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Black Sky Thinking

This Is A Low: Blur, Asia & Cultural Appropriation
Sandra Song , February 26th, 2015 12:06

In claiming their new album The Magic Whip to be 'Asia-inspired', Blur have become the latest in a line of Western musicians to boil down the diverse cultures of the most populated region in the world into one nonsensical mishmash, says Sandra Song

Photograph courtesy of Yulia Grigoryeva/

My misgivings began when frontman Damon Albarn stated during Blur's press conference for their first album in over a decade, that The Magic Whip was somehow inspired by Asia as it was recorded on Asian soil - responding, "I don't know, but it does" when directly asked how the locale influenced the recording process. After all, when things like The Magic Whip, Gwen Stefani's Harajuku Girls and Phoenix's 'Entertainment' video appear, 'Asian-inspired' tends to be used as their catch-all descriptor - a way of indicating that the object in question is multiple Asian cultural tropes distilled into one convenient accessory for an adventurous tastemaker. And what's worse is that every post I've read about the album announcement thus far has framed the "Asian" angle as a way of helping Blur fit into a neat narrative trajectory of progress, an idea echoed again by Albarn himself when he says "seems like a long enough time for us to do something fresh".

It's hard to ignore that Albarn himself has a history of grabbing relevant 'inspiration' from other cultures, which is all well and good, except most of his interests tend to be very brief, cursory explorations of foreign cultures that already have a tendency to be objectified. And while I'm sure it's well-intentioned, especially when put in the context of his work with Oxfam, his forays into cultural tropes that are not his own always feel a bit fleeting, a removed interest that feels noncommittal, from his exploration of hip-hop culture with Gorillaz to 2002's Mali Music to 2011's Congolese-inspired benefit album Kinhasa One Two.

It's this tendency that's troublesome when put into the context of The Magic Whip [cover art below], which seems to revolve around a very reductive vision of "Asia" and its culture; a problem that haunted Western music long before the band members of Viet Cong were even born. After all, portraying Asian culture as a singular exotic entity plays into the idea that all Asians are the same - a convenient way of framing them as part of an interchangeable 'other' regardless of whether a particular person's heritage has roots in Korea's Silla kingdom or China's Szechuan province. It also tends to be the thing that some people think gives them license to ask questions about whether someone eats dog at home or yell 'ni hao' from across the street instead of a standard 'hello'.

And it's this grouping together that makes the tracklisting read like the itinerary of a 'nine-day tour through Asia' package holiday - the kind of surface-level exploration that shows off only the 'relevant highlights'. After all, Albarn & Co. lump together the entire continent with songs named things like 'My Terracotta Heart' (speculated to be a reference to Chinese terracotta soldiers) and 'Ong Ong' (the repetition of a common Singaporean surname) nestled comfortably next to one named 'Pyongyang' - a song written about his "impressions" of North Korea. Because even if my own family hadn't been torn apart by the Korean War, I think it would still feel strange to hear about Pyongyang from what is, frankly speaking, a tourist's point of view, let alone listen to a song detailing a well-known Western singer's brief perceptions of a place infamous for human rights violations suddenly transition to a jammy single that sees Albarn "dancing with [himself]".

Because for some reason, Blur seem to have forgotten that geographic proximity does not always mean cultural similarity, as exemplified by the fact that there are distinct and very obvious political, economic and social differences between Pyongyang and Singapore. However, all too often various Asian cultures end up being equated to each other, housed under the common notion that Chinese culture is synonymous with East Asia as a whole - something the band obviously buys into as indicated by their announcement of the album and its first single 'Go Out' at a Chinatown restaurant on a pan-Asian holiday they specifically referred to as "Chinese New Year".

And as such, it continues the trajectory set up by other 'well-meaning' artists who make it their job to become cultural ambassadors of this strange, inaccurate and cobbled-together vision they've assembled of what it means to be 'Asian'. Take Siouxsie and the Banshees' landmark 'Hong Kong Garden', a well-intentioned tribute to her favourite Chinese takeaway that mixes up aspects of several different Asian cultures, with lyrics referencing old customs "to sell your daughter" for Japanese currency and "a race of bodies small in size" next to lyrics about Anglicised chicken chow mein and chop suey, all on top of a trite, 'oriental' hook that catapulted the song to rock legend. Or David Bowie's Iggy Pop-co-penned 'China Girl' that was written about a Vietnamese woman named Kuelan Nguyen and uses another woman of Vietnamese descent in the music video - a video in which Bowie makes slanty-eye motions, stumbles into town just like a (Hindu) "sacred cow" and sees his little "China girl" in a traditional Thai headdress.

Because even the assumption that there is just one kind of Chinese culture is presumptive, as any visitor who ventures beyond Beijing or even bothered to follow the recent Hong Kong protests can attest to. It's an incredibly diverse country with 55 recognised ethnic minority groups spread across 23 provinces, five autonomous regions, four municipalities and two special administrative regions that all have different traditions, cultures and eras of history behind them. Even Hong Kong itself, which provided The Magic Whip's main 'cultural influence', is its own entity that has a well-documented rift with mainland China. It does not share happy cultural similarities with them, mostly due to the fact that it's arguably the most westernised political entity in Asia, still retaining an independent political system deeply influenced by its days as a British colony, a reality that's been exemplified by the recent protests.

However, what I'm mostly concerned about is that if the entire album follows the example of 'Go Out', the rest of the promotional material will continue to just be a mishmash hodgepodge that proliferates the idea that everything Oriental must be one and the same. After all, the video utilises the signature styles of 'quirky/cute' Japanese television to peddle a simplified Mandarin recipe for ice cream made in a kitchen decorated with too much pak choi and Lunar New Year paraphernalia (presumably to make it timely for the announcement). Most egregious though is the pointless inclusion of a silent, smiling hostess who just acts as a pleasant visual object throughout the entire video; how exactly does the image of an ordinary-looking Asian woman relate to a catchy Britrock song that repeats "lo-lo-lo-local" several times? In fact, there's barely anything related to Asia in the song itself - the extent of Asia's influence being that Blur just happened to record in Hong Kong, as the result of a cancelled gig and a few free days, a session Graham Coxon himself said he revisited later because "he was bored of sitting on his sofa listening to other people's records being played on the radio".

After all, the continual lumping together of several different storied cultures that make up the most populated region in the modern world is reductive to say the least and belittling to put it mildly. We're not all Wang Chungs tonight, people who "like the appliance and science" as Vicious Pink Phenomena's 'My Private Tokyo' puts it or Chinese geishas as Hanoi Rocks think, but people proud of their heritage who don't need a Westerner to act as the 'discoverer' of our 'fascinating' culture, especially if they profit from their glossed-over, incorrect interpretation. 'Asian culture' as a singular entity is a misnomer to begin with and shouldn't be further preached as gospel by the blind excitement that results from an army of Albarn nostalgists - enjoy the inspiration thousands of years of history can give you by all means, but don't capitalise on it for your comeback.

This article originally included a reference to the lyrics of 'China Girl', which has now been removed