Hymn For The Weekend
Last week, British band Coldplay courted controversy with the video for their latest single, 'Hymn for the Weekend'. Shot in India, the clip shows the band performing on the streets, backdropped by dancing Indians, the colourful paint splashes of Holi, religious iconography and a beautiful Bollywood actress, played by the very un-Indian Beyoncé.
Immediately they were slammed with accusations of cultural appropriation, and rightfully so – exoticising a nation in a gross Eat Pray Love-esque, white-people-finding-themselves-in-brown-people-places move, is a tasteless, lazy and one-dimensional representation of a diverse culture.
I'm rarely surprised when mediocre white men make terrible blunders. It's not the first time Coldplay has done this, nor the worst example – 2012's 'Princess of China' video conflated Chinese and Japanese cultures and featured another black woman, Rihanna, dressed up to exoticise an 'other'.
Beyonce in Hymn For The Weekend
But as I watched the video, probably looking like I'd just stepped in something nasty, I couldn't help but think – why, Beyoncé, why? Shouldn't you know better?
I've loved Queen Bey for years. I've been moved to tears at her concerts, screamed with excitement when she stood before the word FEMINIST at the 2014 VMAs, drunkenly danced to Run The World (Girls) and Single Ladies countless times, blasted Survivor after breakups. Though her ultra-shiny brand of feminism isn't perfect, Beyoncé has long been a favourite of mine for her catchy tunes, unapologetic celebration of womanhood and contribution to bringing the feminist conversation to the fore of mainstream pop culture.
And yet here she was, a powerful woman of colour, participating in appropriative practices hurting other people of colour. How the hell was I supposed to feel about someone I loved letting me down so badly?
It got me thinking about the concept of "problematic faves", originating from a blog listing the personal and artistic transgressions of celebrities. Does loving someone or something with flawed politics make you a bad person?
I'm an unashamed feminist. I also love Disney films despite their archaic approach to gender, Taylor Swift despite her occasional slut shaming, Drake despite his nice-guy misogyny. Once, as I expertly rapped A$AP Rocky's Fuckin' Problems at karaoke, a mate stared slack-jawed as I spouted, "Girl, I know you want this dick." "Isn't this against everything you stand for?" he asked.
In short: yes.
In slightly longer: I used to be uncomfortable with liking anything that didn't match my views. I thought it made me an imposter who could easily dispose of the values I so strongly espoused for a few minutes to enjoy a song.
The reality is that most things are somewhat flawed, including some of our favourites – and if we reject everything that's even slightly problematic, there'd be very little left.
Rather than turning my back on things I love, I examine them critically and recognise exactly where and how they are problematic, and condemn those parts of them while not denying myself enjoyment of the rest. Does that make me less of a feminist? I don't think so – and it also allows me to have these conversations with friends, and hope that they'll walk away with something to think about. Critical discussion of societal issues, and analysis of pop culture within that framework, is a crucial part of spearheading progress within social circles – Coldplay's video and the ensuing discussion has brought the important issue of cultural appropriation to a world stage, reaching people who may never have considered it before.
There are limits, of course. When indie rocker Conor Oberst, whose music soundtracked my adolescence, was accused of rape in 2014, I tearfully removed his songs from my playlists (his accuser later recanted and apologised). I refuse to watch Woody Allen films, and have sadly conceded that I should probably give up my love for R. Kelly's Ignition (Remix). Just as I wouldn't support rapists known to me in person, I won't support artists whose problematic actions go beyond a few lyrics and into real-life abuse.
This came up last month with David Bowie's death when it was revealed that he had committed statutory rape against a teenager in the 1970s, bringing the well-trodden "separating art from artist" debate back into circulation. A friend of mine wrote a brilliant piece decrying Bowie's reprehensible actions, but celebrating his undeniable contributions to queer culture and identity politics. The relationship between artist and fan is complex and individual, to say the least.
So while Coldplay is dead to me because Chris Martin can't get over his creepy obsession with Asian cultures and also their music is boring, I still love Beyoncé.
And in an act of perfect timing, she redeemed herself with the surprise release of 'Formation' over the weekend and blistering performance at the Super Bowl yesterday, flanked by all-black female dancers dressed as Black Panther activists, including the signature black beret.
The empowering song could easily be one of the most politically important pop releases this year, and it's only February. Both visually and lyrically, 'Formation' is a defiant statement about the #BlackLivesMatter movement and black identity politics, transforming Beyoncé from artist to activist. No other artist in the pop mainstream could pull this off quite as seamlessly – it's a significant step for both feminism and race relations to have a black woman use her platform to make such powerful proclamations.
One act doesn't pardon the other, and the "woke" nature of 'Formation' doesn't absolve the cultural insensitivity of Beyoncé's role in 'Hymn for the Weekend' – but it all boils down to nuance. Just as my real-life loved ones occasionally mess up and let me down, sometimes artists I love do too – and then in the next breath, they do something amazing and remind me why I loved them so much in the first place.
I'll never defend or make excuses for their offensive actions, and I hope they'll learn and do better in the future, but having problematic faves doesn't weaken my convictions – it encourages me to be a more critical consumer.