2010s in Review: Cultural Appropriation Dominated the Pop Music Discussion in 2014

2010s in Review: Cultural Appropriation Dominated the Pop Music Discussion in 2014

To recap the decade that was, Billboard is looking at one major theme from each year and explaining how it dominated that 12-month period. Below, we continue with 2014, a year that saw discussions about the role of race in popular music impact the conversations around many of the biggest artists. 

Pop music made for a year of fascinating stories in 2013, particularly at the very top of the charts. It was the year a prodigious 16-year-old singer-songwriter from New Zealand named Lorde crossed over from the alternative world all the way to No. 1 on the Hot 100 with the minimalist pop fantasy “Royals.” It was the year that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, a throwback hip-hop duo from Seattle, turned a local following into a national movement with a pair of ubiquitous pop-rap smashes. It was the year that former Disney teen-pop star Miley Cyrus reinvented herself as a genre-blending pop renegade, swinging into the Top 40 world like a certain demolition device. It was the year that multimedia star Justin Timberlake and EDM progenitors Daft Punk made massive, long-awaited comebacks. It was the year of “Blurred Lines.” It was the year of “Harlem Shake.” It was a lot for one year.

But as interesting and fun as most of those stories were, if you zoomed out on them — and indeed, on the entire list of No. 1 singles on the Hot 100 that year — a disquieting trend emerged: None of them were about black artists.

2010Turbo-Pop Ruled the Radio | 2011: Adele Revived the Music Industry 2012EDM Infiltrated Everything2013: Streaming Became Unignorable 20152015 Was the Year That… Canadians Ran Pop Music | 2016Every Major Album Release Was an Event | 2017Latin Pop Took Over the U.S. | 2018Hip-Hop Took Its Victory Lap 2019Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Put a Bow on the Decade

Which isn’t to say that black artists weren’t involved in any of them. Rihanna sang the chorus to Eminem’s “The Monster,” the Hot 100-topping unofficial sequel to their similarly successful 2010 collab “Love the Way You Lie.” Pharrell Williams was a featured artist on both Robin Thicke’s chart-topping “Blurred Lines” and Daft Punk’s No. 2-peaking “Get Lucky” — which also featured guest appearances from star rapper T.I. (on “Lines”) and funk legend Nile Rodgers (on “Lucky”) — while a pair of Seattle soul men, Wanz and Ray Dalton, each guested on one of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ two No. 1 hits (“Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us,” respectively).

Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus’ career reboot was shepherded in large part by renowned Atlanta hip-hop hitmaker Mike Will Made-It, and Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience again brought back longtime collaborator Timbaland as his behind-the-scenes creative partner. Even Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” was named after a dance long prominent in black culture (with its vocal hook sampled from hip-hop duo Plastic Little’s song “Miller Time”), while Lorde’s “Royals” rattled off a long list of rap largesse clichés that she said she couldn’t possibly relate to in its memorable pre-chorus, and received a Rick Ross-featuring remix that helped the song hit No. 3 on Billboard‘s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart.

Taken together, these songs and stories created an uncomfortable dissonance that was hard to escape in 2013 pop. It was unmistakable that all of these chart-topping, massively successful artists were heavily indebted to black music, and in many cases, also to black collaborators. So why wasn’t there a single black lead artist to be found at the top of the Hot 100 for the entire year?

There were no easy answers to the question. It would be easy to point to the EDM takeover of the previous two years — a movement that, despite electronic dance music’s ’70s and ’80s roots in the black culture of disco and house music, was almost exclusively heralded this time around by white dudes — as being to blame, but aside from Baauer’s fluke viral hit and Daft Punk’s anti-EDM disco throwback, none of the biggest dance artists really threatened the top of the charts in 2013. Similarly, most of the turbo-pop artists that had defined radio in the early decade had either begun to falter commercially or switched up their sound significantly: They were still a presence at the top of the charts, but no longer an overwhelming one.

