Note: I have updated my argument about Ariana Grande’s “blackface” in Rethinking Transracialism: Ariana Grande and Racial Ambiguity.
Contemporary blackface no longer involves minstrelsy’s burnt cork or greasepaint to blacken the performers’ skin, but instead, make-up foundation, artificial tanning and digital coloring are employed to play with racial mythologies and to exploit what blackness signifies. The pop princesses explored in this article – Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande – all use blackface to give them a new figurative and literal skin over the “girl-next-door” image they build in early years, to sell a new icon that is sexualized as primitive and uncontrollable.
Pop princesses are figures of highly commodified white women during and after the MTV era, whose mass appeal relies on a meticulous process of image packaging and whose imprints on mainstream culture are undeniably visible. Arguably modeled upon the rise of Britney Spears in the late 90s and early 2000s, subsequently successful pop princesses follow a rather similar path to superstardom: they all enter the entertainment industry at a very young age, starring in popular shows that primarily target tweens and teens, before finding the need to shake up their images and break into a more mature market as they grow out of girlhood themselves.
This desperation in proving that they are no longer a bubblegum teenage popstar often results in the deployment of feminine hypersexuality, shock tactics, controversy, but most importantly and most surreptitiously, blackface/blackness. In recent years, the discussion on appropriation of blackness in pop culture has gained tremendous momentum, thanks to Miley Cyrus’ blatant and unapologetic adornment of black hair, black music, black dance, black aesthetic, black culture, before getting bored blackness altogether and switching back into a hip-white-girl figure making music to unite people from all parts of the country (read: country/pop music for white people).
Nevertheless, as more and more media outlets start “outing” Miley Cyrus for her irresponsible use of blackness as ornaments, there is a lack of awareness of this more-or-less universal practice on a much larger scale, dating back to Madonna’s (in)famous appropriation of voguing in the Black queer community in Harlem (that is if we’re talking about MTV Pop Queen/Princesses, not white culture in general). Since then, this “tradition” has shown no signs of stopping, as blackness, and I argue, blackface, has been used by every single pop princess trying to break away from their teenage appeal, just as Miley Cyrus herself struggled to do initially yet spectacularly did in the end. Signifying primitiveness, filth, and sexual carnality, blackness (and its adornment to the point of blackface) becomes a perfect trope for these female stars to contaminate and perverse their white feminine purity, their innocent facade that has been manufactured by the entertainment industry in their early years.
Perhaps, Miley Cyrus can be seen as an exceptional case of sort, because instead of subtly deploying blackface, she tried to be black, to own such blackness, only to disassociate with blackness whenever she wants. However, in the genealogy that I outline below – from Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera to Ariana Grande – there is already the precedent of using blackface to make them look darker, and of deploying blackness to flirt with the idea that they as princesses also have a side that is less tamed and more primal. In those three cases, these female superstars no longer use minstrelsy’s burnt cork or greasepaint to blacken their skin, but they employ make-up foundation, artificial tanning and digital coloring to generate racialized images that play with the mythologies of blackness, and to, in turn, sell these images.
The OG Princesses: Britney Spears “I’m A Slave 4 U” (2001) And Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” feat. Redman (2002)
Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were (and are) often pitted against each other for the title Princess of Pop, even though Miss Spears quite evidently have been culturally crowned the ultimate title, championing the race of popularity, trend-setting and selling. They entered the public eye together during their early years in The Mickey Mouse Club, before exploding onto the mainstream music scene, both in 1999, with two massive breakout hits – “…Baby One More Time” and “Genie In The Bottle”. It is no coincindence that a few years after their debut, both of them felt the necessity to shake off their “girl next door” persona, stripping down to a much raunchier, darker, or shall I say blacker image of themselves to cater to the more mature market.
“I’m A Slave 4 U” and “Dirrty” were both released as lead singles from their parent album, which were more importantly their first moments to introduce to the public their new adult image. With subsequent shocking music videos and controversial high-profile live performances, Spears and Aguilera launched two memorable career-redefining campaigns, deploying blackness/blackface to help them construct new skin over the white bubblegum image associated with them. In the title alone, the words “Slave” and “Dirty” not so subtly taps into the cultural imagination around blackness, using racialization to serve their purpose of sexualization, of getting closer to their primal selves through losing control and getting dirty.
