2005年07月13日 水曜日

Gwen Stefani's Neverland Nouveau

by Mizuko Ito



A student from my Japanese Popular Culture class last term has a provocative rant about Gwen Stefani's chanponizing Love. Angel. Music. Baby. album.

"Na na na na na..."

Thus opens the song "If I Was A Rich Girl" on Gwen Stefani's solo album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. Artlessness and gratuitious Fiddler on the Roof-ripping off aside, Stefani (assuming she had anything to do with writing her own lyrics) touches, if shallowly, on the Japanese Pop movement (nouveau-of-the-moment). And it may be fitting that her addressing it is shallow, because it itself may not be much deeper than Stefani's art.

Obvious from the lyrics of "If I Was A Rich Girl" is an extraordinary, even caricatured, materialism that is of obvious Anglo/Western/American/etc. origin, but of Japanese tint given her reliance on J-Pop references to move the narrative of the song forward. There is an eagerness to traffic in material culture and not in ideas. There really is no idea present other than blind consumerism -- which is not an indictment of any sort. It seems rather a bland statement of a done-a-million-times reality. A wealthy and blase existence. One might compare the "mind in the sky" lifestyle of the proverbial celebrity-du-jour with the alleged mind-in-the-skyness of Japanese Pop youth culture.

I almost want to say that there is a touch of wanting to "Transcend the Hellish City of Los Angeles" into "A Purer Material Existence." The conflation of Japan, especially Harajuku, with the marketing symbolism of Vivienne Westwood perhaps speaks of and to the obvious: Gwen Stefani is conceptually constructing the omnibus of supermodern kawaii, J-Pop, etc., as a more idealized version of the shallow and material LA -- a cleaner one, and cuter, too.

Remember that this is Gwen Stefani, currently-ex-punk rock chick from The O.C., epicenter of hyperemotionalized rock 'n roll. How better to transcend whiney, permabaked, permabuzzed, permabored Orange County (the most Republican county in America) than to move to LA to be even more permamessedup, more materialistic, etc.? And then, all that's left is to leave the stratosphere and arrive in a hyperconceptualized Japanese Island In The Sky Of Supreme Consumerism. Never mind that it's actually a few hundred miles offshore China. Stefani would never reference China or the rest of East Asia as an epicenter of consumerist hyperevolution, even if it in some sense is. It is a semi-imaginary Japan which interests her.

The lyrics of the song "Harajuku Girls" make this trend more strikingly obvious. Here it is slapped out in front of the listener with no pretense of artistic veil: "Style detached from content / A fatal attraction to cuteness / Style is style / Fashion is fashion / Girl, you got style." There is a giddiness in the lyrics, a sense that "the world is spinning out to infinity, so indulge now," especially given the use of the concept of Shakespearean fatal attraction. Romeo and Juliet? Who is the Romeo and who the Juliet? Maybe it doesn't matter. More to the point may be fashion-as-poison, an addiction. Poison kills Romeo and a knife Juliet, but they both die. The lyrics and music of the whole song are like a steady march on to the end. A steady march that begins in LA and ends on the streets of Harajuku. And then it's over. If youth is the international currency she sings about vis-a-vis references to the Girls of Harajuku, and she's approaching 36, it may "be" a symbolic end. And if that is true, which given the also youthful culture of Los Angeles, Stefani is almost fingering Japan as the destination for those who "outgrow" LA, a foreign place where "We Americans" can be young forever. A land of total fashion fantasy. Of total fantasy, period.

I am taking a lot of license with my deconstruction, but my central point is that Stefani's music and lyrics, whether or not she had much of a hand in them, symbolically construct Japan as a sort of Neverland Nouveau, an LA that is even more LA than LA. Now here is the question: do "Americans" agree? I can't profess to know.

Posted by Mizuko Ito at 2005年07月13日 12:08

1- Ms. Obu

I totally agree with this. Someone should actually take Ms. Stefani to Harajuku and burst her asian fantasy bubble. It's very preteen, "forever 21". Not at all edgy or urban with the exception of the girls playing dress-up in fake fangs or baby doll costumes. Of those that I saw, who were admittedly interesting to look at, almost all were having their pictures taken by white male tourists. It was depressing at best.

2- Ukyo

You arraign Ms Stefani for "bland consumerism" - yet you seem to be forgetting something, she is, aftereall a shrewd business woman looking to a way to create money. You also forget that for consumerism to occur, there must be a seller as well as a buyer, and in some ways I cannot help but think that somewhere behind Ms Stefani the seller is Japan itself.

