Is there anything more simultaneously sad, embarrassing, offensive and deeply fascinating than the image of Katy Perry attempting to milly rock? No. No, there isn’t.
During her recent “Saturday Night Live” performance of “Bon Appetit” (which got thoroughly dragged by the internet), Perry stands, legs akimbo, beside the three members of the Migos, who have expressions ranging from boredom to confusion on their faces. She awkwardly bends her arms, waving them up and down in what must be the stiffest milly rock (or whatever it is she’s trying to do) on record. At one point, Perry attempts a lazy dab, smiles, then shrugs with a look that says, “I don’t even know?”
It’s glorious ― a perfect metaphor not only for this messy new era of the pop star’s career, but for the absurdity of white artists appropriating black culture at large for a buck.
Katy Perry is, in lots of ways, pop music’s queen of appropriation. Miley may have shown her ass during the promotion of the (misleadingly titled) “Bangerz,” but Perry has been admirably consistent in stealing and distorting everything from slicked-down baby hairs to Geisha style to the queer ballroom scene. The consistency of this habit is thanks to the fact that A) she doesn’t really seem to be all that self-aware about the criticism and B) she always gets away with it.
In 2013, after she performed in full, totally inaccurate Geisha drag at the American Music Awards, Perry came under fire for not only donning cultural dress that she didn’t understand but also using Asian women merely as props in her performance. Her response to the criticism in Rolling Stone was one that smacked of vague annoyance: “I guess I’ll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that’s it.”
“I know that’s a quote that’s gonna come to fuck me in the ass, but can’t you appreciate a culture?” she told the magazine. “I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don’t know.”
What Perry and many others don’t seem to get (despite the umpteen think pieces written on the subject) is the fact that appropriation is not the same as appreciation. Put simply: Appropriation takes without the permission of and without acknowledging those it takes from. Appreciation recognizes the culture, and participates in that culture on the terms and with the consent of those to whom the culture belongs.
As perplexing as this “Witness” era of Perry’s pop career has been ― with the album’s rapidly released singles “Chained to the Rhythm,” “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish” being churned out in the hopes that one of them will stick ― upon further reflection, it actually makes perfect sense.
“Chained to the Rhythm,” Perry’s first single from the album, which she announced as her foray into “purposeful pop,” debuted strongly but fell out of the Top 10 on Billboard far sooner than projected.
So then came “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish,” two singles that conspicuously rely on popular rappers (Migos and Nicki Minaj, respectively) to legitimize a less pop, more hip-hop sound, accompanied by several live performances in which Perry has awkwardly attempted to recreate black dance moves and style.
The thing is, skimming from black culture is a very delicate process. You can’t milly rock, dab and sing onstage with the Migos all at once without it all looking painfully inauthentic. This is what happens when you borrow so much from so many cultures, particularly black culture, that all that’s left to steal are tired tropes and cultural markers that just make you seem stale and dated.
At this point, one can’t even be offended at Perry’s subtle attempts at blackness with this new album. There’s something to be said, after all, for the tactic of not only appropriating black culture to sell records but to also generate outrage, conversation and interest in an otherwise uninteresting chapter of a pop star’s career.
We’re too tired to be mad at this point. Sometimes, you just have to laugh: