Wow, I never thought I’d be doing a blog post about Selena Gomez. What is she, Justin Bieber’s… wife? I kid, I kid, I know who Selena Gomez is. And I know that song of hers, where she says, “I love you like a love song, baby,” and I also know her newest song, “Come and Get It,” where she says poetically, “If you want it come and get it / na na na na / na na na na / na na na na.”Now, at first, I thought this was just another middling pop song, but then my old friends at Slant Magazine took a different approach to it. They charged her with one of the most dreadful crimes in the cultural studies/liberal academic lexicon: cultural appropriation! You see, Gomez’s song “Come and Get It” features a tabla, a drum prominent in Indian music. Gomez is not Indian. Ergo, she has “stolen” an element of Indian culture and appropriated it for her own uses. How dare she! This is cultural imperialism! Looks like she’s trying to finish what General Dyer started! Ravi Shankar’s ashes must be rolling over wherever they settled!
Anyway, that’s—I guess—what the cultural studies/liberal academic/Foucault-is-a-bald-Jesus crowd would have you believe. So what exactly is “cultural appropriation?” As far as I can tell, it’s when a person from one “culture” makes use of an element of another “culture,” and this is wrong for some reason, because of racism or neocolonialism or something. So when Selena Gomez—an American—makes use of the tabla—an Indian instrument—she is harming India or Indians somehow. Now, this notion is founded upon several fallacies (hence the scare quotes around “culture.”) First, culture is not a genetic/racial/ethnic inheritance. A person does not come from one particular culture. A person’s culture is best defined by the cultural activities they participate in. If you watch Japanese movies and read French novels, these all constitute part of your culture, even if you were born in the United States or Italy or Benin or wherever. The liberal academic notion of culture seems to confuse it with ethnicity or nationality.
The second fallacy is the notion that cultures are somehow hermetically sealed off from each other, and that they don’t, or at least shouldn’t, influence each other. And make no mistake, that’s what the cultural theory crowd would have you believe. They don’t see the introduction of Indian instrumentation into Western popular music (which goes back to the Beatles, so there’s actually something of a tradition of doing this) as being an understandable part of cultural exchange and diffusion and growth. They think Western culture should remain exclusively Western (whatever that means), because making use of elements from any other culture (even though that’s what virtually all cultures have done since the beginning of human civilization) is wrong, exploitative, and racist.
Not only do cultures influence each other, they need to do so in order to grow. Left in isolation, they would stagnate or decline. With vibrant cultural exchange comes vigorous cultural growth. What would Japanese history be like if they hadn’t adopted (appropriated) Chinese writing? What would the rest of Europe be like if they hadn’t appropriated Italian trends in painting and music. German theater without Shakespeare? Global cinema without the distinctly Russian innovations of the 1920’s? Etc, etc, etc. Cultural appropriation isn’t a bad thing, it’s the essential thing that stimulates cultural growth. Fuck, what if artists in general weren’t allowed to influence each other? Suppose Cervantes never read Rabelais; suppose Fielding never read Cervantes; suppose Dickens never read Fielding. The novel itself is not a form native to Indian culture: should the great Indian novelists abandon the medium and just compose ghazals? Should Zubin Mehta abandon Western-style classical music and confine himself to Indian music? (Here the tabla comes up again.)
And the cultural theory people would answer my last question with, “No, because Mehta is a person of color. The formerly colonized peoples can appropriate as much as they want; it’s only Westerners who can’t because it’s racist/neocolonialist.” Really? So Western cultures should stagnate because you think Selena Gomez singing over a tabla track somehow hurts someone? Well it’s doesn’t. Cultural exchange and, yes, appropriation, are the fundamental elements of how human cultures work, and that includes “Western” cultures. Cultural appropriation doesn’t hurt anyone. Japanese people don’t suffer when white kids read manga, anymore than Europeans suffer when Haruki Murakami writes a Western-style novel.
Now, it’s possible to do cultural appropriation badly. The Australian rapper Iggy Azaelia has produced some pretty appallingly shitty music which some have argued appropriates black and American Southern culture. But to bitch at her for “cultural appropriation” is to confuse an aesthetic problem with an ethical problem. And the same goes for Selena Gomez; “Come and Get It” isn’t a particularly good song, but that’s a question of aesthetics. Cultural appropriation doesn’t have anything to do with it.