As a country Japan seems to project a certain image of itself to the outside world, like many other foreign countries, and some commercial ventures exploit this, not forgetting of course that clichés and stereotypes often do have a vague basis in reality, (otherwise how do you explain their existence?). How many Japanese pop stars have exploited American culture for similar ends? I think that Ms Stefani merely consciously parodies this, as many people are wont to do when describing the culture of another country (e.g. the crass, obese, flag-waving, redneck American, hugging an outsize soda bucket in one beefy paw).

Also you condemn her for valuing the "material" over other things, yet in a way that is an intellectual conceit to assume that the theoretical or philosophical is somehow nobler and therefore possessing of some innate or superior value. Personally I'd rather have a Gwen Stefani CD as opposed to something like the imperialistic ideology which led Japan into one of its most shameful moments in history.

In addition you assumed that your Japanese nationality gave you the right to have the last word on the situation. Whilst it might have been useful, how can you condemn her for her supposed ignorance of Harajuku culture when by the same measure you yourself have not been a Harajuku girl? Also the last paragraph appeared rather, well, random. Where on earth did these references to Romeo and Juliet come from?

I'd like to finish by quoting a few lines from her much maligned song:

"Just an American girl, in the Tokyo streets"

"A subculture in a kaleidoscope of fashion"

“Where the catwalk got its claws”

“All you fashion know-it-alls”

(There are many more that support my points.)

Simply put it was fashion and purely fashion that led the chic Ms Stefani to be attracted to the subculture in the first place. She is just a pop star singing about a Japanese fashion she likes, (as she has stated in numerous interviews) and if you can’t see the compliment in that or continue to insist that there is some sinister underbelly in her bubblegum world, then perhaps you should re-acquaint yourself with American culture. She is in many ways similar to anime otaku – why hate her so much? Could it be that far from making you blue, her lyrics have perhaps made you the tiniest bit green instead? (and I don’t mean nauseous).

Also, what does the fact that the OC is predominantly Republican have to do with anything? For a person with a website devoted almost entirely to dealing with prejudices of a sort, you seem to be rather prejudiced yourself. If somebody were to make a sweping statement based on a stereotype (as you condemn Ms Stefani of doing) then backing it up with something like "a lot of Japanese live there" in casual brackets you'd be outraged. It seems to me that it is alright to make sly jokes and prods once more, as long as the victims are white Americans.

3- Mizuko Ito

Thanks for your interesting and opinionated comments Ukyo.

Just to clarify - this is a multi-author weblog and this particular entry was authored by an American student in one of my classes at USC. I've tried to indicate this at the top of the relevant entries, but I know it is a bit confusing because they get posted in my name.

4- Ukyo

I didn't mean to sound overly critical, it's just that the sort of hypocrisy that the author displays is admittedly one of my pet peeves. Call me naive, but I'd like to live in a utopian, prejudice-free, multicultural society (or at least imagine that I do), so this tends to make my blood boil.

Strip away any clumsy identity politics (yes, I am aware that the student is an American) and try looking at the underlying ideology. Here’s (a hopefully neutral) example; somebody always treats blondes in a sensitive and caring manner, they make sure that their friends know this and that they share near identical opinions about the treatment of blondes. However, they also know that their friends dislike redheads for absolutely no reason whatsoever, and so casually seek to mock, ridicule and undermine them at every opportunity, because their kind treatment of the blondes somehow legitimizes this.

Also, I happen to be a something of a fan of Ms Stefani's music, and have lately been irritated by a rash of similarly vituperative (and in my opinion baseless) articles suddenly springing up overnight. I'm sorry to have sounded so forceful, but you did accidentally manage to push both of my buttons that time.

A side note here; I do know that this is a multi-author site and that the author in question was a student, it's just that I typed my previous entry in a hot-blooded flurry of insomnia and I'm not sure whether it's entirely clear that my comments were directed at a combination of both the author and yourself, as well as being more general and aimed at the mainly Japanese readers.

Finally I’d like to apologize if I accidentally ruffled anybody’s feathers, though the next time that you set an assignment, you might gently like to remind your students to conduct a balanced bit of research first, before finding an agenda or theme to push and then attempting to bend the subject around that (all the more relevant essays tend to be written the other way around).

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