January 30th, 2016
Yesterday was very interesting; not for reasons one might expect. Coldplay released their much-awaited music video & collaboration with Beyoncé, entitled Hymn to the Weekend. Shot entirely in Mumbai, by a director of Indian descent, Ben Mor. Who on his first opportunity to showcase his heritage, did so in ways that left many to question it.
Both with good reason, and rightful skepticism.
Yet, what surprised me were the reactions. Some were typical, like the Beyhivé’s insistence that any word spoken against Beyoncé requires an immediate clapback. Quick, forceful, and often completely childishly. What flabbergasted me were the rather eloquent and oft times luminous voices when it came to this particular subject, that chose silence or sitting it out, rather than engage. This is a valid response, given the stans, with little regard for anyone they perceive to be “coming for their Queen.”
Et tu, Beyoncé?!?
It is for that reason, that monitoring the situation as it developed was pained. Paying close attention to those who were initiating the conversation, their perceptions, critiques, and grievances. The focus of this ire, however played out in a typical way. Blame Beyoncé. While almost unilaterally ignoring the progenitors of the song & video in the first place. That seemed wholly unfair, however, most cultural appropriation conversations (or those of recent memory) have more to do with attire. The choice & consent of Beyoncé to appear as a fictive Bollywood star was simultaneously cinematic and surreal.
When I did a search, immediately after the song release it was the usual PR flack, centering & praising Bey for her goddess qualities, her stunning appearance, her Bollywood attire, etc… while on Twitter the only reason the video even caught my eye was the cauldron of conversation around the appropriative nature of the whole enterprise. So, naturally, a WoC, a black woman, an African-American, embodying beyond an actual Bollywood star who was in the video for a scant 8 seconds garnering all the praise was disproportionate. That should be infuriating, to everyone.
What went almost without comment or critique was both the director, and the band. Which struck me as a divide-and-conquer paradigm, while absolving both the patriarchy and white supremacy. Not a very intersectional or even intentional feminist approach. At its core the video, taking place during Holi, a religious festival held in India, serves as the backdrop to this anthemic tune about having fun for the weekend. That seems rather at odds to me with what could be considered appreciation.
Is the appropriation more or less insulting when done by the group whose culture it represents? Does the director, who I’m to believe grew up in the UK, makes music videos, and also commercials for leading global enterprises, and would obviously be quite familiar in what the dominant culture wants. What value do we place on music videos as a whole? Are they art or commerce? Or both?
Or representation and activism through a consumerist lens? That always seems to be wholly counter-productive.
None of these nuances were on display, or were lost in the onslaught of noise that accompanied concerned voices, trolling stans, and people who were quick to derail the conversation instead of propelling it. There were a few exceptions, and people who took the time to both create a discourse, and to listen actively to what was being said.
The Holi festival has further cultural significance. It is the festive day to end and rid oneself of past errors, to end conflicts by meeting others, a day to forget and forgive. People pay or forgive debts, as well as deal anew with those in their lives. Holi also marks the start of spring, and for many the start of the new year. (via Holi | Wikipedia)
Further to this point, that seems to make the video embody somewhat of a strange juxtaposition. A feel good anthem about the weekend overlaid onto a religious experience about forgiveness. A white band performing during a religious festival, while kids start breakdancing in the middle of it. So one would think, it is a confluence, a participation, a celebration and embrace the seemingly one-sided give & take of a globally diverse culture? Well, not exactly. Especially not if those kids are performing for the cameras, as portrayed, representing an oppressed minority in a culture that defaults to a pervasive caste system. While probably being paid nothing to perform minstrelesque for the over-represented and consumptive white gaze.
So the voices that remained silent, that perplexed me were the ones who just finished a round of screaming to the rafters about a smiling slave cooking a birthday cake for George Washington. Who on matters of racial appropriation, erasure, or harmful stereotypes & tropes will move heaven and earth to start a movement but will gladly give a pass or opt-out when it comes to the more complex dynamic of what to do when something like Beyoncé appearing in appropriative attire, and mimicking cultures not her own, happens. How can they, without attention policing their intent, ignore such an important dialog that is central to these important themes for them?
How can they not pushback against the colonized thinking, without necessarily seeming to be so nonchalant about the power such visualizations have on the
If you need someone to mansplain/whitesplain to you the alternate theory:
Copying is only a compliment. It’s an acknowledgment from one human to another that, “Hey, this is awesome. You’re doing something right.”
