Over the past few years, one of the more common and prickly strains of internet controversy has been the one where white people—usually white women—are accused of positioning themselves within a group of black people—usually black women—allegedly in order to appear more… well, I don’t know, exactly. More in tune with a culture other than their own, thereby making certain no one accuses them of living a sheltered life of privilege? It happened last November with Lily Allen and her “Hard Out Here” video, in which she appeared, fully clothed, alongside a group of black women dancing and wearing not much of anything. And of course there was the Miley Cyrus twerking debacle, which started with the video for “We Can’t Stop” and became a national story after her VMA performance. Now joining those ranks is onetime Miley tour mate and darling of the pop-leaning indie set Sky Ferreira.
The video for her new single, “I Blame Myself,” is set in what appears to be a neighborhood in LA. There’s a shady looking (black) man standing on a street corner. He’s approached by two shady looking (black) men in a (black) car. The man outside the car looks around nervously and says, “Sup, fellas? What y’all want?” The driver makes some sort of hand gesture, and the man outside backs away, screams, “Fuck you! Get the fuck off my block!” then takes out a flip-phone (!), calls someone and says, “Yo, come through.” I do not know what’s going on, but it doesn’t appear to be on the up-and-up, exactly. Ferreira appears on screen, dressed all in black: leather, fishnet, a hoodie. The man whispers something to her; she goes over to the car and says something to the driver, who then drives away. The next thing we know, she’s in some sort of empty lot singing to the song while surrounded by four black men who join her in some light (very light!) choreography. Later, she gets arrested and looks sad, then angry, and eventually winds up wrapping her legs around the head of a man who’s interrogating her. There’s a car with hydraulics, too. I don’t know.
In none of these three cases would it have taken Nate Silver to predict that there would likely be some outrage. And yet the artists at the center of each controversy still claim to be shocked—shocked!—that anyone could possibly take offense to any of it. They’re just more enlightened than everyone else, basically, and maybe you’re the one that’s racist. They can’t believe your mind would even go to a place like that because theirs certainly didn’t. They have so much respect for black culture. Some of there best friends are… oh god.
Sky Ferreira’s defense is pretty much what we’ve come to expect. “No, I did not use black back up dancers as ‘props,’” she write in a note on Facebook. “I never have and never will look at any human being as a prop. That’s disgusting. It’s also an idea that has never crossed my mind,which is what I find questionable of the people telling me that I did so. Dancers are objects?!?!?! How dare you!”
But the thing that always seems to escape the artists in these situations is that it is possible to be racist by accident. Or at least to behave in a manner that could understandably be considered racially insensitive. No one thinks that in their most private moments, Ferreira or Lily Allen or, jesus, even Miley would be like, “Man, honestly? I just really, truly do not like black people!” It’s pretty well accepted at this point that this kind of thing keeps happening largely because these young women grew up in an era when hip-hop was a dominant force not only in music but in the culture as a whole, and so it stands to reason that bits and pieces of that culture would seep into what they do. Ferreira working in a motif that’s most identifiable with early-90s gangsta rap is in some ways natural, just as it’s natural for the same generation to have been informed the R&B that was all over the radio in the 90s. (The argument could be made that what’s weird is that this is the first generation that hasn’t been conditioned to be ashamed by the things they liked when they were 11, but that’s a topic for another day.) There is among people in Ferreira’s rough age group a sense that they’re as entitled to these cultural signifiers as anyone; where it becomes problematic for the rest of us is when they seem to ignore the history and context that gave those signifiers meaning in the first place. “When I look at this video, she writes,” I don’t see race a [sic] issue.” By simply saying that race isn’t issue, Ferreira thinks she can make it so.
She goes on: “I auditioned a bunch of dancers, all races & my dancers were the best ones.” I’m obviously in no position to confirm or deny whether she auditioned dancers of multiple races, and in fact I have no reason to doubt that she did. But it does seem pretty obvious that at some point along the way (maybe even in the very, very beginning) it was determined that the video’s main visual trick would be to present Ferreira in stark contrast to the people around her. That they all happen to be black men doesn’t feel like an accident. The idea that it came down to a question of who were the better dancers also feels silly. Go ahead and watch them dance. It’s this weird, purposeful non-dancing thing they’re doing that one imagines people of, uh, many races could probably manage. There was an aesthetic decision made here, and maybe that’s ok. What’s certain, though, is that far more good could come of this conversation if we could hash it out with open, honest input from the artist herself. Instead, like others before her, she refuses to acknowledge the most fundamental aspects of what’s going on, and it’s either disingenuous or delusional. It’s hard to say which is worse.