Misappropriation of Indian, Buddhist & Judaic Culture in Hollywood

There is a great example of Appropriation in the Romantic comedy “Music & Lyrics.”  Alex Fletcher is a hugely successful former pop star of the late 1980’s, but has already enjoyed his moment of stardom. A young bubble-gum pop star, Cora Corman, has asked him to write her a song titled “A Way Back Into Love.” Nervously, Alex accepts the offer, but doubts his ability as a composer. Just when he has exhausted all of his lyric-writing creativity, he realizes that his plant-watering lady, Sophie Fisher, has a hidden talent. Reluctantly, and with much encouragement, she helps him write the song for Cora.

They are thrilled when Cora chooses to use their song rather than one written by a different “retro artist.” However, Sophie is deeply disturbed by Cora’s overtly sexual interpretation of a song that’s meant to express romantic vulnerability. Cora’s typical style utilizes themes from Eastern Religions to enhance her stylistic appropriation of the pop genre.

For example, one of her hit songs is entitled “Buddha’s Delight,” and the lyrics include “I’ve got to get my Buddha’s Delight, Om Shanti, Shanti.” It is sung in a sexually suggestive manner, which makes a mockery of the source material.  To quote Drew Barrymore’s character, Sophie Fisher, the “orgasm set to the Gandhi soundtrack…“simultaneously destroyed 2 musical cultures in under a minute.”

Buddha’s Delight

“I’m starting to believe, boy
That this was meant to be, boy
Cause I believe in karma
Boy, do you believe in karma?

So forget about your past life
Cause this could be our last life
We’re gonna reach nirvana
Boy, we’re gonna be reach nirvana

Chorus

Each time you put your lips to mine
Its like a taste of Buddha’s delight
I see the gates of paradise
You’re a taste of Buddha’s delight
Tell me all your fantasies tonight
And I will make them happen
Cause I’m not satisfied if I don’t get my Buddha’s delight

Om Shanti Shanti(2X)

Like sitting meditation
You give me elevation
Can you take me higher?
I wonder, can you take me higher?
I want a revelation and sweet salvation
and the eternal fire
Show me the eternal fire

Chorus

I’ve got to have my Buddha’s delight
Om Shanti Shanti
I’ve got to have my Buddha’s delight
Om Shanti Shanti”

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

As a real life example, Selena Gomez “mis” appropriates Indian culture into her song, “Come and Get it.” When comparing Gomez’s usage of Indian culture to Cora Corman’s, I would argue that Gomez’s appropriation is even more inappropriate because her lyrics have absolutely nothing to do with theme she’s suggesting. Her dance routine uses imitated cliches to gain more appeal, and it’s as though she is randomly sampling the culture for stylistic purposes.

Selena Gomez wearing a Bindi

Celebrities in Hollywood have been known to make a fashion statement out of wearing Bindis to enhance their prestige. Traditionally, Bindi’s are worn between the eyebrows, which is said to be where the sixth Chakra (Ajna) resides. Indian, Southeast Asian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Nepali Women use the Bindi to retain energy and strengthen concentration. In addition, the Bindi is a representation of the Third Eye, which is a point on the forehead symbolizing mystical perception beyond ordinary sight. The Third Eye, also known as the The Mind’s Eye, by Taoists, is often associated with Clairvoyance and having religious visions. “Third Eye Training” takes devout focus and preparation to properly embrace. Once again, Indian culture is being misappropriated for the sake of fashion trends.

Gwen Stefani misappropriated the “Bindi-look.” As a result, an explosion of American girls wore Bindis in the 90’s.)

Miley Cyrus (Doing her best to look enlightened…..and possibly trying to bring back a 90’s fashion trend.)

Katy Perry (who also had a traditional Hindu wedding with Henna, a nose ring chain, and a white horse.) 

Shakira (who says, “I love India and its people. I have a lot of fans in India and love the culture and food.”)

In 1998, Madonna showed up to the MTV VMA’s wearing full Brahman priest make-up (With a drink in hand). 

Take a look at Madonna’s Frozen Video. At this point in her career, she had discovered both the mystical practices of Kabbalah, and various facets of Indian culture. This video demonstrates her own model of Bhangra-style dance, and Middle-Eastern tonal qualities. I do believe that she is sincerely inspired by Brahman practice and seeks its influence within her music. There is however, a fine line between innovative appropriation, and a disrespectful mis-use of someone else’s culture.

