American cultural fantasy that celebrated and fetishized a unique vision of India–filled with drugs and sex–that was an American creation. Indeed, the rise in popularity of gurus, yoga, and “Indian-sounding” music was born from an image of India that Shankar felt was very removed from his very complex, historically-rooted culture. Shankar says in the Guardian:
The association with India was so wrong,” he once told me. “The superficiality of everyone becoming ‘spiritual’, the clichés of yoga … the Kama Sutra, LSD and hash … It was all against our music and our approach to music because we consider it so sacred.” As for Harrison, Shankar said “he himself was very sorry and sad to see the way it was twisted and taken so casually. He never dreamed it would turn out like this.
In this Rolling Stone article, Shankar criticizes his drug-addled concert-goers:
I want clear-headed, clean, physically clean and mentally clean people when they listen. Just as they would go to Bach or Beethoven, or any classical orchestra. They don’t go like that. Why do they associate Indian music with that? It’s so wrong absolutely.
America’s Orientalist characterization of India in in the 60’s thus seems to deny agency to Indians to define their own culture. While Harrison may have intended to pay homage to and understand the sitar within the larger Indian music tradition, his music was born into a system that produces and fixes a specific image of India not rooted in any actual cultural traditions. In this way, it seems to be a modern-day example of the German theorists imagining the harems of the East: a paradise existing only in their creepy minds.
More recently, Selena Gomez was criticized for her use of Indian imagery in her performances of her song “Come and Get It.” The song opens with Punjabi singing and incorporates many Indian instruments and traditional melodies. Gomez also wore Indian symbols in her performances of the song. While both the Beatles and Gomez express interest in Indian culture, she was criticized for appropriating Indian culture; she seemed to completely disregard the culture from which she was borrowing.
“Come and Get It” – Selena Gomez
A major criticism of Gomez was for her use of the bindi, a traditionally Hindu symbol. Many Hindu organizations, including Universal Society of Hinduism, condemned her repeated use of the adornment. The Universal Society of Hinduism issued a statement saying, “The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance…. It’s not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory.” Gomez exhibited no remorse or shame, repeatedly wearing the symbol and attempting to justify her interest in Indian culture. In an interview, she claimed “My hairstylist and my makeup artist are actually really big into the whole culture — they’ve been around, they’ve traveled, they’ve gotten me into various books.” This seems like an insufficient understanding and appreciation for the culture she is incorporating into her art. Gomez did not seem to fully understand the appropriation which she was propagating. She described this costume, which she wore to the 2013 VMAs, as “Glam Tribal”.
Despite its many Indian elements, Gomez simply considered it exotic and glamorous. This fetishization of the exotic is particularly troubling given that the lyrics of the song are very submissive. She sings:
You ain’t gotta worry, it’s an open invitation
I’ll be sittin’ right here, real patient
All day, all night, I’ll be waitin’ standby
As we discussed in class and read in The History of White People, there is a long history of treating non-white women as submissive and attractively exotic. Non-white slaves were treated like ideal sexual partners because they were forced, by their position, to acquiesce to the requests of white men. Gomez, whether she means to or not, calls on that racist history to exhibit her sexual appeal.
- By coopting a culture she doesn’t understand and calling forth a racist history to promote herself, Gomez’s use of Indian culture seems more problematic than the use of sitar by The Beatles. She wholesale adopts Indian symbols. It seems that one of the essential differences between Gomez and The Beatles is in their different levels of attention to detail.
As Ravi Shankar said in this Rolling Stones article:
As I said earlier, I don’t care one way or the other, but I have never heard any music, non-Indian music, played on sitar that has impressed me, let’s put it. To be good enough, you know. I am not so orthodox or small minded – if something is done beautifully I will certainly appreciate it.
Music that is “beautiful” may be music that is attentive and rich: paying homage to the details of the individual, unique practices of a culture, rather than Orientalist images that celebrate the idea of “India” rather than specific elements of the culture.