A café opened in my neighborhood a few years ago that I just couldn’t figure out. The trouble wasn’t the menu, but the decor: The interior was a gaily colored hodgepodge of Buddha busts, paper lanterns, pretty vases, and posters of mighty waves and long-tongued dragons; the place was a kitschy riot of Chinese and East Asian motifs. Yet I didn’t see a single Asian employee. It took me several visits to realize that the design aesthetic wasn’t just some egregious example of cultural appropriation—though it probably was that, too—but a new manifestation of a phenomenon with much deeper roots.
Derived from the French word for Chinese, “Chinoiserie” is the name for a style of European decorative arts that brandish an Asian influence, the result of new trade relationships between the East and West in the 17th century. King Louis XV was a fan, as were the architects who decided that no English manor garden was complete without a pagoda. In any case, my neighborhood’s belated example of orientalism-in-action must’ve confused people because the establishment didn’t thrive. The space was eventually reborn as a sushi restaurant, and needless to say, the new proprietors didn’t do much redecorating.
I’m also relieved to no longer have to deal with complex questions of white privilege, cross-cultural exchange, and colonial power dynamics every time I want a decent latte. Yet these matters seem inescapable today, what with the Trump administration’s unabashed Islamophobia, the growth of nationalist and nativist movements throughout Europe, and the hardening of attitudes toward immigrants and refugees. Citizens of the so-called First World have never been freer to cast a fearful eye on whichever group they consider the “other.”
Meanwhile, in the cultural realm, there’s a renewed urgency to carve out new spaces for previously marginalized or unacknowledged voices and perspectives within a dominant industrial-entertainment-media apparatus that seems forever prone to missteps. In other words, it’s not an overreaction to question the wisdom of casting Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese anime heroine. Every day yields a new Twitter eruption on the topic of who can and can’t represent positions and experiences, especially when the work involves transgressing boundaries of race, gender, culture, and class.
All of this makes me feel even more confused and conflicted about a huge body of music that’s always fascinated me. This is music by (mostly) white people who eagerly adopted other modes that were ostensibly foreign, which automatically was a complicated move given the stew of African, Caribbean, and Latin influences in American popular music in the first place. Nevertheless, they drew and continue to draw from African, Asian, Arabic, East Indian, indigenous, and other traditions to create forgeries and mutations that positively revel in their inauthenticity.
I’m not about to defend all of it—I can’t. So much of it reeks of an old colonial mindset, one I continue to grapple with as a suburban kid who grew up in a placid corner of Canada, devoid of the cultural markers I perceived and envied in other lives (an illusion that’s proof of my white privilege, of course). Yet much of it is also the product of an age in which much of the West had a different attitude toward the rest of the globe. Looking back at the world music vogue sparked by Paul Simon, David Byrne, and Peter Gabriel in the ‘80s, it can seem like a wave of cultural appropriation run rampant, a self-congratulatory embrace of cultural otherness that’s as suspect as the exotica craze of the 1950s. But at its best, this music can be seen and heard as an open-hearted effort to dissolve the borders and boundaries that are so important to people right now.
Those good intentions and spirit of curiosity connect music as diverse as cheeseball tiki-lounge tunes, the cheeky ethnological forgery series of Holger Czukay and CAN, early American minimalism music—which was steeped in Indian raga, African percussion, and gamelan—and even The Rolling Stones’ dalliance with The Master Musicians of Jajouka. In recent years, newer acts such as Goat, Beirut, Dengue Fever, Vampire Weekend, and Dirty Projectors have incurred charges of appropriation for stepping outside of their own original cultural domains to investigate and play around in others. Such engagement is bound to be problematic on several levels, yet it deserves a reaction other than knee-jerk dismissal. So does the music we get when—to borrow a favorite title for post-grad courses on postcolonial legacies—the empire looks back: when Western pop modes become absorbed and transformed (though that’s another playlist). As confusing as it may be, this music elicits emotions and sensations other than the hate and fear that are otherwise so rife in our moment.