“Chill out. What you yelling for?” Avril Lavigne seemed to implore critics after her “Hello Kitty” video incited a massive internet outcry. Detractors accused Avril of tasteless, tacky cultural appropriation at the very least and racism at worst, a claim she slammed on Twitter with “RACIST? HOW? I LOVE JAPAN!” Defenders were quick to point out that “It’s all been done before,” “it” being the type of pop Japanophilia Gwen Stefani rode hard a decade ago with her Love. Angel. Music. Baby. album. “If you could only let it be, then you would see,” they seemed to counter. If only we could just view the “Hello Kitty” video as the hyper affectionate, albeit naïve and bizarre love letter to Japanese culture Avril intended it to be, perhaps we’d see its real beauty. Unfortunately for everyone, Avril Lavigne included, things are a little more complicated than that.
Seeing Avril acting like somebody else gets me frustrated. Her early persona was one of an every-girl, a people’s pop star less interested in selling sex than she was talking one-on-one to a generation of disenfranchised Hot Topic shoppers. Now, a tanking career and a marriage to the man who is arguably Music’s Most Hated Canadian, she looks like she’s constantly watching her back, like she can’t relax. Though she looks fine in pictures with Kroeger, a gruesomely awkward set of fan photos that some poor souls spent an obscene amount of money for confirm that she becomes somebody else around everyone else. Especially the Japanese.
Who among us didn’t laugh out when Avril struck a Japanese pose in the “Hello Kitty” video? The juxtaposition of her bubbly, soulless persona and her dead-faced backup dancers is but one example of what stops “Hello Kitty” from being taken seriously. It’s just so egregiously bad, from the demon-candy, Kyary-aping nightmare visual to the misused, tuneless dubstep and aggressively shallow vocal that makes it not a center of cultural debate, a la “Blurred Lines,” but of mass derision. She’s fallen into the one place where she promised we’d never find her: faking, trying to be cool, but looking like a fool to the whole damn world.
Unfortunately for Avril, life’s like this: White and Western culture are the hegemonic races and classes in global society, troublingly privileged as more important than others in education and understood to be the forefront of global culture as a result of years of cultural imperialism. So while white people can admire other cultures, and indeed should be encouraged to do so, there is a major difference between respect of another culture and uneducated tourism, and “Hello Kitty” reeks of the latter. It is peppered with grotesque caricatures of Japanese culture, with the Asian people in the videos dressed and directed to erase any sense of individuality. The result is a video of a white girl going on a vacation through a land populated with people that simply add to the cutesy aesthetic that is Avril’s ostensible interpretation of Japan. She took what she could get and turned it into something offensive without even knowing it. Uh-huh. That’s the way it is.