*Also posted on HuffPost British Columbia
Oh, Avril. You poor, poor thing.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel sorry for Avril Lavigne. After all, it’s hard to muster sympathy for a once-ubiquitous and once-teenaged moppet who managed to convince most of the world that she was an icon for skate betties and pre-adolescent suburban angst, even while some of us (ahem, all right, I mean me) who may have actually been skate betties in previous lives rolled our eyes at how hard her team was pushing her particular brand of post-punk authenticity.
I mean, it’s hard to feel pity for a girl whose first record, Let Go, landed her on the cover of Rolling Stone and spawned a clothing line, a modelling contract with Chanel and a three-year marriage to Deryck Whibley of Sum 41, the perfect millennial Ken to Avril’s heavily eye-lined Barbie.
After all, she was barely 18 and had the kind of success those of us (ahem, all right, I mean me) who struggled to find paying gigs for our creative work dreamed about as we tossed and turned on our thin futons covered by sheets whose provenance could have been Ikea or maybe the back of our grandmother’s closet.
When she became engaged to Chad Kroeger of Nickelback in 2012, I felt a twinge of regret on her behalf, but then it quickly dissipated when I saw the self-serving, verging-on-creepy engagement photograph on the cover of Hello! Canada.
The outsized hubris of their union, one that seemed to mix everything we understand about pop culture and its elevation of inoffensive mediocrity, burned away any empathy I could have felt about a pop singer staring down the spectre of her own slide into irrelevance. By this time, Avril had failed to mature with her fans and was still, at the age of 27, peddling in that particular illusion of teenaged angst marked by black tulle, messy hair and devil horns.
While Avril Lavigne ruminated on producing a video for her latest single, “Hello Kitty,” the rest of the world was watching the rise of Asian North American activism, driven by social media and a few prominent voices, most notably Suey Park.
Tiger mothers, Asian fetishization and casual, pop culture racism were all issues that people of Asian descent were tackling with the help of Twitter and other platforms, media that amplified protest for a community that had sometimes struggled with how and where to express opposition.
Until last week, we were carefully watching the #CancelColbert protests. That is, until Avril unleashed the poorly-produced, bubble gum-coloured, pretty fucking racist video for “Hello Kitty.”
Let’s be clear. No one thinks that Avril knows anything about Asian North American politics. I’m pretty sure that when she hears the word “fetish,” she turns to her copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” for reference. This isn’t because she’s stupid. This is because she has lived in an insulated world for the entirety of her adult life, a world where she has been unable to grow up, to change out of her punk-princess-at-the-mall persona.
Success came early and it hit hard. We can’t blame her for wanting to recreate it in the only way she knows how, even if that means aping Gwen Stefani’s questionable success with her Harajuku homage from 10 years earlier, a move that can only be interpreted as a desperate grasping for any kind of visual and aural brand that can be retro-fitted into Avril’s own fading public image.
But what celebrities lack in political astuteness is usually made up for by a basic understanding of what might offend their real, paying fans. One might think that someone, a marketing executive perhaps, or a publicist who specializes in presenting his or her clients as gently amusing or just naughty enough, might have seen that silent, expressionless Asian dancers and the worn-out tropes of Japanese culture — sushi, childlike colours and, of course, Hello Kitty –were, if not racist, then certainly no longer provocative or exotic to non-Japanese fans, or, really, anyone.
The cynic in me thinks that, maybe, just maybe, Avril’s public relations team might be succumbing to the already-global assumption that her career is, bluntly put, dying. Maybe, just maybe, they were simply logging their time on this album before they could move on to someone bigger and more influential.
The public apology we expected could have brought me back from the edge of cynicism. If Avril had said she meant to honour Japanese culture but misfired on the execution, I might have felt an emotion not unlike empathy.
Listen, I believe that she does love her Japanese fans, in so much that they might be the only fans who remain loyal to her music. I believe that she really meant to produce a video that gave something back to the Japanese girls who still listen to “I’m With You” on repeat in their bedrooms.
But when she issued a defence on Twitter, peppered with LOLs and claiming that because Japanese people were involved in the development of the “Hello Kitty” video, it couldn’t possibly be racist, I gave up. It’s the same tired defence we hear all the time. But my best friend is Asian/gay/vegan!
If the people Avril employs are Japanese, then she has done nothing wrong. Right. Because no one who has been racist or done racist things has ever paid people of colour to do their bidding. Of course.
Clearly, we expect too much when we expect famous people to be aware of political movements. The surging wave of Asian North American activism is not something Avril Lavigne needed to be aware of in order to live her life, at least not until this moment. But that makes me wonder what else she doesn’t know about. The Crimean crisis? Rape culture? Rob Ford? Finally, something that makes me feel sorry for Avril. The great, gaping hole of her ignorance. It might be all she has left.