This kind of nonsense can only be espoused as rational thought by a white man living on stolen land, in a country built on the enslavement & exploitation of brown people. That could not & would not exist except for those two previous things. It is one long whinge in the tune of “Why Can’t We All Get Along” and so politically naïve as to erase all nuance, every power structure, and over-simplify it in your hegemonic way. To benefit himself, and others like him in power. As if to say, get over it. Who exactly is “doing something right?” The person being stolen & erased? It seems abusive to invoke no publicity is bad publicity here when speaking of someone’s faith and representation in a country that fought very hard to unleash itself from the colonial grasp of the British Empire.
Overly reductive even to imagine that a religious festival would make for some rather stunning visuals, and not let it speak to the more, that seems almost willfully neglectful. The first thing that comes to my mind when thinking about religious symbolism within a music video was the overtly provocative “Like A Prayer” which borrowed very heavily from African-American Gospel both sonically and visually. Then managed to make a video about racism, that is overtly religious in its tone & delivery. While somehow eliding over seeming appropriative. The whole things wrapped as it was in the illusion of having been but a dream or dramatization for the stage, and we its audience. But powerful images of a woman, named Madonna, in a church with stigmata, dancing in a lingerie dress in front of burning crosses, a symbol of the KKK and obiously meant to get a rise out of its audience. This is an iconic moment in music video history, and dovetailed with Madonna & Pepsi partnering around this very song.
There was also intense backlash in 1989, as religious groups and evangelicals were in their hour of power. They in a sense created the environment that would make a Madonna a global sensation seem possible. For everything she did and stood for was diametrically opposed to their beliefs. Without being the transgressive sort, borrowing heavily from cultures not specifically her own (Gay, African-American, Latinx) and making them wholly available to white suburban kids for their consumption and participation in, then she’d not have seemed progressive.
On this same person’s blog (quoted above_ is a screed about Gay Marriage and how it oppresses religious liberty. So naturally a lot of salt had to be spread to take this as anything other than willful erasure through ‘philosophical’ means and rational thought only afforded a disciple of colonial patriarchal Western school of thought. It is to be expected. But makes me wonder why this video didn’t generate more backlash. Except to look at the twin strains of the irrelevancy of music videos in general and the Indian minority not being respected enough to take any criticisms they have as being relevant. This saddens me on both accounts.
All for naught
So to close, what made this entire thing so unbearable to watch across social media is how it played out with Beyonce as the lightning rod. While seemingly absolving Coldplay & Ben Mor of any responsibility. While Ben Mor’s Indian heritage may seem to give him a pass as him wanting to celebrate his cultural inheritance, if he has done so in service to a very white supremacist paradigm, that centers, quite literally, white men at the center of a cultural phenomena as being enlightened & enjoyable, even ‘diverse,’ then I’m not sure if this isn’t a minstrel show put on for the benefit of selling a few more downloads on iTunes.
We should be very critical of such pop culture exploitations of any religious heritage, and this coming from a lifelong atheist (who is not anti-theist), and find this a repulsive as the 1960s exploitation of the same themes under the guise of pandering enlightenment that was popular when the Beatles tried this same thing. The difference there is you have them trying to express it through their music, and incorporating what they learned during their visits to the ashrams into not only a visual but sonic reference. Without which we wouldn’t have the category of “World Music” to which they gave birth, or the rise of Ravi Shankar and others to global recognition. The same can not be said for such vapid entries like this music video. Featuring and basking in their seeming diverse narrative which basically features them blessing the country of India with their wonderful travel advertisement disguised as tourist porn.
It was Hitchcock who said something to the effect that if you shoot a film in a city you have to start with the hackneyed shots, you have to feature the Statue of Liberty for NYC, etc…and that is true, to set the tone and location. So that people will readily know, and your audience is drawn in. But to then not have some sort of exposition afterwards that might challenge that, or to in some way enlarge upon what is so easily acquired is a cinematic sin. It would have been a better experience if we got some reverence for the traditional holiday and some cultural context.
A music video is an art form, a thorougly modern one that is probably past its heyday, but still can be seen as a legitimate in itself and not just as an advertisement to sell more product. It is that fundamentally, but when you employ it to tell a story, or to challenge narratives, or experimentally to create art you can transcend these rather populous notions that it simply has to be a feel-good exercise in advertising and both culturally and morally bankrupt.
Of course no one believes that music videos can or should stand for anything these days, in a world saturated with multiple channels and streams of media of every type or kind imaginable. All remixed, revised, edited to fill our yawning chasm of desire for things to distract and commodify our attention into something that can be readily purchased & downloaded in a few clicks. Absolving us in the process from any critical thinking at all. It is best if we don’t lean too closely over the abyss that is our tabloid culture that is only interested in sensationalizing and straining our emotions, be that outrage or ebullience.