On first view, “Genesis,” the latest video by the Canadian artist Grimes, might seem like a strange, post-apocalyptic, manga-influenced landscape conjured in the image of films like Mad Max , Blade Runner , and The Fifth Element. In it, Grimes (aka Claire Boucher), a diminuitive white woman who has recently been profiled in the New York Times and Vogue, dances with a mace like it’s a hula hoop in a barren desert or plain, and rides in a car wearing a disconnectedly dainty white poof of a blouse, while fondling a large python the same shade of yellow as her blonde extensions. The song is wispy and lithe as her music tends to be—a puff of soprano wafting over synth arpeggios, cotton-candy light.
Watch longer, though, and the romantic images of “Genesis” reveal problems. Grimes is no longer the star of a video when a dancer, dressed in a silver Aeon Flux suit with bodystocking, custom platform Nikes, and a three-foot cascade of baby-pink cornrows, appears. Compared to the rest of the quirkily-dressed people in the video, who register as white, the Aeon Flux dancer—played by Los Angeles rapper/model/stripper Brooke Candy—is white but made up to be somewhat of an ethnic other, particularly with her alien contact lenses and the aforementioned weave of rows. Her dances are flushed down to slow-mo, placing special emphasis on the strength and agility of her body, as she executes dance moves pulled from the playbooks of both Beyonce and voguing—and where she strikes a powerful, graceful presence, her positioning as “alien” next to Grimes’ coy, traditionally blonde girlishness ends up making Candy’s badassness seem “other.”
As narrative goes, the visuals are purely aesthetic, a laundry list of representational “art” looks popularized by Tumblr, offering nothing more than skewed prettiness; which is why the presence of Candy’s Aeon Flux dancer is so much more problematic. The video is Grimes playing primitivism, using a lens of a vague “future” as a way to execute notions of… well, future primitive. Some of the same critiques of James Cameron’s Avatar—that it continues the tradition of exoticising and idealizing the “advanced” and “pure” primitive other—apply here. Worst of all, the video begins with Grimes singing a refrain that is not on her album: wailing in her airy voice, she seems to mimic the vocal runs of Middle Eastern music, but without offering any context whatsoever. Presumably, it’s her depoliticized sonic interpretation of what is “weird,” “edgy,” or “other,” without any visible evidence that she has any knowledge of global music—unlike, say, MIA, who herself is complicated but travels the world to mine its variant sounds , or even white art-pop band Gang Gang Dance, whose polyglot vocalist Lizzi Bougatsos flips bhangra and traditional Chinese and Arabic singing with the precision of someone who’s studied it.
Grimes is not the first person attaching vague ethnic allusions to coolness without context—nor is she the first person to do so in four-inch “Club Kid” platform shoes. Pop music has long been a palette for white musicians interloping, borrowing, and assuming “other” racial identities, to varying critique or effect. In honor (or indictment) of Grimes and “Genesis,” here are a few of my favorites, in a manner of speaking.
1. Gwen Stefani, “Luxurious”
No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani went to high school in heavily Latino Anaheim, California, where residents have been embroiled in protest against racialized police brutality as of late . So it makes sense that she would have been influenced at least somewhat by chola culture, having presumably been surrounded by it in the 1980s and 1990s. But in her 2004 video for “Luxurious,” she takes the association a bit too far, selectively appearing in “chola-face,” with heavy lip-liner, hair-sprayed bangs, getting her nails did, showing up at a Latino BBQ and being the only white woman all the while, her platinum blonde hair sparkling in the SoCal sun. Those parts were complicated but somewhat amusing, and some Latinos were grateful to see that end of our culture painted in a positive light, which happens almost never.
The real crime here, however: Gwen Stefani writhing atop a pile of colorful confetti with her hair pulled up in a Frida Kahlo ‘do… while wearing a t-shirt depicting La Virgen de Guadalupe cropped and spliced in half, slicing the blessed madre right down the middle. I will never forget the appalled squeal emitted by my mother, an extremely devout Mexican Catholic, when she came home one day to find me watching that video, La Virgen’s image desecrated for the sake of fashion and sexualizing this white girl. It’s proof that no matter how much you think you might be honoring a culture, you might never know if you’re shitting on it unless you, you know, ask. (A mistake Stefani blunders upon quite often; recall her late-’90s embracing of fashion bindis.) Nevertheless, I remain suspended in a love-SMDH relationship with La Gwen. (I.e.: her music is wonderful, she is full of spunk! I.e.: What the hell is up with the Harujuku Girls, her entourage of Japanese background dancers instructed never to talk?!) At the very least, she inspired this great, loving skewering by Mexican-American poet Reyes Cardenas. As La Bloga contributor Gina MariSol Ruiz said at the time , “Tonta of the year award goes to la Gwen Stefani… I think the Virgencita is going to smite that girl with a very thorny nopal.”
