I was contacted by Zimbio’s Alicia Diaz Dennis for my personal thoughts on the “Looking Hot” video controversy and how No Doubters felt for her upcoming piece for the popular entertainment website. Alicia put together a really good article and I would like to thank her and the Zimbio team for granting myself another huge honor and opportunity to be involved in something like this.
** A small correction: The forum was not replaced due to the “Looking Hot” discussion threads. It was already planned on getting revamped before. **
Zimbio — In a sea of pop provocateurs, Gwen Stefani and her longtime No Doubt bandmates seem like the last people who’d court controversy for the sake of self-promotion. But when the band unveiled the music video for “Looking Hot” on November 2, the band attracted a glut of attention for all the wrong reasons.
The Melina Matsoukas-directed clip presented the band members playing “Cowboys and Indians” in some Wild West fantasy land, with drummer Adrian Young and guitarist Tom Dumont playing evil robbers and Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal playing fetching, fashionable American Indians. Gwen delivers the opening line, “Go ahead and look at me, ’cause that’s what I want” while tied up by the wrists, writhing around provocatively while her bandmate threatens her with a gun. In later scenes, she roams the countryside on a horse, wiggles to and fro in a teepee (with a wolf!), and dons a headdress to send smoke signals.
While many No Doubt fans were thrilled with the video, apparently pleased at the band’s return to the cartoonish theatricality of its glory days, others were disgusted by its obvious cultural insensitivity. The band was bombared with complaints about the video’s rampant stereotyping via Facebook and Twitter, and a number of threads regarding the video’s content popped up on the band’s official online forum.
“We are not a trend and we are not a fashion statement. We are human beings, we are nations, and we deserve respect,” longtime No Doubt fan Margaret “Emmy” Scott wrote in an open letter. “As a Native woman whose college educated mother chose to raise me on the reservation in order to be close to my culture and always be proud of who I am and where I came from, I was deeply offended by your trivialization of my culture.” The band’s forum has since been taken down and replaced, so none of these threads remain visible to the public.
By Sunday, the band had removed the video and issued an official apology:
“As a multi-racial band, our foundation is built upon both diversity and consideration for other cultures. Our intention with our new video was never to offend, hurt or trivialize Native American people, their culture or their history. Although we consulted with Native American friends and Native American studies experts at the University of California, we realize now that we have offended people. This is of great concern to us and we are removing the video immediately. The music that inspired us when we started the band, and the community of friends, family, and fans that surrounds us was built upon respect, unity and inclusiveness. We sincerely apologize to the Native American community and anyone else offended by this video. Being hurtful to anyone is simply not who we are.”
Adrienne Keene, the Harvard PhD student behind Native Appropriations, a forum for discussing the use and misuse of indigenous cultures in popular culture, initially felt positive about the outcome. At a cousin’s wedding when the video was released, Keene viewed the clip without sound on her phone. By the time she reached a computer, it had been removed.
“For me it felt like a win on a lot of levels, and I was so impressed that the [Native American] community came together so quickly to talk about why it was so harmful, and the fact that No Doubt reacted so quickly was commendable to them as well,” Keene explains. “But then I started seeing the fallout in the subsequent days. Because the apology didn’t really address why it was offensive or hurtful, it just was ‘We’re sorry that you were offended and we didn’t mean to be offensive’ — and they pulled the ‘We have Native friends so it’s okay’ card, so people didn’t really learn anything from it.”
Reactions to the controversy ranged from accusations of oversensitivity to righteous indignation over the so-called tyranny of the politically correct. “While things have come pretty far — two years ago, there wouldn’t have been this outreach from the community, and there definitely wouldn’t have been as quick as a response — there’s still a long way to go in terms of educating people as to why, exactly, these images are hurtful and why the practice of ‘playing Native’ isn’t something we should be engaging in,” Keene says, noting that no one in the Native American community has stepped forward to say they were consulted about the video.
Many of the video’s defenders have made the argument that rock and roll as we know it would not exist were it not for cultural appropriation. One commenter on The Guardian’s recent criticism of the video scoffed, “If being inspired by art or imagery from other nationalities is now a taboo, then much of the music, film, TV, painting and literature any of us have ever loved is also a taboo.”
“There’s a certain level of cultural borrowing that’s okay, and natural, and going to happen no matter what, especially in the realm of art and music,” Keene explains. She notes that some artists have incorporated aspects of indigenous cultures into their work respectfully: Earlier this year, Nelly Furtado featured Native hoop dancers Tony and Kevin Duncan (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara/San Carlos Apache) in her music video for “Big Hoops (The Bigger the Better),” for example. But this was different.
“It was them taking the images out of context and mashing together different stereotypes of Native people,” Keene says. “The other issue was it implied violence against Native women, because Gwen’s tied up for a lot of the video with two cowboys pointing guns at her. And because violence against Native American women is such an epidemic in the U.S., that’s definitely not an image that you want to be promoting.”
The implications of sexual violence were not lost on Angela R. Riley, the director of the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA, who posted a lengthy open letter to the band a few days after the video was taken down. In addition to noting that no one from UCLA had been consulted on the video, Riley pointed out some horrifying statistics about the violence American Indians face, including the fact that approximately one in three American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes.
Keene can’t believe no one involved didn’t realize what they were doing was wrong. “Not one person was vocal enough to say, ‘Hey, we have a problem and we probably shouldn’t be doing this,’ that to me is amazing. Because you know it’s not just the band and the director who come up with the concepts and put them into action.”
Gwen and company are certainly not the first artists to appropriate Native American culture in their music videos. Juliette Lewis has been dancing around in feathers and war paint since at least 2008. Pop’s reigning dumpster diver Ke$ha sports both war paint and a feather headdress in her 2010 music video for “Your Love Is My Drug.” Apparently late to the trend, Lana Del Rey donned a war bonnet to play a tragic streetwalker in her 2012 video for “Ride.” But No Doubt is the first band to apologize and remove the offending video. Jenny Fowler, the founder of long-running fansite Beacon Street Online, says that not all fans were pleased over the band’s decision.
“[A] debate started when I posted the band’s official statement on the website,” Fowler says. “It’s really hard to bite my tongue after reading some of the comments — saying No Doubt has no backbone, letting the media walk all over them, etc. It was morally the right thing to do. And the appropriate thing to do. And their decision.”
Fowler thinks some fans may have taken the whole affair so personally because this is, unfortunately, the most attention the band has gotten in years: “A lot of No Doubters are just frustrated … We feel like No Doubt has worked so hard on this album and deserve all the best and success, which we haven’t been seeing. And this is the last thing they need when they are trying to make a solid comeback.”
Still, Fowler says that she’s learned something from it, as have many other No Doubt fans. “Sometimes it takes things like this to get the word out and bring light to issues. It was a very educational experience for myself and others, too,” she says.