It’s extraordinary how much you can learn about critics when they’re forced to reconcile with something like cultural appropriation.
Wired magazine’s Bruce Sterling excuses the tired cultural appropriation of Iggy Azalea’s “Bounce” music video by invoking Kareena Kapoor’s “Hai Re Hai Re” from 2003’s “Khushi.” In fact, his stark juxtaposition of these two spots reads as an excellent case study of textbook hipster racism in how it deflects from the primary issue by invoking an otherwise irrelevant argument: “Bring in some class analysis, too, ’cause our Kareena’s a born starchild who is worth millions while Iggy is a high-school dropout who used to clean hotels.” Are we asked to overlook/forgive Iggy Azalea’s dabbles in third world fetishization because she comes from more humble beginnings than Kapoor, who was born into the Bollywood A-list? Why would anyone even feel the need to invoke Kapoor’s item number from Khushi when it has nothing to do with Iggy Azalea?
Julie Gerstein over at The Frisky offers us a little more hope for the non-Indian target audience who Azalea was clearly hoping to hit by producing a video like “Bounce”: “I’m super over artists appropriating other cultures like they’re just another fashion trend. Not cute.” That succinctly wraps up my feelings about the spot, too.
In case you missed it:
Some reports claim that ’70s Bollywood siren Parveen Babi served as the inspiration behind this video, although I’m hard-pressed to find any of Babi’s signatures re-created here; you could easily say that Azalea sought to mimic Mallika Sherawat or Shilpa Shetty — but neither carry the same cachet as Parveen Babi.
However, once you get over the cultural appropriation — and it is possible to do that — this is an enjoyable video. It has synchronized choreography, sparkly saris, a boisterous elephant, and even your obligatory we’re-getting-turnt-up-at-your-cousin’s-wedding cutaways. But the problem is that, it doesn’t end with Azalea. Selena Gomez has also taken a stab at trying to appropriate Indian culture, with cringe-inducing results:
Jaya Bedi eloquently broke down the problems with Gomez’s fleeting fascination with bindis:
What makes the non-South Asian person’s use of the bindi problematic is the fact that a pop star like Selena Gomez wearing one is guaranteed to be better received than I would if I were to step out of the house rocking a dot on my forehead. On her, it’s a bold new look; on me, it’s a symbol of my failure to assimilate. On her, it’s unquestionably cool; on me, it’s yet another marker of my Otherness, another thing that makes me different from other American girls. If the use of the bindi by mainstream pop stars made it easier for South Asian women to wear it, I’d be all for its proliferation — but it doesn’t. They lend the bindi an aura of cool that a desi woman simply can’t compete with, often with the privilege of automatic acceptance in a society when many non-white women must fight for it.
This kind of “other”ing, happens on another level too — it ends up turning South Asian women into targets of objectification in Western communities. What can be co-opted and cast off as style for a particular record campaign for Gomez and Azalea ultimately results in in the hyper-sexualization of Indian women — because they are unable to necessarily overcome the Otherness. Everyday cultural markers like bindis, saris, and even traditional Indian dance are re-appropriated into such a highly-sexualized framework that communities in the West with minimal to no exposure to South Asian sub-cultures then end up programmed to objectify Indian women.
While it’s not the first time in American culture that pop musicians have co-opted Indian culture, it comes at a critical time — at a point in our culture where we can enjoy the work of actors like Mindy Kaling who effortlessly disavow the hyper-sexualization of South Asian women by choosing to not even engage in such conversation. This wasn’t a sea change we were fortunate enough to be experiencing when Madonna co-opted Hinduism and select facets of Indian culture for her “Ray of Light” album campaign in 1998. Sometime around then came this gem from flash-in-the-pan R&B singer Truth Hurts, who used a sample of Lata Mangeshkar’s “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai” in her single “Addictive.” The single featured Mangeshkar’s vocals as a backdrop for troublingly raunchy lyrics like “He turns my pages / he’s so contagious” and “I like it rough” and “He makes me scream.”
It’s troubling to think that in the time between Truth Hurts and Iggy Azalea’s stabs at co-opting Indian culture — at least a decade — so little has ultimately changed. If you’d like to read into Priyanka Chopra’s ringing endorsement of pop stars co-opting bindis as a universal act of female empowerment and not a strategic platform for Chopra’s attempts to mint her own pop career, that’s your prerogative.
This isn’t to say that Western pop performers are all clueless about Indian culture. I’ll point to the Kylie Minogue-Akshay Kumar item number from “Blue”; the film may not have set the box office alight and “Chiggy Wiggy” may be one of the stupider titles for anything in recent memory, but Minogue pulls this off. Where everyone from Madonna to Iggy Azalea look like cultural interlopers awkwardly navigating a world they know nothing about, Minogue convinces us that she can respect Indian culture enough to fit right in — it’s because she doesn’t try to co-opt the culture, but becomes a willing participant in it.
It still remains that for a hip-hop performer like Iggy Azalea — who built a reputation as one of the fiercer MCs around — a video like “Bounce” which recycles the same tired co-opted Indian tropes that every other pop star around has seems to be a giant leap backward, propelling her into the very assimilation that her earliest works sought to counteract.
Ultimately, “Bounce” asks a much more complicated question: Are we okay with the fact that Western pop culture has transformed the culture of Indian people — a subset of people who make up 1/5th of the world’s population — into a wearable commodity, worthy of imitation only when fashion dictates and otherwise disposable? More importantly, what does it mean that white people can wear Indian culture like drag and be hailed as trendy while South Asian people — born into this culture — continue being Othered?
Rohin Guha is a writer currently living in the Metro Detroit area. His work has been featured at Flavorwire, Tumblr’s Storyboard, Gawker, New York Magazine, The Rumpus, and many others. His first book, “Relief Work,” was released in 2010 by Birds of Lace. He firmly believes that pop music will save the world.