Katy Perry opened the American Music Awards with an over-the-top performance of her song “Unconditionally,” dressed in a gaudy, faux-Japanese kimono (with Chinese-style mandarin collar and slits up the legs, as well as American-style exposed cleavage) and painted in hideous full-yellowface makeup to fake an “Oriental” look.
The performance has sparked some outrage in both the blogosphere and mainstream media. Maybe that’s what she wanted. She’s probably pissed that Miley Cyrus has been getting all the media attention recently for her edgy, racy performances.
The opening notes of the AMA segment (below), plucked out on shamisen, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument, while a woman in kimono was silhouetted behind a Japanese shoji screen, had me hopeful that something that showed respect, appreciation and understanding for Japanese culture was about to be broadcast.
As the screen is pulled away and the woman behind it — Perry in her fake kimono — started singing, my heart sank and my gut clenched. Here we go again, a cultural mishmash of what white people think is “Japanese” all thrown into one ugly, cluttered, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink four-minute nightmare.
Look! There are paper cherry blossoms falling down like snowflakes! There’s a torii gate, a symbol of the centuries-old Shinto religion! There’s Katy putting her hands together repeatedly in Shinto or Buddhist prayer! There are dancers also wearing fake kimonos flapping (very large) red fans! There are a variety of Chinese and Japanese lanterns hanging over the stage! There are kimono-clad dancers flying over the stage like an Asian Vegas-style Cirque du Soleil ripoff! There are bonsai trees all over the stage! There are two dudes beating a taiko drum (the more prominently featured one is a beefy white guy)! OMG, there are two “geishas” wearing kimono and bowing with enormous fans on their backs that evoke the Japanese artist Hokusai’s famous woodblock print of the giant wave with Mount Fuji in the background! She’s twirling around a Japanese-looking parasol! There’s a backdrop with painted images of pagodas, temples and Mount Fuji!
These are all semiotic shortcuts that scream “exotic Japan!,” time-honored stereotypes that evoke emotional responses to a Western, Orientalized, idealized, whitified vision of Japan and other Asian cultures.
I think it’s possible to include some of these symbols in a way that is respectful and could even teach viewers something about Japanese culture. This five-ring circus act wasn’t it. It was visual vomitosis that barfed all over the screenwith half-baked “Japaneseisms” for no apparent reason.
Or, was there?
My friend Jeff Yang, a great thought leader within the Asian American community, a sharp cultural demographic expert and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, wrote a terrific piece deconstructing Perry’s performance and drawing a line from “Unconditionally” straight back to “Miss Saigon” and back a century and a few decades to “Madama Butterly.” Both are “artistic” paragons of Orientalism, the fetishizing of Asian cultures, and especially, of Asian women.
Yang proposes that taken as a whole with the mess of cultural references on stage and the lyrics of Perry’s hookless, uncatchy song (my rockcrit opinion), she’s making a not-so-subtle statement about how she unconditionally loves her man so much she’d kill herself if she can’t have him.
I think that gives Perry too much credit for literary depth, misguided or not. But Yang hits the nail on the proverbial head when he notes:
The problem with Miss Saigon, and with Madama Butterfly, and yes, with Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” performance, is fundamentally that they are all confabulations of Asia invented by non-Asian people, with little concern for cultural legitimacy and no attempt to offer historical context. And because there are so few authentically told stories with the size and dazzle of these, such spectacles have evolved into a kind of truth — imagined truth — and the fictional, fantastical “facts” embedded within them have become mashed up with reality.
Here’s a blog post from Kotaku, a great site covering Japanese culture (mostly by non-Japanese writers living in Japan), that explains some of Perry’s messed-up cultural symbols from a Japanese perspective. He says people in Japan mix-and-match cultures all the time, saying it may be just superficial, not necessarily racist. OK, I’ll grant that. He also cites some Japanese tweets that thought the performance was “cute” or otherwise just fine. But that just affirms that Perry’s being shallow and gives her too much credit for understanding that’s how a real Japanese person (not herself in a fake kimono) would see her performance.
Stateside, social media including Twitter went all afire during the song questioning Perry and saying it was racist.
In the end, I don’t think Perry’s racist — she’s probably even a Japanaophile and loves all things Japanese, for all I know. But I think the performance itself was misguided and tasteless bordering on racist, and showed no respect or appreciation for Asian or Japanese culture at all. I thought it was stupid.
Here’s the performance. What do you think? (I’ve had to embed a different version of the video since the American Music Awards took theirs down. If this video is removed, go to YouTube and I’m sure someone else will have it uploaded. I’ll try to keep up and put new versions up if I need to.)
I had online conversations after I posted my Katy Perry piece, with a Caucasian man who lives and works in Japan, and my niece who lives not far from me in the Denver area. Both were sympathetic to Perry.
The man in Japan noted (correctly) that the Japanese love to take cultural liberties and mish-mash things for the sake of entertainment. My niece, who follows Japanese pop culture very closely, noted that Perry has been on the record as loving Japanese culture, and my niece didn’t think the displays of all the iconic symbols of Japan in the AMA performance was bad. She thought it might get some viewers interested in Japan, which is a good thing.
