Harajuku Lover? Or Exploiter?: Authenticity of GothicLolitaware-lite

“Love the culture? Write a song about it. Then, use it to sell a handbag.

Susan Scafidi’s summary of Gwen Stefani’s post-No Doubt career at Counterfeit Chic is incisive precisely because the lack of originality shown. Gwen’s co-optation (or misappropriation) of Japanese style, specifically the street styles of the Harajuku district of Tokyo, may be a specific example of the use of another culture’s cues and objects to make money for one’s self but not the originating culture. In music, many have come before — from Elvis to Madonna.

The basics of this story are not new: general cultural commodification combined with racialized doll-silence. As MiHi Ahn puts it in Salon: “Gwen Stefani neuters Japanese street fashion to create spring’s must-have accessory: Giggling geisha!”. I though others had covered it all, until I recently saw a click-through ad for a partnership between Stefani and HP to create my own customized Harajuku girl. The product website exclaims

Turn you and your friends into Gwen and her Harajuku Girls. Customize their eye and hair color, even their stage wardrobe, before printing out the dolls and bringing them to life. You can even print out your own paper dolls to decorate your room or greeting cards featuring your Harajuku creation. (emphasis added — and it is interesting to note thatthe skin color can be changed, but not the features)

What? There are already living Harajuku girls and boys (as in from Harajuku & in the style)! This subculture is based on a high degree of gothy weirdness combined with the Japanese penchant for cuteness (called kawaii). Now you can now pretend to be someone (via a paper doll) who is a stand-in for someone (Gwen or her version of Harajuku girls) who is pretending to be/an homage to/stealing the cultural capital (choose one!) of actual people! Fun!

These paper dolls are part of a system where the original creators (those in Harajuku) receive no intellectual property in their culture (and the $$$ that flows from it), yet Gwen can.

Gwen has appropriated the Harajuku look — re-naming her backup dancers as a group as the Harajuku Girls & she has a fashion label called Harajuku Lovers (and a tour named after the label). There are live trademarks in the United States for Harajuku Lovers & Harajuku Lovers A Fatal Attraction to Cuteness. Yet I’m sure that when Stefani used a sample of “The Lonely Goatherd” from the musical The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein for her song “Wind it Up,” contracts were signed and money was exchanged. And Gwen will defend her trademarks based on Harajuku-style — as shown in a recent Forever 21 lawsuit.

But those trademarks — and the rest of her “cutting-edge” image are built on the cultural production of others — the actual Harajuku girls — and boys — who use their amazing skills to create bizarre/cute outfits.

To support the HP partnership she has made a television ad, described by Brendan I. Koerner on Gizmodo

Gwen Stefani wants you to know that she just oozes creativity from every pore. “People think you can turn creativity on and off, but it’s not like that,” the singer-cum-designer declares while sashaying through a cloud of fluttering photographs. “It just kind of comes out, a mashup of all these things you collect in your mind.”

Creativity? When Bjork, for example, says she likes to collect the sounds of nature, she then does new and unique things with them — she doesn’t call it Wind through Pines ™ and slap her name on it. Mashups, fanfic, and other examples of remix culture do something new, they don’t attempt to serve as a replacement for the original, and they also have clear norms of attribution — something sorely lacking from Gwen’s appropriative behavior. I’m not sure what is “creative” about taking ownership through intellectual property laws of cultural productivity by others. After all, she’s not the first to do that either.
For more about Harajuku (and Japanese street) style, I recommend (list as of 11/08):
Tiffany Godoy & Ivan Vartanian, Style Deficit Disorder: Harajuku Street Fashion – Tokyo, ISBN: 9780811857963 (also published in the U.K. as Tokyo street style : fashion in Harajuku)
Masayuki Yoshinaga & Katsuhiko Ishikawa, Gothic and Lolita, ISBN: 978-0714847856 (cover photo above)

