Musicians engaging in cultural appropriation was a hot topic in 2014—partially due to the fact that, over the past year, the incremental whitewashing of hip-hop on the national level reached new heights, but also because the internet provides a way for those who feel strongly about such issues to raise their voices. While making the promo rounds for her new solo single, "Spark the Fire," Gwen Stefani (whose No Doubt was caught in a firestorm for appropriating Native American culture in the video for their 2012 single, "Looking Hot") was asked by TIME to comment on the offensiveness of the "Harajuku Girls" campaign attached to her 2004 solo album, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. "There's always going to be two sides to everything," Stefani callously replied. "You can look at it from a negative point of view if you want to, but get off my cloud."
These are eight artists who, over the past year, dipped their toes into cultural imagery that wasn't theirs and were faced with accusations of cultural insensitivity and appropriation. They may or may not learn from their mistakes, but their mistakes deserve to be documented nonetheless.
Canadian pop star Avril Lavigne 's 2014 wasn't great: there was a very embarrassing, arguably overpriced meet-and-greet photoshoot session with Brazilian fans that went viral, and earlier this month she asked fans to "keep me in your prayers" after disclosing she was suffering from "health issues." Before either of these unfortunate events, though, came the "Hello Kitty" video, a clip for a single taken from last year's self-titled LP that rivaled Stefani's "Harajuku Girls" era in its egregious appropriation of Japanese culture.
Lavigne, like Stefani before her, claimed it wasn't so much about appropriation and more about appreciation. "RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!!" she said in a tweet. "I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video."
Katy Perry has never shied away from controversy. At the tail end of 2013, she raised ire with quite a few people when she donned full geisha-inspired clothing at that year's American Music Awards—and her 2014 wasn't much better. There was the video for Prism single "Dark Horse," which featured Perry outfitted in Egyptian garb and a grill; the Bad Grandpa-aping "Birthday" clip, which carried some anti-Semitic undertones in Perry's depiction of a hired party entertainer; and the costume designs for her Prismatic Tour dancers that, in the words of Jezebel's Callie Beusman, "[really did] look like yet another attempt to commodify stereotyped black female sexuality."
Curiously, University of Chicago's Professor of Egyptology Robert K. Ritner referred to the video as "very wonderful" in a TIME interview ("Whoever put this together actually knew something about the myth of Cleopatra") but regardless, Perry was eventually confronted about her tendency to play cultural dress-up. I guess I'll stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that's it," Perry flippantly remarked in Rolling Stone when asked about these instances. "I know that's a quote that's gonna come to fuck me in the ass, but can't you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don't know."
Nantucket-born ukelele-pop breakout Meghan Trainor's über-ubiquitous single "All About That Bass" was, on the surface, a body-positive anthem railing against society's attempts to mold women into stick figure silicone Barbie dolls. The video, however, found Trainor stepping into a trap similar to other artists on this list, taking on an Iggy Azalea-esque vocal affectation and surrounding herself around a group of dancers largely comprised of women of color.
"When Trainor calls attention to the size of her butt and calls it a booty, we're supposed to laud her as being body positive and a strong feminist," blogger/author Jenny Trout wrote on her website this past July, summing up the problems with the lyrics and video of "All About That Bass." "But she can't 'bring booty back,' because it was never used to stereotype her to begin with." On the whole, Trainor represented a drop in the bucket in a year where everyone, regardless of veracity, claimed agency in "bringing booty back."
One-time Katy Perry enemy Lily Allen ended 2013 somewhat controversially with her "Hard Out Here" video; the clip for the Sheezus single featured Allen surrounded by women of color as back-up dancers, accompanied by lyrics such as Don't need to shake my ass for you 'cause I've got a brain. Allen eventually issued a clarification, but in 2014 she made headlines again when she lip-synched Beyoncé's "Drunk In Love" at London nightclub G-A-Y, decked out in a Bey-looking wig and attire similar to what the Queen wears in the "Drunk In Love" video. Allen attempted to set the record straight early on—it wasn't minstrelsy, it was just for fun—but some, like the Roots' Questlove, weren't buying it.
"so Lily Allen is our cultural critic now?," Questlove snarked in a since-deleted tweet. "she'll soon be op-ed'ing for @EBONYMag no?" For what it's worth, Allen attempted to set the record straight directly with Quest: "I think you're being unfair. I love her and I love my fans who loved this performance, I wasn't critiquing , at all."
One of Taylor Swift's most notable qualities as a public persona is remaining very likable and neutral—which is why it was very curious, indeed, that she found herself in Lily Allen's shoes after releasing the video for "Shake It Off," the first single from her latest LP, 1989. The fairly unremarkable, Gap advertisement-esque clip featured a scene in which Swift dances alongside ass-shaking dancers of varying skin tones; people were not amused. "haven't watched the taylor swift video and I don't need to watch it to tell you that it's inherently offensive and ultimately harmful," Earl Sweatshirt responded in a series of tweets. "perpetuating black stereotypes to the same demographic of white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture...for instance, those of you who are afraid of black people but love that in 2014 it's ok for you to be trill or twerk or say nigga."
Director Mark Romanek, who lensed the clip along with classic videos for Nine Inch Nails and Michael Jackson, responded to the allegations in an interview with Vulture: "[Earl Sweatshirt] stated clearly that he hadn't seen the video and didn't even intend to watch it. So, respectfully, that sort of invalidates his observations from the get-go...it's a satirical piece. It's playing with a whole range of music-video tropes and clichés and stereotypes."
It has become clear that, at this point, Miley Cyrus is someone who truly does not give a fuck about what people think. She was lambasted quite publicly for her notorious performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards—"Cyrus is annexing working-class black 'ratchet' culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention," wrote music critic Jody Rosen for New York at the time—and although she largely stayed out of the musical limelight in 2014, the above post (as well as one other) on her otherwise amusingly goofy Instagram quite literally takes Kim Kardashian's internet-breaking posterior and places it on Miley's. It suggests that, if she's heard the criticism she's received for appropriating body types of women (and men) of color, she's not paying it much mind just yet.
"It's obviously based off of real events," FADER cover star Sky Ferreira said in a behind-the-scenes video documenting the making of the Grant Singer-helmed clip for Night Time, My Time single "I Blame Myself." The "real events" she was referring to was her and boyfriend/DIIV frontman Zachary Cole Smith's late 2013 drug arrest in upstate New York, but the "I Blame Myself" clip ended up drawing a different type of controversy: depictions of Ferreira as the leader of a gang of men of color drew accusations of racism and appropriation.
"Should I consciously only cast white dancers for now on?," Ferreira said in a Facebook post defending herself and the video. "If I'm racist does that mean you're pro-segregation?!...Please do research before you make such shitty accusations about people."