It’s been a little more than twelve hours since last night’s broadcast of the AMA’s or American Music Awards, which is light years in a new cycle that continually spirals without stopping or pausing for reflection. I’m writing however, because I can’t stop thinking about one of the performances and why it’s bothered me so much. So much so that I’m inclined to write about it. I’m sure by know you’ve read a handful of articles about the AMA’s and race, and more particularly Katy Perry’s performance, how “racist” it is and moved on with your day. Me, not so much.
The problem with Perry’s performance of “Unconditional” at the AMA”s is multifold. First, there’s the issue of her costume. On first glance, she’s wearing a kimono while singing her song in a what Angry Asian Man calls a “cultural dragfest“. He’s not wrong. The cherry blossoms, paper parasols, lanterns, etc. read as Japanese, however, the cut of her dress itself most notably the collar, fit, and slits resemble a Chinese cheongsam. Sure, there are issues with Katy performing in as close to yellow-face, via powdered face, this side of Mickey Rooney’s turn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. It’s the combination of that and her ability to mix different aspects of East Asian culture without much thought or consideration as if all Asians are monolith. But that’s only the first layer. Katy Perry is a repeat offender. She’s worn “Asian drag” before at award shows:
Perry at the 2011 AMA’s wearing a Vivienne Westwood dress inspired by Chinese calligraphy and flower paintings.
Perry at the 2011 VMA’s wearing another cheongsam.
But you wouldn’t know it as every new outlet who reported on last night’s outfit and all of the ones she’s worn previously as “geisha-inspired” because if it’s Asian, it must be Japanese, and therefore something that geishas would wear. I’m not going to even address her her performance outfit from the 2009 Japanese VMA’s– but I mean really?
I’m going to let that sit there.
While we’ve established that Perry exhibits some obnoxious cultural appropriation when it comes to what she wears, it doesn’t become fully disturbing until we line it up with her words, and her actions. Last year, Perry went on Jimmy Kimmel Live! where she talked about Japanese foreign exchange students that her parents housed when she was a teenager and her “obsession” with Japanese people:
Jimmy: Oh, you are?
Katy: Yeah, because-
Jimmy: In a good way?
Katy: Well, yeah, totally obsessed. I love everything about them and they’re so wonderful as human beings. But, the reason why I’m really obsessed is because … we had exchange students come in and live with us at our house, and I was just like “You’re, like, everything is Hello Kitty and it’s perfect and clean, and you eat with sticks!” It was so incredible, watching them as a culture, and so now I’ve been obsessed with them ever since.
Jimmy: So did you try to eat with the chopsticks?
Katy: I still have- they bring you, like, a housewarming gift (she’s cupping her hands and miming bowing while giving a gift with both hands) and they’re very polite, and she brought me these Hello Kitty chopsticks and I still haven’t opened them- and I was, like, 13, and I just like, I will always forever have them.
Jimmy: Do you keep in touch with these people?
Jimmy: You don’t?
Katy: No- I mean, I was just too young and I- you know what-
Jimmy: Maybe they’ll find you now-
Katy: I asked to borrow one of their clothes one time, they were very, like, weirded out by it. It was like, “So cute! All your little outfits! Can I borrow one?”
Jimmy: They’re probably telling this story over in Japan, like, “Yeah, we lived with this family and the girl would wanna wear our clothes, it was a very strange experience.”
Katy: (Speaks in a weird voice and widens her eyes) I’m so obsessed with you I want to skin you and wear you like Versace!
Later on that same year, Katy appeared as “Royal Empress of MSU Hello Kitty Appreciation club, Kirstie Davenport” on SNL’s “J-Pop American Fun Time Now”, a sketch that skewers Caucasian racists who objectify Japanese culture and their people. Her character speaks with a fake Japanese accent, mistakes a French word for a Japanese one, and confuses Yao Ming, a Chinese basketball player for a Japanese one. And while the sketch is played for laughs, I find it objectionable that Perry’s playing this character. Katy, you can’t be on a show that pokes fun at racists when you’ve already made similar if not creepier racist comments that same year, or do you not understand that?
(Not pictured is the author’s lack of sheer disbelief).
That being said let’s go back to Perry’s performance at the AMA’s. We’ve got an artist dressed as a “geisha” singing a song about “unconditional love”. The lyrics of “Unconditionally” go as follows: ”
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”
If there wasn’t the dress, the backdrop, the Taiko drummers, etc. this could be a heartfelt torch song for perhaps her estranged ex-husband, Russell Brand. And as much as I’d like to think that, that probably isn’t the case. What Perry is doing instead is reinforcing outdated and harmful stereotypes about Asian women. One of the most insidious is the “Lotus Flower”, which portrays women as subservient, docile and ultimately disposable. The “Lotus Flower” is a woman who will love you unconditionally (see, what I did there?) despite you not loving her. More examples of this pop culture would be “Madame Butterfly” by Puccini and its updated turns in “Miss Saigon” and “The World of Suzie Wong”. As a woman of Asian-American descent, I find this hurtful and problematic as there are so few representations of us in pop culture, and to have Perry perform this minstrel show on the national stage is further reinforcing a Westernized worldview of Asian that isn’t accurate and further dehumanizes a culture that isn’t her own.
What’s more is that Perry’s “Prism” is supposed to be a thoughtful, more adult followup to “Teenage Dream”. It’s her “enlightened” album following up a “party album” full of bangers like “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” and “Peacock”. However, her lyrics in songs like “Legendary Lovers” are filled with cringe-worthy bon mots like:
“Under a silver moon, tropical temperature
I feel my lotus bloom, come closer
I want your energy, I want your aura
You are my destiny, my mantra”
She drops concepts such as “karma”, famous lover Cleopatra (of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony) and other exotic keywords that sounds like she skimmed one aisle of the the self-help aisle of a new age store and an Asian-studies student’s syllabus. For an album that supposed to represents Perry’s departure from kiddie-pop into an adult artist, it only highlights that Perry might have some growing up to do.
Her tweet from the AMA’s twitter account, which Samsung retweeted, isn’t helping matters either:
The allusion to The Vapors “Turning Japanese” is itself a racist comparison to how the art of masturbation makes you look Japanese further reinforces this.