Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ke$ha finds a new way to do blackface, and I hope I'm not the only one who's appalled

Last night, Ke$ha appeared on Saturday Night Live.  She performed her "hit" Blah Blah Blah wearing neon bodypaint under black lights.  Because you can only see the paint under the lights, her skin appears black.  And the paint appears to be a crude approximation of aboriginal body paint.  You really have to see it to believe it.

Maybe Ke$ha didn't intend the paint to look like that, and maybe she didn't intend her performance to look like blackface, but I'm a lot less inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt after her Native American headdress-wearing performance on American Idol.  One commenter on MyIdol wrote:
I am a Blackfoot Native American.  The headdress is the highest honor one can achieve in lifes journey. One must do all the necessary steps in earning that place.  Once that is achieved, a headdress is made for the individual and a 'transfer ceremony' takes place.  As I write this, our tribe is 10,000 strong in population and I can count - say - 50ish who wear the headdress... Perhaps the 'shocker' in Kesha's performance was that the headdress looked very authentic and that's what pulled at my heart strings.  Now if it was one of those 1960s florescent turkey feather type (you know the one - LOL) I probably would of 'chilled'  On top of that, I still have a ways go in learning the balance of life so I am yet to wear such attire.  Perhaps I envied Kesha that she threw one on to no avail.
People on the thread told him to "chill out," as I'm sure some people will think in regard to this post.  But, those same people have probably never had anyone dress up like them to mock them, or their cultural imagery appropriated to represent generic stereotypes like "wildness."  I cannot believe the producers of American Idol and SNL did not see this in dress rehearsals and think, "gee, maybe we should pull the plug on this."

Now, I'm all for artistic freedom.  I'm all for artists doing wild and crazy things that make us uncomfortable, but also make us think.  SNL has historically been home to such artists, such as when Sinead O'Connor ripped up a picture of the pope.  That was very very offensive to some people, and some people think it never should have aired.  But it was in the service of something.  This, this wasn't that.  This was just a careless, casually racist move by a girl who thinks the image of being too drunk to care about things like history is "fun."  It's not.  It's outrageous.  Now please stop.


  1. How the fuck is her neon bodypaint and black looking skin offensive? A little interesting and obviously does not tie in well to the song, but offensive?????? I am a feminist too but whoever wrote this needs to get a life and stop making a bad name for true feminism that is intended to better us in society.

  2. Hi anonymous, please no profanity. Here's the wikipedia page on blackface. It has historically been used in an incredibly racist and mean-spirited form of comedy. Now, Ke$ha wasn't impersonating anyone, but to me, the hurt caused by blackface is so deep, that anything close to it should be avoided. To my eyes, she purposely chose paint that looked like aboriginal body paint, which ties into her history of appropriating native symbols. The black skin effect heightened this image for me.
    By contrast, an Australian music group had earlier used the black-light body paint gag in a way that in no way invoked blackface to me.
    Maybe you don't agree that Ke$ha's act appears to be mimicry of aboriginal or indigenous symbols in this vein, but if you did, I hope you would agree that was offensive!
    Also, I don't claim to speak for feminism or feminists, I just offer my opinion.

  3. anonymous, blackface has a history of being incredibly offensive and racist. please read up a little before you wave your "one twoo feminism" flag around.

  4. This doesn't necessarily strike a racist note with me, but I do think it was careless, and fits into a pattern of thoughtlessness of Ke$ha's part. I love her four on the floor songs, and I think she's really cool, and there is a teachable moment here.

    Another example of this thoughtlessness is Ke$ha's manner of "achieving equality" with male artists. In her song Tik Tok, for example, she both commoditizes men based on their attractiveness ("we kick 'em to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger") and sings about violence toward men ("smack him if he getting too drunk"). While this might be parity within the hip hop community, I don't think being equally offensive as another group of people should be encouraged. Plus, her music is so catchy that this could be an easy fix without compromising her success. Hopefully she matures into this message.

  5. I think the first anonymous poster understands what blackface is, but doest not believe Ke$ha's "performance" is an example of this. But, I could be wrong. I understand how someone could be offended by this performance, but I do not believe the hurt caused was intentional. Ke$ha probably just thought it looked cool.

  6. I feel as though you are blowing this way out of proportion. For all you know, she could have just wanted an interesting and strange effect, which she got. As you said, she was not impersonating anyone, so how is it that you managed to come to the conclusion that she was wearing that paint in a mean spirited manner? If there is anything offensive about this performance it is simply the fact that Kesha can not carry a tune whatsoever and is...for lack of a better term...extremely effin' annoying.