Shoichi Aoki, Fresh Fruits, ISBN: 978-0714845104

Izumi Evers & Patrick Macias & Kazumi Nonaka, Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno: Tokyo Teen Fashion Subculture Handbook, ISBN: 978-0811856904

Emily Kubo, Harajuku Girls Co-opted, J@pan Inc., Summer 2005, Issue 64, p36-41(as published on EBSCO)

Worst of Both Worlds!: Disney, Ticketmaster, Scalpers, Economists HATE Squeeing

Imagine you are a tween girl, obsessed with the Disney phenomenon Hannah Montana. You want to see the live performance, showing Miley Cyrus, as both herself and as her tv-alter ego — who has her as an alterego. But tickets sell out immediately!!!1!!!

The cynical among us could dismiss Hannah Montana as an “invention,” created by Disney over three years to get the

faux pop star [right], minutely calibrating her appeal to the 6- to 14-year-old market and, less obviously, to their parents. Disney did a great job: Hannah Montana is a funny, independent-minded girl who encourages listeners with lyrics such as “No one’s perfect” and “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not strong enough.”

Or we could be cold to the hearts of tweens, explaining this situation as does a writer for the Fed, Doug Campbell, dismissing the scalping as a market failure:

it may be unfortunate that some little girls won’t be able to see Miley Cyrus (the real name of the performer who plays teenybopper Hannah Montana) in concert. The more fundamental issue is that promoters of the Hannah Montana series apparently haven’t priced tickets commensurate with demand, opening the door to a secondary market with much higher prices.

The Hannah Montana concert controversy has led to some upset parents suing the official fan club, or having the state attorneys general of several states look into whether there was any illegal activity. According to the parents, the fan club promised tickets for concerts with membership (the fan club says the chances were only increased). What control fanclubs have over concerts and how closely connected they are to the actual performer ranges greatly; Radiohead tried a similar relationship between the fanclub and concert goers to attempt to avoid scalpers; Metallica keeps a very tight reign on its fanclub; and during various artists’ battles with their record companies (Prince, Nine Inch Nails) how “official” could the fanclub be if it was more closely tied to the record company?

While adults can “understand” Ticketmaster’s practices for charging enormous service charges, scalpers’ uncanny ability to buy up tickets before true fans, and the different ways that fan clubs actually work, (and in this case Disney’s decision to limit the number of tickets greatly below the size of the venues), kids feel a strong emotional connection to the object of their fandom and don’t care why this disappointment happened. We all know someone (or are that someone) who cried for weeks about the inability to see (fill in the blank) _______ (the Beatles, the Jacksons, Peter Frampton, KISS, Wrestlemania, Duran Duran, the Cure, Bell Biv Devoe, New Kids on the Block, Nirvana, Spice Girls, N*Sync, Destiny’s Child, My Chemical Romance, and other tween/teen obsessions). The feelings of these kids cannot simply be brushed aside.

Farhad Manjoo of Salon suggests a “true fan” option to cut down on scalping of tickets:

Make people take a quiz to get tickets to their favorite acts. I’m serious. Here’s what I mean. When you select “Hannah Montana” on the Ticketmaster site, the system would ask you three or four multiple-choice questions about the show. Only if you get them right will it let you in to buy tickets. It’s like a CAPTCHA, but instead of separating robots from humans, it separates true fans from scalpers and occasional enthusiasts.

Any Hannah Montana fan worth her salt would know about the basics like that Mylie is from Tennessee, but they would also be able to answer the hard questions. Like whatever is the Disney question equivalent of who pulled the Ace of Spades before a crash. (And if you understand the last sentence you just might be a fan of ______ )

But any solution like the prove-your-fandom to buy is only a stopgap method. The problem is larger than simplistic explanations of whiny tweens complaining about their inability to get whatever they want this time too, or greedy bastards trying to squeeze every last penny from the public. The issues leading to this problem are long-lasting (remember payola or Pearl Jam’s failed anti-Ticketmaster campaign?) and deeply integrated (Clear Channel’s ownership of radio stations AND concert venues; and JAM production’s overwhelming market power in Chicago). In our economic system, there are no clearly defined financial incentives for those with ownership (record companies, artists, venue owners, promoters, managers, etc) to focus on serving their fans instead of making money (see: Cubs baseball team selling tickets via both direct sales and through their scalping wing).