I can see both their perspectives but after viewing the performance a buncha times, I’m inclined to still be pissed off about it. It’s just in poor taste, I think. And, having an appreciation for a culture doesn’t absolve a person of cultural appropriation. I still don’t think Perry is particularly racist toward Asians and can believe that she loves Japanese culture. I just wish she had shown that appreciation in a way that was more respectful and more educational.
I’m not sure what a typical Katy Perry fan learned about Japan by watching her on the AMAs.
Here are some follow-up coverage and commentary worth reading/watching:
Lady Gaga came out in support of Perry.
A Yahoo story compiled comments reflecting both sides of the debate.
Here’s Phil Yu’s brief and to-the-point comment on Angry Asian Man.
And, interestingly, Media Action Network for Asian Americans, the organization which vehemently tried (and unfortunately failed) to get the producers of the TV show “Dads” to rewrite its racist series premiere, has come out with this statement. Again, I can appreciate their perspective but I have to disagree (the statement was posted to a discussion group, but isn’t available on the MANAA website):
Statement of Aki Aleong, President of MANAA:
We did not find Katy Perry’s performance at Sunday night’s “American Music Awards” to be offensive. It’s not racist for a non-Asian person to wear Asian clothes. If it was so, the Beatles would’ve been criticized for wearing Nehru jackets back in the ‘60s. By going to India, learning meditation, dressing in Indian clothes, and George Harrison taking a fondness to the sitar, the Beatles brought attention to Indian culture and enabled it to be considered and enjoyed by millions across the world. Likewise, we know from past interviews that Miss Perry loves Japan and its culture, so her performance could’ve been paying tribute to an aspect of that culture and could renew appreciation for it.
Some have asserted that because her song “Unconditionally” is about a woman giving total devotion to a man that performing it as a geisha reinforced stereotypes about Asian women being submissive.
In fact, if you look at the lyrics of the song, it’s the total opposite. In it, she’s singing to a man who’s insecure about showing his true self to her. She reassures him that’s it’s OK because she’ll love him no matter what. In other words, she’s the strong one in the relationship:
“Oh no, did I get too close?
Oh, did I almost see
What’s really on the inside?
All your insecurities
All the dirty laundry
Never made me blink one time
I will love you unconditionally
There is no fear now
Let go and just be free
I will love you unconditionally
So come just as you are to me
Don’t need apologies
Know that you are all worthy
I’ll take your bad days with your good
Walk through the storm I would
I do it all because I love you
I love you l love you”
Ravi Chandra, M.D. wrote a righteous post, “Yes, Katy Perry’s Performance Was Racist, Here’s Why,” calling Perry out in PsychologyToday.com and then followed that up with a post, “Parrying Perry: More Thoughts on the Katy Perry Controversy,” explaining why he turned off the comments on his original blog post.
On Nov 27 he made it a triptych of posts with “Katy Perry: Apologize. There’s No “Loving Form of Racism” (thanks for the shoutout, doc), which riffs off a quite funny “Saturday Night Live” skit that Perry was in last year, in which Perry plays a young white girl who’s crazy about Jpop and takes on all the affectations (or what she thinks are the affectations) of a Japanese person.
Here’s the SNL skit:
I think this was a much more successful reflection of her interest in Japanese culture, because it’s presented as satire … and she’s poking fun at herself. If “Unconditionally” on the AMAs were somehow presented as a satire of Jpop or Japanese culture, the staging’s wretched excesses might have made more sense.
And, to end on another satiric note, here’s a video produced pretty damned quickly by 18 Might Mountain Warriors, an Asian American sketch comedy troupe in Los Angeles, that pokes some fun at Perry:
Here’s a late addition I’ve come across, a well-argued piece by Chris Gayomali in The Week, “Why Katy Perry needs to be called out for her geisha act” that rightfully places some blame at the AMA’s show producers and even the network. How did this atrocious blast of pop overkill even get approved, anyway?
And here’s a late entry, an announcement sent on Nov. 30 by the JACL, saying Perry’s performance was “the latest rendition of the bad movie we’ve all seen before.”
“The JACL respects the space needed by performance artists to apply their creativity. However, this space does not extend to the perpetuation of racial stereotypes that hold the potential for harm. The thoughtless costuming and dance routines by Katy Perry played carelessly with stereotypes in an attempt to create a Japanese aesthetic.
I’ll post further links here as I come across them
Phuong Nguyen wrote a piece in the terrific Canadian publication, Schema Magazine: “Katy Perry and Her Fauxrientalism*: Yes, Her AMA Performance was Racist.”
Jamilah King on Colorlines: “Katy Perry Performs in Racist Geisha Costume at the AMA’s”
Here’s conservative columnist Cathy Young’s pro-Perry spin, published in Newsday.
Here’s Perez Hilton’s insightful cheer for the performance, which I thankfully missed the evening of the show.