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    Just a girl

    Okay, I know that complaining about Salon‘s culture criticism is pointless, so this is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. Dead fish. But still, there’s something unusually dunderheaded about this whine about how Gwen Stefani and others don’t understand the Asian iconography they’re appropriating:

    They shadow her wherever she goes. They’re on the cover of the album, they appear behind her on the red carpet, she even dedicates a track, “Harajuku Girls,” to them. In interviews, they silently vogue in the background like living props; she, meanwhile, likes to pretend that they’re not real but only a figment of her imagination. They’re ever present in her videos and performances — swabbing the deck aboard the pirate ship, squatting gangsta style in a high school gym while pumping their butts up and down, simpering behind fluttering hands or bowing to Stefani. That’s right, bowing. Not even from the waist, but on the ground in a “we’re not worthy, we’re not worthy” pose. She’s taken Tokyo hipsters, sucked them dry of all their street cred, and turned them into China dolls. [Am I the only one who wants to blow groceries when people use words like hipsters and street cred with no irony?–SRK]

    Stefani fawns over harajuku style in her lyrics, but her appropriation of this subculture makes about as much sense as the Gap selling Anarchy T-shirts; she’s swallowed a subversive youth culture in Japan and barfed up another image of submissive giggling Asian women. While aping a style that’s suppose to be about individuality and personal expression, Stefani ends up being the only one who stands out.

    Sweetie? How ’bout you try this? Go to Harajuku. Watch the way Harajuku girls actually behave. You will see them acting just as giggly, catty, and coy around cute boys as teenaged girls anywhere else. They use the same helium voices as other good Japanese girls, too. In fact, you can think of it this way. Which of the following do you think Harajuku girls more aspire to be like?

    1. Gwen Stefani, who has millions of fans, makes millions of dollars, is fawned over by stylists and journalists, designs her own line of clothes, and used to screw Gavin Rossdale

    2. A leftish SF journalist who sulks that Asians aren’t being presented soulfully enough in pop culture and seems not to have been sassy enough to put a bigot in his place when he condescended to her

    Remember, Japan is a culture that really, seriously values surfaces. That’s not to say that Harajuku girls’ sense of style isn’t fun and invigorating, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s mostly a fashion thing and really isn’t about the sort of full-on punkish rebellion that it might be among teenagers in the West. (The really disaffected Japanese kids are either locking themselves in their rooms or attacking classmates with knives.) And there’s just as much insider conformity visible among Harajuku girls as there is in any other Japanese group; that some of them have rejected the larger exam-hell scheme their parents might like them to stick with doesn’t change that.

    Personally, I find Stefani’s new music and videos annoying. I think her use of her entourage is a rather witty way of making the same oddly-humble point Madonna made 15 years ago in the “Vogue” video, though: a star is a star because she’s surrounded by people whom she depends on, utterly, to help make her one. Of course Stefani ends up being the only one who stands out. Pop music thrives on groups of anonymous backing singers and dancers whose sole duty is to magnify the charisma of the headliner. I’m sure her four back-ups are at least being paid pretty well for the job they do, and it probably beats temping or meat packing.

    Making them speak only Japanese is a bit on the cute side (it’s not geisha-like, either, since geiko were trained in multiple art forms and expected to make intelligent conversation on whatever topics their clients raised). Then again, I can see how the effect might be ruined if Love and Angel were seen slouching around and saying things like, “Oh, wow. That guy over there? With the press pass and the hair in his eyes? I think I know him? Uh, from sophomore year at Oberlin? Before I became, you know, a performance artist?”

    6 Responses to “Just a girl”

    1. John says:

      “Sweetie? How ’bout you try this? Go to Harajuku. Watch the way Harajuku girls actually behave.”

      – Oh man, are you so right. When I first got to Japan, we used to stand on that pedestrian bridge that goes up over the intersection in front of the JR station and watch the show.

      “They use the same helium voices as other good Japanese girls, too.”

      – This was one of the funniest posts you’ve done, keep it up.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Thanks, man. If you ever come back to Japan the way you’ve threatened to, we’ll have to get tanked on one-cup sake and watch the fun.

    3. John says:

      One-cup? Next thing you’ll be suggesting we smoke Mild Sevens. Which reminds me of one of the truest quotes on Western inages of Japan I’ve seen (from Let’s Japan):

      “Rural in Japan is damn rural. It can get to be like those postcards you see of a guy in a rice field with an ox and bamboo hat that some mint tea drinking liberal will tell you is the REAL of Japan. Let me tell you, the real Japan is a 30-something guy with a deck of Mild Sevens and a One Cup spending a few hours in a pachinko parlour.”

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      What do you suggest to drink before climbing a pedestrian overpass to look at Harajuku kids–Lagavulin 20 and Nat Shermans? At least you can be confident that I will not be inviting you to play pachinko.

    5. John says:

      Actually, it sounds like…Suntory Time.

    6. FTG4! says:

      Free the Gwenihana Four! Visit the FTG4 website to show your support and download posters or buy t-shirts and mugs.

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