On the flip side, Madonna’s usage of Kabbalah makes a mockery of it’s true, and hidden intent within Judaism. She has even admit to NBC’s “Dateline” tonight, that “she’s a little confused about actual Kabbalah” (http://icydk.com/2006/11/01/madonna-explains-what-kabbalah-means-to-her/). This is probably because “centuries before the medieval Kabbalah came into being, the Talmud stated that the greatest mysteries of creation may only be revealed to one student at a time, and then, only if the teacher believes the student to be wise and understanding [can they learn The Kabbalah.] In a sense, everything that has been ever written on the Kabbalah either transgresses this teaching or, more likely, gives only hints and allusions to the truth […] Kabbalah is a form of advanced study that depends on certain prerequisites. It’s wonderful to learn…yet one who does not know the basics of Torah study, or Jewish law, or the Hebrew language, will be limited by those gaps in knowledge” (http://www.learnkabbalah.com/about/).  Regardless, The Kabbalah Center of Los Angeles [which is controversial on it’s own…] can give a big thanks to Madonna, as it has collected an appealing $18 Million of her earnings. 🙂

These are only a few examples of how Eastern cultures are appropriated throughout American society for stylistic purposes. I am by no means against working together on a global scale. I am rather drawn to the fusion of world music, and plan on building my career upon recording music in a myriad of countries. I am, however, opposed to the wide lack of understanding that comes along with modifying world cultures for the sake of materialism.

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8 comments

  1. I can’t find any reference to it on the internet.But, I seem to recall a certain concept called a “cultural copyright”. The issue came up, at least as I recall it being discussed, in regards to Paul Simon using an Inca song that became a hit. As I recall, it was fully credited as being a S. American song. But the question came up as to what did the recording industry owe the Incan culture for using its song. And, I thought that the UN or some such international agency had made an international law with the specifics of what was owed in cultural copyright cases.

    I always liked the idea because, well, think of the royalties the Jewish People…..and possibly me in particular….will get when Christians, Muslims and who knows who else gives us our cultural copyright royalties for using the Jewish Bible.

    1. Thanks for the well-thought out response, Gary. You have so much to teach me, and I gratefully soak up your ethnographic history lessons! You know, I think you should start a blog. I would most certainly be a top-fan and reader. I would even post a link on my earthpopstudios.com home-page for others to link to your site. Give it a thought!

      “Cultural Copyright…” that’s something I’m going to have to look into. If you have any further information, please let me know. I’m doing my best to understand copyright laws (I’m in a Media business/law class), and have been contacting those in my network for ideas on how to get around sampling other people’s work, and using it to create something new. I know that means they deserve royalty fees if anything designed is publicized to generate compensation. People have also been asking me to use my voice and sound samples, and I need the appropriate paperwork that says “me/you get x amount of compensation if this goes anywhere.”

      And good luck on banking on any Torah royalties. That’s a nickel we’re sure to never see… Even mediaeval chanting music from the monks received their inspiration from the 1st and 2nd temples in Jerusalem!

  2. It’s a simple marketing ploy using an exotic culture to sell a product thats already established and familiar. If you take something that is for all intensive purposes a “product of pop-culture”, something that people are already comfortable with; and you put an “exotic” spin on in you give a product the illusion of diversity.

    If you look at pop music as a product and not an art form you can start to see how its marketing is very similar to many big-label consumer products you see on store shelves and grocery stores.

  3. Wow. That first video was disgusting. I can’t imagine how offensive that would be if an old priest stumble upon that during some sort of sermon. hahaha. Whoops… wrong one. Sorry Children. It does seem bit strange how its trending. Christianity is trendy in scary movies because its scary as shit! Hell? Satan? Demons? I mean, that’s pretty freaky. Maybe Buddhism is trending in pop culture because people think its “pretty.”

  4. I’m really glad you provided an example of bad appropriation. It’s very sad but I can imagine this song being a successful part of American pop culture in the late 90’s. It’s this kind of thing that breeds ignorance among otherwise culturally secluded human beings.

    1. Thanks for your response, Cody! The song that you’re referring to was from a movie called Music & Lyrics. It’s a comedy, so they’re not serious (i hope), I just thought that the song was a PERFECT example of a misappropriation 🙂

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