Meanwhile, R&B and hip-hop were going through a bit of a dry spell in terms of crossover hits. Many of the biggest, most exciting artists across the genres — Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Beyoncé — had turned their focus towards being album artists, less concerned than ever with radio singles (which, for instance, West’s unapologetically abrasive 2013 album Yeezus didn’t even try to produce). The boost that on-demand streaming would ultimately give hip-hop on the charts was still years away from becoming fully realized. Even pop-friendly rappers like the Black Eyed Peas and Flo Rida were finding the Top 40 landscape murkier and less automatically amenable to their barnstroming jams than in previous years. Yet even admist this drought, there were white artists like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus, rocketing to the top of the charts with hip-hop and R&B-flavored jams. It was a disparity that wasn’t readily explained away.

If conversations about this disparity were simmering for much of 2013 — particularly following Cyrus and Thicke’s infamously salacious performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, in which the duo were accused of, among other things, using their black backing dancers as sexual props  — they burst through the surface in 2014. At the Grammys in January, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were among the evening’s biggest winners, taking home best new artist, best rap album (for 2012’s The Heist), best rap song and best rap performance (both for “Thrift Shop”). The duo’s four wins received instant criticism from fans and tastemakers who felt that there were worthier artists of color nominated in the categories they won — particularly breakthrough rapper Kendrick Lamar, coming off his rapturously acclaimed major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city, who was up for all four awards Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ended up winning.

Macklemore attempted to get ahead of the conversation by Instagramming a screenshot of a text he said he had sent to Lamar after the Grammys. “You got robbed,” the text read, specifically in reference to the best rap album trophy. “I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you.” Rather than ease an already-tense moment, the quasi-apology was roundly derided as needlessly performative, or tone deaf. Drake, probably the era’s biggest rapper, called the apology “wack as f–k,” offering, “It felt cheap. It didn’t feel genuine.” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis had already been taken to task for their mockery of hip-hop extravagance via the winkingly budget-conscious lyrics and video for “Thrift Shop,” and the Grammys incident seemed to only confirm that they were operating as outsiders to the culture.

As 2014 progressed, some of the decade’s biggest, most established names were being held similarly accountable for perceived disrespect in dabbling in cultures that weren’t their own. Katy Perry, the most successful radio star of the early 2010s, found herself in hot water upon the February premiere of the video for her chart-topping PRISM single “Dark Horse,” which featured Perry as “a magical queen in Memphis, Egypt” named “Katy-Patra,” and was criticized for appropriating Egyptian culture and symbology. It was just one of many mini-controversies caused by the pop star playing fast and loose with ethnic signifiers during the PRISM promo cycle, several of which were collected in an August 2014 Mic article uncharitably titled “5 Reasons Katy Perry Is Pop Music’s Worst Appropriator.” (Katy herself was largley unmoved by the criticisms, snarking to Rolling Stone, “I guess I’ll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that’s it… can’t you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don’t know.”)

Taylor Swift received similar backlash with the August debut of the Mark Romanek-directed video for her skroning 1989 lead single “Shake It Off.” The clip featured Swift in a variety of awkward guises — as a ballerina, as a cheerleader — playing her obvious fish-out-of-water deameanor in those situations for comedy. But some viewers felt uncomfortable with one of those guises presenting her in hoop earrings and short shorts, navigating incredulously around a number of twerking, predominantly black backup dancers. One of the video’s loudest detractors was rapper Earl Sweatshirt, who admitted to having not watched the full video, but still tweeted his confident judgment that the video was “inherently offensive and ultimately harmful” in its “perpetuating [of] black stereotypes.” (Romanek largely dismissed the criticism, saying the video cast “the best dancers… without much regard to race or ethnicity” and emphasizing the “satirical” nature of the clip.)

The artist who found herself most at the core of the discussion around cultural appropriation in 2014, however, was unquestionably Australian rapper Iggy Azalea. After having signed to T.I.’s Grand Hustle label in 2011, Azalea had made waves early in the decade with a series of buzzy mixtapes and EPs, but lacked an undeniable hit to bring her to national renown. That hit came in early 2014 with “Fancy,” a booming pop-trap production with a massive chorus (sung and written by pop underground favorite Charli XCX), and even a headline-capturing music video, featuring Iggy and Charli recreating the lead characters in several iconic scenes from the classic ’90s teen comedy Clueless. Azalea dominated the year from there: Not only did “Fancy” shoot to No. 1 that May, but one of the songs it held at No. 2 — ascending Top 40 star Ariana Grande’s “Problem” — featured a guest verse from Iggy. The rapper’s debut album The New Classic reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200, her Rita Ora-featuring single “Black Widow” followed “Fancy” to the Hot 100’s top 5, and Azalea ended 2014 teasing an arena tour the following year, her stardom seemingly secure.