  7. Hi,

    I'm a different person than the first anonymous commenter.

    Ke$ha is also wearing a lot of blue paint on her face, so maybe this performance was attacking the Blue Man Group?

  8. It seems like a pretty big stretch to call this blackface--namely because a lot of the key elements of blackface (the movements, the stock characters, the clothing, or even simply the attempt to portray another race) are lacking here. I saw this on Saturday, and I was more struck by the play with Christian imagery--the cross on the chest, and the gesture at angel wings on her shoulders. Now that you bring it up, though, if I had to guess at influences for those designs on her body, and the darkness of her body versus the glowing patterns she drew on it, I wouldn't go to minstrelsy--I would go to Avatar. If you want to complain about primitivism and Avatar, that's another battle. But mostly she's just remixing currently trendy (and "edgy"--in hopes of getting the kind of attention controversies like this might give her) aesthetics here, and there just isn't enough content left in these designs to be allusive in any way significant enough to trigger such links in people's minds. I would say that the growing apathy about such representations--and the resistance to progressive objections to them--actually signals the breakdown of the damaging link between such representations and specific races, which is ultimately probably a positive thing.

  9. ABlackGirlWhoAin'tOffendedApril 19, 2010 at 3:05 AM

    Since you're so keen on your research or whatever, shouldn't you also take into account the fact that black face was considered offensive, not simply because of the paint, but because of the antics that accompanied the paint?

    I agree with the other anon. up there. You've blown this way out of proportion.

  10. I agree this definitely doesn't bear any resemblance to minstrel-style blackface, but rather, I thought it represented a type of indigenous blackface. I'm not sure whether she intended to invoke blackness, but it seems to me she DID intend to invoke native/aboriginal imagery, both with the body designs here and when she donned the Native American headdress on AI. I agree with Mongoose when she calls this carelessness: Ke$ha is cultivating an image where she can't be bothered to think about the broader implications about what she does, wears, or sings onstage. She chose indigenous-style paint, and feathers, and to have it all projected on black skin without thinking--what image am I sending? What are the deeper implications of what I'm doing onstage?
    As I said, if the paint hadn't resembled aboriginal body paint, I wouldn't have had a problem with the black-light--See this image by contrast.
    I wish I could show you guys a picture of aboriginal body paint so you could see the (attempted) similarity, but Australian aborigines often prefer not to be photographed due to religious objections, so there's very few pictures of traditionally dressed aborigines online, and I don't want to link to a photo that may have been taken without someone's permission.
    Anyway, I appreciate all the dissenting opinions here, but when I saw this, it struck a very deep chord with me, and I thought it was worth sharing.

  11. That's the point that's being missed here. People with privilege don't have a great record for thinking about the broader implications of their actions. It doesn't look like blackface to me, but it look like it seriously borrows from aboriginal body paint and while it may not make me angry, I agree that we should be questioning the very comfortable ignorance that Ke$ha can hide behind as she wears it.

    We'll never know if Ke$ha's choice of dress was deliberately meant to look like aboriginal body paint or not. What needs to be discussed here is if there is even a thought to where the look came from and what it would look like when she went dressed on stage like that. People are always quick to say "well, I didn't intend to do this so it's fine" but it's just lazy now. It's not enough for people to be so ignorant.

  12. Well, what do you expect from someone who includes a porn star (homosexual pornography, no less) in one of her videos. Read about him here:

    We should thank our lucky stars that she didn't invite the devil himself to make a cameo appearance during her performance. For all I know, that might well have been the devil singing on SNL--I couldn't see that singer's face very well, and they can do incredible things with digital audio processors nowadays.

  13. White Tree, I assume you're being facetious? I have no problem with her including a porn star in her videos, gay or otherwise!

  14. Umm I feel embarassed that I know this, but she didn't sing Blah Blah Blah, this song is Love is my Drug or something :P

  15. You're right, anon, I was thinking of the American Idol performance and got mixed up! Glad we've got that cleared up :)

  16. I saw blackface immediately, mostly because of the way her lips were painted. Had it been ANY other color than red (or perhaps white), then I would have only been angry at the Aboriginal appropriation.


Commenting is now open, but we'd love it if you chose one username so other commenters can get to know you. To do this, select "Name/URL" in the "Comment as" drop down. Put the name you'd like others to see; the URL is optional.

Any profanity, bigotry, or synonyms for "[ ] sucks!" will be deleted. We welcome criticism as long as you're making a point!