Orientalism in Modern Music

Orientalism in Western pop culture has always been very prevalent. In movies such as Aladdin, Mulan, and Indiana Jones, as well as several tv shows, other cultures are crudely and unfairly depicted. I believe with the rise in asian representation in movies in tv, however, this issue is finally starting to get better. One area of entertainment, on the other hand, seems to get away these Eastern interpretations with ease. This is the music industry.

Musicians like Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and several other pop stars unapologetically put out music and music videos that are full of orientalism. Take Katy Perry’s music video for “Dark Horse”. It is full of exaggerated asian and egyptian clothing and imagery. Nicki Minaj’s video for “Chun-Li” can’t even get past the title before it reveals its orientalism. Once you start actually watching the video, it’s just her talking in english with Chinese subtitles lazily plastered along the bottom of the screen. The only significance Chun Li has is that it was a character in the video game Street Fighter. I could keep naming these music videos (Post Malone’s “Rockstar,” Coldplay’s “Princess of China,” etc…)

There’s something about the music industry that has always seemed to have an immunity towards backlash. Only in very extreme cases of racism, sexism, or homophobia are artists ever called out on their behaviour. As we are starting to usher in a new era of tolerance in pop culture, I believe this issue needs to be addressed.

4 thoughts on “Orientalism in Modern Music

  1. Your point is well-taken, Spencer. I would say music — and maybe comedy — gets away with way more. I sometimes think that people believe short, fleeting images — like those in the videos you mention — are meaningless. But it all, as Said would say, contributes to the “repository” of stereotypes. They build on each other.

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  2. Josephine D

    Hi Spencer!
    Your post brings up such a great point that I never thought of before! It does seem like music can get away with so much more than other forms of media. For example, even though there are some pretty serious accusations against Michael Jackson of child sexual abuse, I still hear his music all the time on the radio and hear people playing and dancing to it without any qualms. In Great Britain they stopped playing his music on the radio after the documentary Leaving Neverland, which described the alleged abuse very graphically, came out, but that only caused Jackson’s album sales and the streaming of his songs to go up! (https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/michael-jackson-album-charts-leaving-neverland-child-sex-allegations-a8815081.html) People just did not care, which makes me kind of… grossed out by humanity. Obviously, this is a complicated case, because the allegations were never proven, but I think it still shows how relatively unassailable musicians are, especially the “greats.” Initially I thought this might be because many people have more personal, emotional connections to music than to other forms of media and so get especially defensive about their favorite musicians (I mean, it is very likely that many people danced to a Michael Jackson song at their wedding, but few, if any, watched an episode of The Cosby Show at their wedding). However, in regards to problematic content in songs and music videos as opposed to the bad behavior of musicians themselves, I also like Mr. Heidkamp’s theory that music’s lyrics go by so quickly it is easy for people to dismiss and forget offensive things about them.

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  3. Zack T

    This is a really good point. I feel like the music industry especially has a magnitude of artists that keep attention by being provocative and offensive. Take Eminem for example. A large reason he became so popular was because how many people were outraged by the profanity and gruesomeness of his raps. He had lawsuits all the time because of his lyrics.

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  4. Mira A.

    This post was very eye opening and revealed many things that have never once crossed my mind. Your point about Katy Perry specifically stood out to me. I remember going to her concert as a kid and being absolutely amazed by the “Dark Horse” performance. The entire performance was filled with “orientalism”, yet I never thought anything of it until reading this post of yours. I remember thinking that the whole performance was so creative and fun to watch, while it was also completely inappropriate and a misinterpretation and wrongful representation of another culture. Artists like Katy Perry get away with these types of acts without any backlash because it is considered art or acting, when really it is portraying inappropriate messages to kids and adults everyday. Thank you for this amazing post Spencer!

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