The Success of “Lean On” Shows that Cultural Appropriation is Alive and Well in 2015
Last week, Spotify released its Year in Music, naming the song “Lean On” by Major Lazer and DJ Snake featuring MØ as the most streamed song of 2015, or, as the Atlantic called it, the “most 2015 song of 2015.” This was incredibly shocking to me.
Does that mean that cultural appropriation is the most 2015 thing about 2015? Because if that’s the reality of this year in review, I’m not okay with it.
Let’s talk about this song for a second.
Yes, the song is catchy. It is considered to be a cross between electronic pop and dance music, and that hook definitely gets stuck in a person’s head. When I first heard it, I thought it sounded almost tribal. And then I had a life experience that changed how I heard the song.
In the early autumn of 2015, I spent five weeks abroad in Pune, India for work. It was an amazing experience, something I’ll never be able to duplicate. I heard “Lean On” once while I was in India, and it made me stop in my tracks. It suddenly sounded to me like Americans (and Europeans) were trying to imitate the signature sound of Bollywood music. My immediate feelings were both outrage and sadnes–what kind of world is this where people think it’s okay to stereotype cultures so badly?
And I hadn’t even seen the music video yet.
There is a segment of a BuzzFeed video titled “Indians React to American Pop Culture Stereotypes” that discusses this song. There are many responses, but two of the most notable are:
That’s not even an Indian dance step.
Palaces and poor people? Yes, that is exactly what India comprises of.
I actually thought those reactions were pretty tame, and some of the other reactions were even more forgiving. When I saw the video, all I could focus on was the continual thrusting movement that MØ makes with her hips throughout the entire song. That is not something that is usually appropriate in India, no matter who is dancing around you. And don’t even get me started on the fact that MØ is wearing tiny shorts throughout most of the video–another consistently big no-no in Indian culture, where modesty is practiced and expected from foreigners as well as natives. We are hypersexualized in the United States, and this music video is a perfect example of that.
Say the Atlantic is correct in saying that this was the most 2015 song of 2015–does that mean that our year was marked with cultural appropriation? Actually, it kind of was–the Atlantic even published a helpful dos and don’ts article about it. Cultural appropriation–and Hollywood is constantly guilty of this–was a big deal this year. From critiques of the costumes worn to music festivals to Aziz Ansari’s show “Master of None,” cultural appropriation being brought to light was a big marker of the year 2015.
While it can be said that most perpetrators of cultural appropriation don’t realize that they are being offensive, I like to hold the optimistic belief that they genuinely don’t understand what they’re doing. To me, that means there is hope yet. People can learn. People can grow. There is the chance that bringing all of this to light will make for a better 2016–that is my hope.