Gwen Stefani scored hit after hit nearly twenty years ago with songs from her albums Love. Angel. Music. Baby., but has received increasing criticism over the years for being one of her major sources of inspiration at the time. That she was inspired by the Japanese clothing style Harajuku leads to conversations about cultural appropriation. A recent interview has revived the discussion.
“I’m Japanese,” says 53-year-old Stefani several times to the American magazine Lure when asked about the trouble. The singer is not: her father is Italian-American and her mother Irish-American. But the singer says it feels like she really is a little Japanese.
LAMB released in 2004. It is the first solo album by Stefani, who was previously part of the band No Doubt. The album contains hits such as What are you waiting for?, Rich girl and Hollaback girl and the reviewers are quite positive about the pop album. But the adornment of the rocks, Stefani’s entourage and the perfume line that is emerging are also raising eyebrows.
Stefani has been heavily influenced by Harajuku culture – or, say critics, abused the culture to make money and thus appropriate the culture. Harajuku is a neighborhood in Tokyo and is known worldwide as a major fashion spot. Harajuku’s colorful street art and vibrant fashion scene also fascinated Stefani, who first learned about it through her father’s business trips and later went there herself.
“That’s how Japan influenced me. It’s a culture so steeped in tradition and so futuristic at the same time. There’s room for art, detail and discipline: I found it fascinating,” Stefani says of the culture. “And when I went there, it became clear to me: I am Japanese without knowing it.”
Is it inspiration or is it stealing?
In recent years, discussions of cultural appropriation have become increasingly frequent. The website of Asian Raisins, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of racism and fighting prejudice, explains why cultural appropriation is problematic. “The stories and histories of these cultures are ignored and not told, causing people to believe negative stereotypes created by white people.”
In the clips, during the tour and in her own clothing style, Stefani tries to incorporate as much as possible from the Harajuku culture. In addition, she is always accompanied by four Japanese and American-Japanese dancers named after her album. The dancers do not speak in interviews and cannot be heard in the music, but they are the inspiration for the perfume line that Stefani later publishes.
“If you join What are you waiting for? if you listen between the lines, you notice that the song is about someone who is a fan of Japan. I’m singing that I have to do well (in my career, ed.) so I can go back to Japan,’ said Stefani in an interview with Paper Magazine. Because of that interview, the discussion about the singer’s ‘inspiration’ flares up again: Is it inspiration or is it stealing?
“If we didn’t exchange our cultures, we wouldn’t have known all the beauty we know now. We learn from each other, we share things with each other, and we grow through each other. Making rules about it only leads to greater differences,” says Stefani about the fierce criticism of comedian Margaret Cho in 2006. According to Cho, the singer used her backup dancers as puppets.
Journalist would have misunderstood Stefani
Stefani has not regretted her choices: according to the singer Love. Angel. Music. Baby, with Harajuku as a source of inspiration, an interesting experiment. “It was a great time, a very creative time. It feels like a very creative project to me.”
According to a spokesperson for Stefani, the interviewer understood Lure the singer was wrong when she said she was Japanese, even though she repeated it several times. The spokesman would not say what her point was. Stefani herself hasn’t returned to it and doesn’t seem aware of any damage. “It is important that we are inspired by other cultures, because if we don’t, the distance between people will only grow.”