By, Crystal Y. ’20
“Whoever said money can’t solve your problems must not have had enough money to solve ‘em,” sings Ariana Grande on one of her newest singles, “7 rings.” While her unapologetic lyrics have already garnered mixed reactions—with some claiming that she’s entitled to use her money in whatever way she wants and others suggesting that blatantly flaunting her “retail therapy” habit is rather arrogant and distasteful—the real reason for which the pop star should be coming under fire has rarely been discussed by the media, if at all: her cultural appropriation of Japanese culture.
Back in December, Grande released one of the earliest singles off of the album: “imagine.” The album cover art quickly drew ire for featuring the name of her single in Japanese kanji instead of English, since the lyrics read as a typical song about unattainable love with no references to Japanese culture at all. Therefore, there seems to be no purpose in including kanji on the album cover in the first place. Her use of kanji extends to her official merchandise as well, though she has taken down all merchandise featuring kanji (except for one) after facing significant backlash from her fans.
Additionally, the “7 rings” music video heavily features Japanese aesthetics—once again, the song title is written with Japanese kanji instead of English. Many other references crop up throughout the music video: the alcohol featured seems to be sake, a Japanese rice wine; Grande eats sushi with a pair of chopsticks in one scene; and Japanese kanji can be found on an assorted number of props on the set. These seemingly innocent “nods” toward Japanese culture become concerning upon realizing that the song, once again, has nothing to do with Japanese culture. Not even a single person of Japanese descent is featured in the music video itself. In fact, it seems as though no one on the creative team that chose to use these “kawaii” aesthetics has any insight on the culture, as neither the director of “7 rings” nor the cover art designer of “imagine” is Japanese. Even without being a part of the culture themselves, they still could have done research to hold themselves accountable before moving forward. But, as evidenced by the clear lack of respect in the video, they neglected to do even that.
To top it all off, Grande attempted to tattoo “7 rings” in kanji onto her palm as homage to her new single but made the mistake of tattooing “tiny barbecue grill” instead. Immediately, the media latched onto this story for its humorous potential and Grande’s light-hearted attitude toward her mistake. As she attempted to fix her tattoo (only to make things worse by changing the meaning to “tiny barbecue grill finger”), fans grew increasingly angry, as such a mistake suggests a shallow appreciation of the language to begin with. In a series of now-deleted tweets, Grande responded by saying “I can’t read or write kanji obviously. What do you want me to do? It was done out of love and appreciation.” She then went on to cite her “crippling anxiety” as cause for her sensitive reaction to the backlash.
Because Grande has been learning the language for years and even has a personal Japanese tutor with whom she consulted in trying to fix her tattoo, she could have easily prevented the mishap. Her claims about the tattoo being an “innocent mistake” seem unfounded given the resources she has and the common sense to tread carefully around unfamiliar languages that she should have had.
“I guess I understand that everyone makes mistakes, but the fact that she wanted [her tattoo] in Japanese even after she came under fire for cultural appropriation just proves that she’s using Japanese culture for the aesthetic,” agreed Michelle P. ’20. “She couldn’t just write ‘7 rings’ in English, she had to use kanji.”
Even worse, however, is that her first reaction toward the “tiny barbecue grill” tattoo was to play it off as a quirky, relatable mistake. She said that the tattoo “still looked tight,” which suggests that she did indeed care more about the aesthetic of the tattoo as opposed to its actual meaning. This comment is particularly disturbing, as often times many cultures are ripped off and used for their aesthetics instead of genuine appreciation. Since Grande did attempt to defend herself by claiming that she was simply appreciating the culture, we see that this comment proves otherwise. When asked, Athena B. ’20 agreed that she’s “also concerned about the lack of coverage [that her cultural appropriation is getting]. The media seems to be only paying attention to the ‘humorous’ aspect of her tattoo mistake.”
Additionally, bringing up her “crippling anxiety” at the very end almost in an attempt to paint herself as a victim of irrational backlash was, personally, incredibly disappointing—while I am terribly sorry that she has recently had many awful experiences in her life, I still do not believe that that gives her a free pass to take from others’ cultures as she sees fit. “If I had to guess, I think [the lack of media coverage] is maybe because of the situation with Mac Miller, the traumatic Manchester bombing, her popularity/success, her privilege as a white woman, or a combination of all of these factors,” mused Athena, but concluded that “it’s still not fair.”
Now, knowing her flippant attitude toward her theft of Japanese culture, is there anything that we can do if we don’t agree with Grande and want to take action?
Yes! We could stop buying her concert tickets, albums, and/or merchandise, as all of those directly contribute to the wealth that she never hesitates to throw around in “7 rings.” But in our current digital age, there are also a myriad of ways that we indirectly and/or unconsciously support musical artists. Simply by listening and/or streaming her songs on Spotify, watching her music videos, or clicking on articles about Grande (which in turn generate traction), we are supporting her and what she stands for. Thus, as I don’t wish to support her in any way possible, I will not be going near any of her content or any content related to her in the future.
But at what point are we willing to let our moral beliefs take precedence over our love and appreciation of an artist?
I personally have chosen not to endorse any of Grande’s music, but others have chosen differently for their own reasons. As Tina G. ’20 explained, “I don’t approve of her use of Japanese aesthetics, but it would be hard for me to boycott her music because I do genuinely enjoy some of her works … certain songs have developed personal connotations … and carry a significance beyond her music.”
While “7 rings” may be the tale of an ostentatiously extravagant shopping spree, it seems that the only shopping Ariana Grande did was that of other cultures—and even then, perhaps it should be more accurately described as shoplifting.