The system has failed. No economic analysis of supply-and-demand can explain the sense in tweens being unable to see an idol specifically marketed to them because they have been priced out of the market.

News Flash! Music Industry Officialy Doomed

From Mashable.com

eMarketer has published some new predictions regarding both worldwide and US music spending, and neither look particularly good for the industry. Overall, eMarketer expects worldwide spending to decrease from $31.8 billion in 2006 to $26.2 billion in 2011. Analyst Paul Verna says:

“The situation in the industry has gotten so bad that many top recording artists are steering clear of music companies and signing up with brand marketers whose expertise lies outside of the recording industry. Witness the alliances between Paul McCartney and Starbucks, the Spice Girls and Victoria’s Secret, and Madonna and Live Nation.”

The model has been broken for decades now. I think instead of trying to fix it (desperately trying to keep the CD alive, eliminating singles, punishing the fans who keep their product in the public eye, by shutting down file sharing) the music industry will have do some aggressive restructuring in order to survive the decade. Part of that will be letting go of the $15-18 CD pricing model once and for all.

Major League Baseball to Fans: All of your base are belong to us

As part of a recent upgrade in its video system, Major League Baseball (MLB) forgot about the most important factor for their continued success: rabid fans!

A megafan (why is this term only acceptable for sports fans?) complained about how the online games he bought were lost under the new DRM system. This would be the equivalent of buying DVDs and being unable to play them anywhere — and being told to watch them they need to be repurchased.

The fan complaints and publicity did make a difference. As Stacy Kramer reports in the New York Times “fans who purchased games with the now-broken licenses will be able to get every game replaced free of charge by versions with the right license.”

But fans have long memories. Adding this situation to MLB’s position on the Slingbox (MLB: its use is not fair use) and Wendy Seltzer’s NFL copyright statement fair use experiment, sports fans do not have much room to call “their game” theirs, regardless of the huge amounts of money fans spend for being part of “we won!”

Manga Nation

Orignally posted in my other blog “Enjoy and Exciting”

I have a subscription to Wired because of my Mediabistro paid membership, and I have to say, I love it. Sometimes it’s a bit too fanboy for me. (Hey editors, chicks read Wired, too!) But it’s really many of the things I love, popular science, soft technology, underground geek culture, all in one magazine. And delivered in a clear, informative, non-snarky way, which is key, since too many publications these days are heavy on snark, low on information.

There’s a fantastic article about manga (japanese comics) and dojinshi (japanese amateur comics, usually based on existing popular manga) and it’s the first magazine article I’ve read that goes beyond limited perceptions of dojinshi among those who know of it in the U.S. — i.e. it’s all fan-fiction, it’s all pornographic. But also the author delves into the even more fascinating (and very peculiar) copyright culture in Japan that allows the sometimes-derivative work to be sold freely alongside its source.

Without getting too much into it (the article does a much better job) it’s not exactly legal, but it’s essentially a live-and-let-live consumer culture,where the content owners assume that fan interest and activity will increase, not decrease, interest in the original work. Its the same perspective employed by musical artists that permit fans to remix their songs, only with manga, it’s industry-wide. Of course now that manga is becoming more of an international cash cow, maybe we’ll see the underground trade of dojinshi become more regulated by U.S. manga distributors.

I don’t exactly how that works. Or if it will work. But after several years of having the discussion go on in fandom circles, I am glad to see it getting some mainstream coverage, because its a small part of a larger issue about copyright reform that anyone who works in a creative industry will have a stake in.