(I posted this a week and a half ago, it seems more relevant now)
All the talk about Miley Cyrus and her recent music has gotten me thinking a lot about cultural appropriation.
What exactly is cultural appropriation? Is it any use of cultural idioms not your own? Is writing Haiku in English appropriating Japanese cultural traditions? Is Miles Davis' Sketches Of Spain a fusion of jazz with Spanish folk music or a ripoff (and does it matter that the key tune, Concierto di Aranjuez was written only a few decades before the album)? Is it appropriation for a black person to get a Kanji tattoo? (http://yourfaveisproblematic.tumblr.com/ argues yes)
I'm torn between two extremes on this issue. People should have a say in how their culture is presented. If someone outside that culture tries to use that, they should respect the tradition. Performing in cultural drag (whether blackface, redface or yellowface) is shameful.
On the other hand, we are a multicultural world. Who am I to argue whether Miley genuinely likes hip hop? Yeah, it sucks that Eminem is more popular than black Detroit rappers, but is it really his fault?
On the other hand, there are artists who take the art of other cultures and "make them their own" - occasionally sparking accusations of diluting the original. The Beatles covered Motown and Chuck Berry, but few would say they "sanitized" them, nor did they put on "black" voices. (Their understanding of Indian music was a little more problematic) As well, many music styles associated with different cultures - from soul to reggae to klezmer - are not "pure" in any sense of the word, but a carefully evolved melange of styles.
Which brings me to Elvis. Forgive me, but I love Elvis. The standard view is that Elvis at best sanitized and at worst stole from black music, but I think that's unfair. Elvis was a musical sponge, borrowing from R&B, country, pop and even opera. Most memorable musicians (Prince, David Bowie, ?uestlove and Joni Mitchell to name a few) are musical magpies.
Elvis' most famous song, "Hound Dog," was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton, a black singer. The original lyrics were a serious dis of an unfaithful man. So Elvis stole the song and sanitized it. Case closed?
Not quite. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hound_Dog… Elvis' version was inspired by another (white) singer who sped up the song and changed the lyrics. Of course, "Hound Dog" was written for Thornton by two white guys, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It gets even murkier: when recording the song, Thornton originally sang in a smooth croon. Leiber tried to get her to sing it rougher and sexier - in a word, "blacker."
So again, I have mixed feelings about this issue. I think what bothers people about Miley's hip hop stance is that she appears to be using it as an excuse to act "wild." Adopting another culture as a form of "slumming" is definitely problematic.
Or maybe I'm wrong. I focused on music because that (along with fashion) are the most contentious forms of cultural appropriation (few people accused Guillermo Del Toro of stealing Japanese culture for Pacific Rim). But I think musical styles blend so easily that cultures are bound to mix.
Or am I way off here?