At first glance, nothing about eighteen-year-old Billie Eilish screams Black culture, at least not when you play her music. With her grunge aesthetic and her funky colored hair and her alt-pop music that has spawned such songs like her hit single Bad Guy, it could be confusing as to why there are critics that are accusing the songstress of cultural appropriation. Now I can imagine that most of my audience isn’t a part of Billie’s core fan base. You might know who she is if you are around teenagers. Or you might have seen photos online of a teenage white girl dressed like an early 2000’s NBA draft pick. For those of you who still don’t know who Billie is here’s a brief background.
Born and raised in Los Angeles to musician parents, Billie began making music with her older brother Finneas. It is with Finneas that Billie recorded her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? It’s that album that landed Billie in Grammys history becoming the youngest and only second artist to win an award in the four major categories, taking home Best new artist, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year. The only other artist to attain this major award sweep at the Grammys was Christopher Cross in 1981, though Sam Smith came close to the same sweep in 2015. If you don’t listen to Yacht Rock, you might be left with a the only Chris Cross I know is Kriss Kross, because the Grammys and music at large do have a race problem – word to Tyler the Creator.
It was after the Grammys when people started talking about what they considered the obvious influence of Black American culture on Billie’s image. At the 2020 Grammys she was dressed in an oversized Gucci, shall we say Dickie suit? With a lime green turtleneck and long Gucci acrylic nails. In a tweet, music journalist Ivie Ana pointed out how Billie dresses in an aesthetic most commonly associated with hood girls from Billie’s acrylic nails to the big hoop earrings she frequently dons. Others took it further to flatly accuse Billie of cultural appropriation because her aesthetic across the board does harken to the era of SWV and the 90s to the early 2000s R&B girl groups.
Let’s get academic for a moment. The term “cultural appropriation” is an expansion on the concept of “cultural colonialism”. Kenneth Coutts‐Smith in his white paper on Observations on the Concept of Cultural Colonialism merges the principals of the Marxist theory of ‘class appropriation’ where the dominant class appropriates and defines ‘high culture’ with what he calls ‘cultural colonialism’ because much of “high art” is restricted to a European, a la white, cultural experience.
More colloquially, cultural colonialism and it’s modern iteration cultural appropriation requires a power dynamic, in which an ethnicity dominates the other ethnicity by taking a claim to their cultural markers and redefining them through the dominant cultural lense as their own curation. The Kardashians are consistently a pretty clear example of this but we get so used to throwing the term at them that sometimes it’s used and abused. Another example is the history of rock or jazz music, where white musicians and record execs would pluck the music of Black musicians as their own curation, giving the Black artists no credit or ability to properly monetize their artwork.
Billie Eilish is not, herself, culturally appropriating. She doesn’t claim ownership or monetize the long acrylic nails and baggy clothing. Her aesthetic may be the output of a society that has a history of appropriating and commodifying Black culture. And as a child of the 2000s, in the age of the internet, the default is almost always Black culture. Regardless of race, many of Billie’s peers take similar strains of inspiration as we see the resurgence of 1990s fashion. Born 3 years into Generation Z, in December 2001, Billie at 18 years old is the first artist born in the 2000s to have a number one hit. She grew up in the age of Rihanna and Tyler the Creator both of whom she counts as fashion influences. Plus with the near-ubiquity of streetwear thanks to people like designer Virgil Abloh or her peers Justin Bieber, the Jenners and the influence of fashion influencers on Instagram, it’s hard to suggest that her aesthetic is born out of a desire to co-opt culture rather it simply being just a part of the pop culture Billie grew up in. Billie has grown up in an age where the internet has rapidly replaced many of the mainstream outputs. To quote Rob Dozier in Paper Magazine, who recently put out an article “When White Kids Grow Up on the Black Internet” discussing precisely this topic at hand: “
The internet has provided, for white youth who’ve spent a large part of their adolescence on it, a front seat to the creation and distribution of Black cultural products — Black music, slang and dances. But as those cultural products move across the internet, they get farther and farther away from their original context and meaning and often become collapsed under the simplistic label of “youth culture.”Rob Dozier for Paper Magazine.
Dozier early in the piece also denotes that Billie was born in December 2001, the #1 song was Mary J. Blige’s Family Affair, Jay-z had just released Blueprint, Outkast, Destiny’s Child, Alicia Keys, Shaggy were dominating the charts and urban music had moved firmly into the mainstream. I mean it was also the year Hit ‘em Up Style was the #1 song. Most of 2001 was firmly dominated by urban music or at least pop music with an urban music feature. By 2007, the year of Timbaland when Justin Timberlake was an output of Tim’s production house, we had a complete amalgamation that Black music was now the zenith of pop music and that included the aesthetic fashion markers.
More so for the fashion and aesthetic markers, Tumblr, in particular, has contributed to teens’ aesthetic with niche interests like soft grunge blogs that mirror much of Billie’s style with their pastel coloring and jewelry that looks straight from Hot Topic. Now when I was growing up in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, there was a stronger delineation between the culture of white kids and black kids like myself, though I was at the beginning of that line being blurred as internet culture took ahold. As Lauren Michelle Jackson discusses in her book White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation:
“the internet depends on Black people. Undeniable that so much content aggregated by millennial-targeted media orgs traces back to Black Tumblr, Black twitter and culture blogs.”White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.
Society is becoming more diverse but there’s a strong current of cultural homogenization, where per the impact of globalization, cultures coalesce and you end up with the reduction in distinct cultural diversity through the popularization and diffusion of a wide array of cultural symbols. What we grappling with is how in the context of American and European cultural norms the base standard even as this popularization of cultural symbols happens across cultural and country borders it feels like whiteness is still “seen” as said standard, and everything else is counter-culture until it is absorbed into the “base”. Old Town Road, the Renegade TikTok dance, long acrylic nails, full lips, fried chicken and (American) whiskey. We have so many references to watching our Black culture be homogenized into American culture. And Billie, as is much of Gen Z, is a product of that cultural homogenization. I would be inclined to argue that Billie’s fashion aesthetic is still counter-culture, which makes it feel alot more authentic than Kim or Khloe Kardashian rocking cornrows or kanekalon ponytails.
When Black culture has always been sold with a white face, I understand the question mark seeing a youth in the fashions that distinctly bring to mind SWV, Xscape, Aaliyah, Missy Elliot and Da Brat, especially as that white youth does something that regardless of the talent and skill, Black artists have consistently been blocked from achieving: sweeping up all the major categories at the Grammys in their oversized Gucci suit.
Co-written by Hanna Phifer.
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