BY NATALIE ST. MARTIN
Katy Perry opened the 2013 American Music Awards with her song “Unconditionally.” She wore an outfit that was an odd blend of Chinese and Japanese traditional dresses and sang a song about devoted love amidst falling cherry blossoms, giant waves, and dancers carrying umbrellas and fans. It was an example of contemporary racism in the arts.
How racist it really was has been explained well elsewhere – and an explanation was needed because there were so many people saying it wasn't racist. One argument that has been brought up over and over again in defense of the performance is that it was an act of artistic homage. How could these two things get confused? Surely there is a big difference between an act of racism and an act of homage. Every artist and creative team learns their craft from someone, somewhere, and takes inspiration from the work of others throughout their careers. There are various traditions and even some laws around how to visually quote another artist, but it is often a gray area. To pay homage generally means to make a respectful reference to a source of inspiration or mentorship.
Did Katy Perry make a respectful reference to Asian art and culture in her performance at the AMAs? Let’s say that she has learned a great deal from the art and culture of Japan and China, or even that she simply really enjoys them. What would it look like to show respect? I have a few ideas. She could have worn an outfit by a Japanese designer – this would be a respectful and subtle way to say, “I appreciate the fashion design of Japan.” In a similar vein, she could have hired Asian artists to design her sets and choreography. Alternately, she could have quoted a famous Chinese love poem in her own love song. She could have simply thanked specific people who inspire her,and told her audience what artists or art traditions she loves. There are many ways to pay homage. But what Katy Perry actually did was not respectful.
Every artist should research the context of their art, taking the time to learn the history and contemporary discourse connected to their chosen form and subject matter. If Katy Perry (or her team) had done that, they would know that there is a history of imperialism and oppression in Europe and America toward those of Asian nationality and heritage, which shows up in art history. For over three hundred years, stereotypes and harmful misrepresentations of Asian people and cultures have been perpetuated through the arts.
This means that today in America, a white woman dressing up and pretending to be Asian on a national stage is participating in a harmful tradition. It is no floral fantasy to be Asian in America – unless you were Katy Perry singing, “Acceptance is the key to be/to be truly free” at the American Music Awards. The saying goes, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” – but we all know that with the wrong tone or timing, imitation can also be a form of mockery and misrepresentation. Most likely unintentionally, Katy Perry ended up misrepresenting Asian art, culture, and people in a racist Western tradition at the AMAs. I hope that others do not imitate her.