But in the midst of her meteoric rise, Azalea also found herself at the center of a whole heap of backlash. Racially insensitive lyrics and tweets from her past were resurfaced, and her vocal inflection as a rapper — perceived by many to be a “blaccent” — came under greater scrutiny. In a year where, again, no black rapper would top the Hot 100 as a lead artist, more and more figures from within the hip-hop community came to express their discomfort with Azalea’s popularity. West Coast legend Snoop Dogg shared a series of insulting memes about her. Underground rap darling Azealia Banks bemoaned her success in a radio interview as part of a larger point about the white mainstream’s diminishing of black artists, then continued a back-and-forth with Azalea on social media. Most notably, venerated A Tribe Called Quest rapper/producer Q-Tip attempted to give the young rapper a Twitter history lesson about the genre, outlining the ways that hip-hop was rooted in black struggle, and how her success benefited from white privilege in present day.

Whether they were thoughtful, cruel or some mixture of the two, Azalea’s response to all these criticisms was roughly the same — to dismiss them, and in many cases, fire back against them. She wrote off Q-Tip’s lessons and cautions as “patronizing,” taking offense at the assumption that she wouldn’t have done her own research about the history of the genre she practiced. Mostly, she seemed determined not to let the disapproval derail her career momentum, continuing her plans for a tour and a new album the next year. But her first single of 2015, the Britney Spears-featuring “Pretty Girls,” was met with a muted response, and both Azalea’s new album and tour were postponed numerous times, the latter eventually being canceled. And just like that, Iggy Azalea’s time as a mainstream-defining star was over.

Many of the biggest stars of this period experienced similar commercial humblings in the decade’s second half. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis took criticism from the hip-hop community much more to heart than Azalea, even including the sprawling, self-conscious “White Privilege II” on their next album, 2016’s This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. But the album failed to produce a hit on the level of “Thrift Shop” or “Can’t Hold Us,” and the duo essentially returned to being a popular cult act. Miley Cyrus left hip-hop behind on her next few releases, but received lukewarm returns for her revamped sound, and outright frostiness for further comments made to Billboard in 2017 about her disillusionment with hip-hop (“It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my c–k’ — I am so not that”) — which many took as evidence that she never totally embraced or understood the culture in the first place. Even Katy Perry, once pop’s most bulletproof hitmaker, hasn’t scored a Hot 100 No. 1 since “Dark Horse. “

In the meantime, thanks in large part to to streaming bypassing radio’s gatekeeper status to become the primary driving force in popular music, black artists have thankfully returned to the top of the pop charts — and in 2018, all but one No. 1 single (Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next”) featured an artist of color as either a lead or featured artist. Issues of white stars operating in black spaces without properly respecting the culture or acknowledging the place of privilege they operate from still persist — such discussions have never been far from the discourse around contemporary superstar Post Malone, for instance, though they do not appear to have weighed down his career as they did some of his predecessors. But the days of white rap artists dominating on the charts and at award shows while the rest of the hip-hop community looks on anxiously from the sidelines appear, for now at least, to be largely in the rearview.

And for the rest of pop music, the discussion around appropriation in 2014 provided a valuable opportunity for everyone — artists, execs, fans, critics, and all in between — to take a long, hard look at their own cultural bad habits and blind spots as music creators and consumers, and hopefully attempt to be more sensitive, more conscientious, and just generally better in the future. As the decade ends, the system is still very far from fixed, but discussions about inclusivity, representation and general cultural thoughtfulness and respect are louder and more prevalent at all levels of popular music than they’ve ever been before.

Even Iggy Azalea, once brash and arrogant in fending off reprovals, has come to see that it’s not always totally about her. “I have regrets, yes, tons, of course,” she told Billboard in 2018. “It’s hard to separate trolling from legitimate criticism… When you get thrown into the deep end, you have a natural inclination as a human to defend your character. There were times, in retrospect, where I was way too defensive.”

Next, in 2015: Our friends from the North lead the way to pop music’s new future. 

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