spotted at n11th and berry, brooklyn

spotted at n11th and berry, brooklyn

"I thought I was in love with you but I realized I was just using you"
(tastefully taken from my dear friend, Amy C.)
~Sam

"I thought I was in love with you but I realized I was just using you"

(tastefully taken from my dear friend, Amy C.)

~Sam

Seen somewhere in the subway system of New York City.
~Sam

Seen somewhere in the subway system of New York City.

~Sam

no idea who the artist is, but this stencil is all over greenpoint, brooklyn
(gorgeous.)

no idea who the artist is, but this stencil is all over greenpoint, brooklyn

(gorgeous.)

my friend tess aquarium @ chicken hut, brooklyn
(check out her site @ fraulipstick.tumblr.com!)

my friend tess aquarium @ chicken hut, brooklyn

(check out her site @ fraulipstick.tumblr.com!)

star wars graffiti spotted @ chicken hut, brooklyn
(not featured: the tie fighter and death star about 5 feet above it)

star wars graffiti spotted @ chicken hut, brooklyn

(not featured: the tie fighter and death star about 5 feet above it)

Cultural and Sub-Cultural Appropriation: Vogue and Willow Smith; Or, An Experiment in WAY Over-reading Pop-Culture Ephemera and Phenomena

A short essay on cultural appropriation and queer politics written by someone who just read Nietzsche for three hours straight:

First of all, I totally realize that as a white upper class Jewish self-identifying male I probably have absolutely no right to comment upon the validity of cultural appropriation in relation to the Vogue and Ball scene, but perhaps by realizing how little right to comment upon it I have I afford myself the ability to make some passing judgement on the phenomenon.

As someone who is an advocate of subversive and/or transgressive art form, however, I do find it troubling when I see an intentionally underground mode of expression becoming mainstreamed. There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with an art form becoming mainstream, and I refuse to buy into the politics and semantics associated with “selling out”: an obliquely obsolete way of understanding the functioning of art in a post-Warhol aesthetic discussion. I am almost universally in favor of the Chicks on Speed motto: “Sell out before they do it to you.” What is troubling is when the art form loses the quality which made it impressive or subversive in the first place. Is this always the case when an underground art form becomes mainstream? That is probably a discussion for another time.

So, while scanning the internet today (as I have been doing a lot lately to avoid reading the copious amounts of Nietzsche and Freud that grad school requires me to read) I found a particularly catchy song by Willow Smith called “I Whip My Hair” which can be watched over here: http://videogum.com/236442/teen-korner-willow-smith-whip-my-hair/franchises/teen-korner/.

Now, I don’t want to get into the game of whether or not Will Smith should be steering both of his children into the entertainment industry, or whether it is OK for a 9 year old girl to be dancing in that manner. Those are only tangents to the issue at hand.

What troubled me (other than how FUCKING catchy this song is, God it is so good, and I am going to remix it soon) is the use of the Vogue dance style towards the end of the video. The Vogue hair whip is the main gesture of the whole video and song, but the use of New Way Vogue hands (hawnds) dips and drops, particularly by the adult characters of the video, seems to me a little discordant with the childhood jubilee of the rest of the video. This is because of the subversive history of the Vogue scene.

Vogue is a dance movement started in the 1980s (named after the dramatic poses of the models in the eponymous magazine) as a safe way for queer and transgendered blacks and latinos to safely throw shade (hate) in a non-violent medium. Voguers compete in a battle setting during a Ball, often also featuring drag contests (although, lately, I think, there has been a de-emphasis on drag). Vogue evolved into a fully formed dance movement and still functions as a means of empowerment for marginalized queer populations. Vogue is a subversive art form because it exists outside of the hegemonic order and often seeks to question or attack it by subverting gender norms and deconstructing masculinity and femininity. When Madonna, in 1990, made her song “Vogue” she did so out of admiration for the movement and scene and hired actual Mothers of Vogue to choreograph the routines. Of course Madonna was appropriating the Vogue dance moves for own profit, but she did so out of a certain kind of respect, a knowledge of the history of the scene, and as a queer icon herself, she sort of (only sort of!) has the right to do this.

So I find it troubling when a hyper-privileged 9 year old girl, who doesn’t know the first thing about queer politics or the history of vogue as a dance movement (how could she?!) appropriates strong vogue moves into her video. Of course, Willow Smith herself probably had nothing to do with it (a choreographer was hired, who may or may not have been a Voguer him/herself) but the use of appropriation of Vogue dance by a non-marginalized person, for no empowering political agenda, serves to de-power the subversive qualities of the Vogue dance.

The same sort of argument comes up in any discussion of graffiti in the mainstream: Does universal praise or recognition of graffiti artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey set back the art from instead of move it forward?  Does graffiti lose its power the second it is put into art galleries? If graffiti was made legal would it suddenly lose its power as a subversive art form? Do we (rich white people) fetishize graffiti because it is (originally) a production of the cultures we actively marginalize?

Like I said, there is nothing inherently wrong with the mainstreaming of any movement, and hopefully this will lead to some amazing Vogue dancers being hired for more mainstream work for higher pay: but when empowered people start using subversive art forms for their own entertainment, the ability of the movement to question or resist any hegemonic order becomes less and less realized.

This is all a sort of reductionist and reactionary stance on the video: when I first saw it I was happy to see Vogue getting mainstream attention at all. After “Vogue Evolution,” an all-queer dance troupe on Americas Next Best Dance Crew, I hadn’t seen any press on the movement at all. At the end of the day, the presence of Vogue in such an innocuous medium is both good and bad.

But we must keep in mind the criticisms along with the praise: the documentary Paris Is Burning, one of the first glimpses into such a scene received, was at first universal praise for unveiling a secret culture of resistance and empowerment. But later, critics astutely observed that Jennie Livingston, the maker of the film, ended up having a career from her movie, while the drag-queens who she featured remained poor and disempowered. Willow Smith may be making her “career” off of this (a career she doesn’t need, she is already filthy rich) but what of the Vogue dancers themselves?

Anyway, this is all moot because God that song is good.

here are some awesome videos of New Way Vogue (dramatics) if you want to see what I mean:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwNhV3E0bFY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDJHDdw-MOY&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bt4mI8kqzb0

-eric