2. Madonna, “Frozen”
Oh, Madge. For the sake of brevity, this will be the only entry on Madonna—not because it’s the most egregious, but because her career is so notoriously defined by co-option and appropriation that several books could be written on the matter. ( I already wrote a good 2000 words just on her Superbowl appearance.) But this one is so instructive.
The year was 1998, and Madonna had just helped kick off the decentralized popularity of mehndi, the South Asian and Middle Eastern practice of henna skin-painting that had never before been mainstream in white America. Mehndi is used as decoration within religious ceremony, but not exclusively so, so at least Madonna had “not totally insulting another religion” on her side this time. (Plus, she had just started getting into Kabbalah, so it all might have been slightly confusing.) But it was her half-assed use of bhangra-style, traditionally Indian dancing in her “Frozen” video, plus the ahistorical bursts of vaguely “Middle Eastern-sounding” strings atop William Orbit’s lite trip-hop production, that reminded us that Madonna was still the same-old co-opter we’d always known—and that video kicked off a South Asian culture-appropriation extravaganza that included the aforementioned Stefani fashion bindis and, ugh god, Madonna showing up at the 1998 MTV VMAs wearing full Brahmin priest make-up . With the latest resurgence for all things ’90s (see: above Grimes video), the fashion bindi and the like have returned. Here is a word of advice, ladies and gentlemen: just, don’t.
3. Kate Nash, “Under-Estimate the Girl”
Oh, whoops! Spoke too soon: last month Kate Nash, the punky British singer who is paradoxically signed to Island Def Jam Motown Ireland, dropped a new video for “Under-Estimate the Girl,” a great song in theory about being an empowered woman and jilting the expectations of dudes. It’s technically post-riot grrrl, but could easily have dropped in ‘92 for all its growling vitriol and guitar riff pedestalizing. However, like old school riot grrrls, someone really needs to talk to Kate Nash about intersectionality, because the video features not one fashion bindi, but five, in different hues to match her sweaters and lipstick. (In the interest of being thorough, it should be noted that Grimes, above, is also a prime purveyor of the fashion bindi.)
Luckily, where Tumblr was one place that perpetuated the fashion bindi, so it is the place the fashion bindi will go to die. People all over the platform are up in arms about Nash’s video, including one fan called canndo, who writes , “Kate Nash has done some ace stuff for women in music recently, and the song is fine (if not a little mediocre), it’s just a shame that she’s trying to challenge patriarchy while wearing a bindi. Given her foray into feminist politics, some reflexivity when it comes to cultural appropriation wouldn’t have gone amiss.” Another fan, its-stella-bitch: “I can’t even look at her face without being mad. How can someone so socially aware do something so dumb? Why does every white musician I like have a shoddy past or end up doing something stupid like this? ” Well Stella… because white privilege.
4. Florence & the Machine, “No Light, No Light”
The redheaded Brit with the powerful voice is the toast of the fashion world for her sophisticated style and palatable music, but with the video “No Light,” she had us singing “hell no.” This is more just straight-up racism than appropriation (unless Florence doesn’t happen to be Catholic), but it’s so extreme it’s important to rehash. Stylistically perched in the evil epicenter between yuppie break-up film (think Flannel Pajamas) and mid-level demonic possession chiller, this video draws a very distinct line between the good—the pristine, all-white boy’s choir in the cathedral; angelic pale-faced Florence perched in the bell tower—and the chaotic: anonymous “Black” man (in Blackface!) wearing somewhat cryptic mask and doing frenzied dances. If that weren’t astonishing enough, the dancer is shown scarily chasing her up church stairs and across city streets—depicted as a terrifying, probably netherworldly specter—not to mention actually pricking a voodoo doll of Florence, as her body writhes with each shot of pin hitting cloth. Anonymous Blackface man is clearly cast as some kind of demon—he couldn’t be her stalker lover, after all, since the song lyrics extol said spurned lover’s “bright blue eyes.” Spoiler alert: Florence is saved from certain death by a pack of small, white hands. The Black demon writhes in agony as Florence goes back to her white lover. Racialicious compared it to “Birth of a Nation.”
As with some of the above, it’s impossible to imagine how these clips even get made, as they presumably go through a wide variety of people to be approved, from the videomaker writing the treatment to Florence’s “people”—managers, marketers, label heads and the like—right on up to Florence herself. Particularly since it’s a big-budget, cinematic video that must go through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of a major label? Not one person had any reservations, or an inkling that making this video is in essence reinforcing racist European tropes of “savages,” and of mythologizing said “savages”’ religion? Apparently not, and it’s fucking mind-blowing. The moral of this story is: no matter who you are, you probably need to check yourself.