Cross-Cultural Appropriation of Pop Songs

Curator's Note

Nearly two decades ago, Next, a male R&B group, released a catchy song called “Too Close.” The song reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1998. Today, in the right venues and on the right radio stations, the song is still recognizable to those familiar with Pop R&B from the 1990s and 2000s. However, if you visit the Wikipedia page for the song today, after the initial overview, the first thing discussed is the recent parody of the song in the 2015 “Why You Always Lying” Vine by Nicholas Fraser. The initial Vine became a full length music video and reached other social media platforms including YouTube, Instagram, and SnapChat. It is not a new phenomenon for pop culture to sample and recall things from the past. Look no further than the prank of “rickrolling;” its roots tied to Rick Astley’s 1987 song, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” This seems harmless, but what happens when these new iterations are introduced to audiences that the original content never reached? The “Why You Always Lying” meme was initially funny specifically because of the use of the Next song. But as it took off in popularity – being viewed over 50 million times, mimicked, and translated into dozens of languages – was the homage to the original song lost with every new rendition? It was certainly lost in 2013 when a “brand new” dance/interactive meme exploded – “Do the Harlem Shake.” The problem? The dance and the name were not new at all, leaving Hip Hop fans confused on this new version’s complete dismissal of the original dance. Though there are still problematic appropriations of culture, the idea that we can (and should) identify, call out, and correct these appropriations is becoming more common. However, music appropriation remains largely overlooked, particularly when it’s combined with Internet culture and humor. We work and play on the Internet, and while it has enabled dynamic and farther-reaching connections, it has also helped to create a false belief that we are simultaneously in tune with cross cultural differences – simple or complex. When this assumption is combined with casual humor, things get a bit more complicated. We might think we’re in on a joke, but are actually unfamiliar with its roots. As “Why You Always Lying” makes its round, is the humor in the original song, the new lyrics, or just a funny Black man dancing?

Comments

Aaron Dickinson Sachs's picture

As someone that listened to

As someone that listened to the original “Too Close” in the limo as I made my way to prom in 1998, I quite enjoyed the recontextualization in the form of “Why You Always Lying.” For me, that enjoyment is entirely wrapped up in the pleasure of the reference to the original, which was the subject of one of my questions on Leanne’s post from Wednesday. I wondered what it means when that reference to the original is lost, and I appreciate that you’ve provided one answer to that in your post: appropriation. Whereas recontextualization seems to imply that the connection to the original context is in some ways left intact, even as the item is moved into a new context, appropriation importantly reminds us of the lines of power that also pervade the original items as embedded in their context.

It’s also interesting to think about that in terms of Zack’s post about Bowie, and Bowie’s constant recontextualization of his own song. How does Bowie’s power as the author of his song intersect with the power of the audience to interpret that song? In asserting his right to recontextualize the song as its author, is Bowie appropriating the song which he should have rightly abandoned to the hands of his audience? Author power vs. audience power. Thank you for bringing power (and through it race and other identity categories articulated through power), via appropriation, into the conversation.

Along the lines of appropriation and perhaps reappropriation, this Harlem Shake video seems, well, appropriate :-) https://youtu.be/Mdeu5aGwwWI

Brianni Nelson's picture

I appreciate your comment,

I appreciate your comment, Aaron, in particular, “I wondered what it means when that reference to the original is lost, and I appreciate that you’ve provided one answer to that in your post: appropriation. Whereas recontextualization seems to imply that the connection to the original context is in some ways left intact, even as the item is moved into a new context, appropriation importantly reminds us of the lines of power that also pervade the original items as embedded in their context.”

I think the ‘appropriation consideration’ is a crucial element in understanding most popular culture today — music and all other forms of media. Because while think of certain artists or their work as transcending boundaries (which of course, is a good thing), we still have to ask ourselves what happens to the messages once those boundaries are crossed. And yes, because both the author and audience have power, there may be information that is repeatedly getting lost in translation.

Other interesting (music specific) examples would be what’s happening with the “Running Man” right now. It’s actually a combination of quite a few issues (original song + original dance name + new dance + no reference to the original dance) and seeing a rapid popularity spike.

Aaron Dickinson Sachs's picture

I’m interested in what you

I’m interested in what you mean by “transcending boundaries” here. It reminds me a little of the use of “cross-over” in U.S. music circles, which we know refers to when a song written by a person of color (most often an African-American) appeals to white people because much of the cultural specificity is either missing or illegible to that audience. I’m not always sure that transcending boundaries is a good thing in that regard.

Brianni Nelson's picture

In your example, crossing

In your example, crossing over isn’t always a positive thing, I more so meant it (here) in a kind of collective remix/editing culture kind of way. I think that is a positive, when different genres are being introduced to one another and remade in new, creative ways. There’s just levels to it, where we quickly go from “oh, that’s a fun thing to share” to “oh, well I can engage with this other thing because it’s not so abrasive or scary or (other black adjective).”

Leanne Weston's picture

Great post, Brianni. I was

Great post, Brianni. I was hoping that someone would discuss this.

In relation to the comments already made about transcendence, upon reading this post, I realised that I’d never actually seen the Nicholas Fraser’s original Vine. Instead, my interaction with it was in the form of gifs, and then, as its viral reputation grew, in still memes. Do you think this reduction into a different form also brings about a collapsing of its original meaning? It’s something that really resonated with me reading the closing lines of your post about being ‘in on the joke.’

Brianni Nelson's picture

Hey Leanne, (in true short

Hey Leanne, (in true short media form) - YES! I didn’t go into it here, but I am also exploring how the technology (and the rules within in) shape our understanding and interactions with these jokes. Vine gives you 6 seconds to get to the joke. At that rate, essentially everything has to be stripped down - including original context, cultural nuances, or any other long winded explanations/justifications/insight.

Aaron Dickinson Sachs's picture

Stripped down implies that it

Stripped down implies that it is taken out, but it seems like what is really happening is that it’s condensed into a citational style that allows some people to read the text as dense while others read it as stripped down.

Brianni Nelson's picture

I would say that stripped

I would say that stripped down can represent both completely removing something altogether and just leaving very small traces of it. For either though, it falls on the audience member to decipher what is/is not there and then decide (immediately in most cases) whether or not they find the object funny. When parts are reduced or missing and you understand it, then it’s funny. My concern is that people can still laugh and not understand that there’s relevant context missing … so, exactly, what is it that they are laughing at?

Aaron Dickinson Sachs's picture

What are they laughing at?

Problematizing what the audience is laughing at reminds me of the Chappelle Show and Bamboozled…

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