Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Harajuku What?

Gwen Stefani is just one of those people you never stop hearing about. There’s a wide selection of media sensations to choose from: she married man-babe Gavin Rossdale of Bush, got pregnant, dyed her hair a plethora of colors, and got sick of No Doubt and started a solo career.

So here she is again, coming out with her second solo album The Sweet Escape in December. She even has a new single out from the album complete with write-ups and pictures on various internet sites. Stefani always seems to be popping up in the middle of a group of flashily-dressed Japanese women in these press shots, known as the “Harajuku girls”. The thing I’ve never gotten over is Stefani’s complete disrespect for the Japanese culture by using these women to promote her music and products. Is Stefani’s use of the “Harajuku girls” just reinforcing the stereotype of submissive Asian women and making a mockery of Japanese culture? Oh yes.

So, what is this Harajuku phenomenon? Since her first solo album Love.Angel.Music.Baby. was released in November 2004, Stefani has acquired a posse of four Japanese women who she has ever-so-cutely deemed the “Harajuku girls”. She has even renamed them: Love, Angel, Music, and Baby… like a matching play-set to her album. She has credited influence of this to Japanese-teen culture. Can this be real? It’s sad to say that it is.

Stefani’s albums have taken on a stranger feel than previous material with her band No Doubt, but the real separation between the two musical projects is her adjusted way of dressing and entourage of Harajuku girls. The style that Stefani exemplifies seems unsettlingly close to that of Tokyo, Japan’s street fashion in past years. She has been criticized for it and for devaluing a very authentic and original design style, but not many hold her accountable because they see it as a fresh look for U.S. pop culture.

Even worse than this fashion-stealing is Stefani’s use of the Harajuku girls to push her music and product lines. The Harajuku girls have accompanied Stefani in her music videos, to awards shows, onstage during performances, and on MTV. She seems to drag them around like little pets, even dressing them in matching clothes and contractually obligating them to speak only Japanese in public. This is a degrading practice to reduce these women to giggling schoolgirls in short skirts to sell albums. As a seemingly-strong female, I was very surprised to see this come from Stefani.

On to the product placements! Stefani released a special “HP Photosmart Harajuku Lovers digital camera”, complete with all the cutesy Japanese detailing for a steal: $249.99. This is only a small part of her all-encompassing “Harajuku Lovers” line (part of Stefani’s high-end brand L.A.M.B.) which includes products like underwear, shirts, shoes, baby clothes, hats, stationary, cell phone charms, and purses. All of these products draw from the same Japanese street culture designs, as well. She also has America on the look-out for her special line of dolls coming out. I can only imagine what that will be like…

Stefani has turned an original, funky street culture into a misunderstood, commercialized excuse to impose ethnic stereotypes of Asian females. So what’s the reward for cashing in on this for the Harajuku girls? Apparently, a song dedication. But maybe you should ask Love, Angel, Music, or Baby about that…if you can.

By: Isabella Carini (column 2)


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