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cultural appropriation and lana del rey’s tropico


Ah, another day, another celebrity using unfortunate cultural appropriation for their “work.”

Last week, Lana Del Rey became the latest musician to feature some inappropriate references in her newest music video, which doubles as a kind of short film and goes for almost half an hour, Tropico.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Spreading awareness of cultures is a great thing for a celebrity to do, especially through film or through song. The world, as in every country and continent, could use more exposure to the customs, traditions and histories of foreign countries.

The problem here is how to do it tastefully, and where the line should be drawn between cultural awareness, and just plain wrong.

Hillary Crosley over at Jezebel said that ‘dressing up like an entire culture and calling it “fashion” is offensive.’

Crosley goes on to reiterate her point, saying that ‘using another person or culture as an outfit to make your art edgy is in poor taste.’

That it is. Del Rey’s Tropico is most definitely in poor taste. If she is trying to make a point of spreading cultural awareness, she’s doing an extremely bad job of it.

Her 27-minute video features herself dressed in the style of a Latin-American gangster, amongst many other strange and inexplicable references, including religious ones.

On top of the weird costume, it is unclear exactly what Del Rey is trying to convey through the appropriation, and through the whole video. This only serves to exaggerate her inapt use of the Latino style.

Sadie Dupuis (Speedy Oritz singer) reviewed the video over at The Talkhouse, calling it ‘a half-baked amalgam of ‘60s iconography, canonical poetry, and glamorization of America’s destitute.’

Glamorization is the perfect word for what Del Rey has done. So is stereotype. To pay homage is one thing, but throwing clichéd references to the Latino gangster culture into a video, and pasting them on a Caucasian female who was educated at a posh boarding school, is not only strange, but also unfitting.

Fellow musician Katy Perry also found herself in the line of fire recently, for her “Geisha inspired” performance at the American Music Awards. Perry wore the standard kimono, and sung in front of a Japanese looking garden and, while many shrugged it off as “performance”, others were not so pleased.

The Japanese American Citizens League called the performance an example of ‘a persistent strain on our culture that refuses to move beyond the stereotype of Asian women as exotic and subservient.’

Of course, celebrities with bright ideas and money to spend have been doing this for years. Gwen Stefani drew criticism for her use of the Harajuku Girls, way back in 2005. Comedian Margaret Cho, while critical of Stefani, said ‘at least it is a measure of visibility, which is much better than invisibility.’

She may be right, but that begs the question, do cultures have to be stereotyped and exploited to gain prominence in the news?

Therein lies the issues present in videos and performances like Del Rey’s, Stefani’s and Perry’s. Whether intentional or not, they glorify and stereotype certain aspects of an entire culture, leaving the traditions, customs and histories of those items by the way side, and even forgetting other elements.

While I don’t find these ladies’ culture appropriation personally offensive, I can see how easily the references can be taken out of context and used as props. There is a line between wearing a sombrero and a fake moustache to a Halloween party, and drawing tear drops on your face for a music video that will be seen by thousands of people across the globe, and Lana Del Rey definitely crossed it.
[Image Credit]

4 thoughts on “cultural appropriation and lana del rey’s tropico

  1. This is no more offensive than Cindy Sherman’s appropriation of feminine iconographic imagery, I think people’s perceptions of what constitutes art and the differences between art and real life are too rigid. To see artistic explorations of culture and appropriation (in terms of fine art) as forward thinking and progressive, but slam pop culture portrayals such as this as being racist, is contradictory and narrow minded political correctness gone mad. If this was a photographic series by some respected European artist, it would not be considered racist or edgy at all, and I don’t think it necissarily crosses a line or perpetuates any negative stereotype other than being hyped up simply due to the fact that this is mass media imagery and not fine art. Art is expression, and art is everywhere in our lives not just on museum walls, wooden plinths and behind glass. I think that to have double standards on what we feel comfortable exploring as art, but shy away from in our real lives is ridiculous and weak. There is a big difference between stereotypes and racism.  I’m curious to know whether you find portrayals of outsiders within an alien culture such as those in lost in translation or mystery train as racist, stereotypical, accurate or other. Please reply I enjoyed reading your post and don’t mean to offend you in any way with my rant!

  2. I praise 95% of this article, but I was very disappointed with, “There’s a line between a mistache and Sombrero & drawing teardrops on your face”. What most people of Caucasian descent fail to see is that portraying a culture for laughs/attention is NEVER okay. By dressing up as “a Mexican” for Halloween, you are limiting the people of this (coincidentally MY) ethnicity to a certain look, and seeing nothing past it. Although our race is a big part of who we are as humans, it should never be the sole defining aspect of our capabilities or personalities. Also, I still fail to understand how another culture can be reduced down to a comical garment simply because it’s not your own?…

  3. I just want to say that technically she wasn’t “educated at a posh boarding school. She went to a boarding school to get treatment alcohol abuse when she was 14. I’m not saying this to detract from the article’s message but it seems odd that you put it like that.

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