In the official music video for “Dirrty”, Aguilera appears extremely darker than usual, almost to the point of racial ambiguity. This blatant blackface certainly does not stop there – it is part of a much larger scheme to portray dirtiness and filth using blackness, enlisting a rapper along the way to aid this effort. The video is set in an abandoned, run-down newspaper print building, giving the vibe of an extralegal underground gathering, in which the main event is the fighting match between Aguilera and another masked woman. The fighting takes place in a boxing ring where Aguilera is lowered down in a cage while the other descends using a rope ladder, all the while the crowd of black/racialized men are “going wild”, cheering, growling, dancing, pushing and punching each other. There is an effort here to evoke primitivity and extra-legality that are highly racialized and often associated with black population, in order to divorce herself of the white “girl-next-door” image that has been constructed during her early years.
The music video “I’m A Slave 4 U” is less problematic than “Dirrty” because there is more of an emphasis on sexual thirst than racial filth; however, her now-iconic live performance of the song on MTV Video Music Award 2001 heavily relies on this trope of deploying blackness/blackface as well. The set depicts a wild jungle with trees and cages, all of which are dimly lit to stimulate a kind of untamed strangeness and dangerous wildness that parallels with Spear’s uncontrollable sexual energy. Moreover, the performers around her are all black/racialized/in blackface, dancing to a piece of choreography that appropriates West African dance for its “wildness”, which is further enhanced by fetishistic face paint and body paint on the performers and the costumes that are animal-like. Spears herself goes on to dance with actual and exotic animals, a white tiger and an albino Burmese Python, explicit deploying racialized animality to serve her sexualization, portraying her “slaving” for the man mentioned in the song.
What important to note in both Aguilera’s and Spears’ cases is that the deployment of blackness/blackface is very temporary and furtive to untrained eyes: they consume blackness only to sell their primal sexuality and once this image is established, they can simply move on to their next thing. Thus, it further reinforces the status of black people and their culture as commodity, as something that sells. Blacking becomes something that is at once extracted from and imposed upon black population – it is an idea that whiteness produces and reproduces, an idea that exceeds the lives of black people.
Ariana Grande Brownface: A Successful Rachel Dolezal?
Also similar to Spears and Aguilera, Ariana Grande’s recent image transition involves blackface and brownface to sell her image as a “dangerous woman”, which is also the title of her latest album. Grande rose to fame as an teenager thanks to her involvement with the Nickelodeon, which means as she grows older, there is a demand for her to shed the skin of a white bubblegum pop princess in order to attract more mature audience. One of her most successful video “Side to Side” featuring Nicki Minaj follows quite the same formula set up in “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Dirrty”: darkening her skin, using exclusively women of color, enlisting a vulgar rapper to point to an unapologetic proclamation of sexuality. Thus, she fits in quite perfectly in the genealogy that I outline above.
However, on top of the evident blackface in “Side to Side”, she takes it further by putting on brownface for her public image in general. The pop star is very carefully ambiguous when addressing her ethnicity, never explicitly saying that she’s white (Italian) but always insisting that she’s half Sicilian and half Abruzzese to play with this racial indeterminacy. In fact, I was not aware of Grande’s practice of brownfacing until I stumbled into a lecture by Dr. Matthew Guterl at Brown University on Ariana Grande and her unexpected role in activism (Guterl quite interestingly argues that her “soft-core self-reflexive sexuality” and racial indeterminacy-impurity has turned her concert into a target by ISIS).
Guterl’s lecture aside, Ariana Grande’s successful and unquestioned practice of brownfacing suggests that she’s not another transracial joke like Rachel Dolezal. Rather, another mode of transraciality materializes as not so much a complete transition from black to white or vice versa, but it relies on ambiguity and ambivalence, on a sort of racial and sexual exotification that sells in pop culture. If race is a social and colonial construct, then the power is still in the hand of white folks who get to play with and reconstruct their own racial reality to their own advantage.
Love them or hate them, these women have been and will continue to be shaping and reshaping social understanding around representation of femininity and its racial specificity on an international level. In a way, these American pop princesses can be understood as a cultural product to be exported as part of an ongoing imperialist and capitalist project of Western domination. Hence, their utilization of blackface should be seen less of a personal choice than a much larger systemic effort that mobilizes these few white female bodies to export a global formation of races centering around whiteness.
Races, then, should not be taken to be such an American-specific phenomenon that white Europeans or Asians, for instance, can ignore because they live in homogeneous countries. Especially in this age of globalization where the refugee crisis is showing no sign of stopping, there needs to be an effort to thoroughly examine one’s perception of race as being a product of various colonization machines, which includes the export of pop princess icons. This article can be seen as a personal effort for me to look back into my childhood in Vietnam when I enthusiastically consumed these utopic images of femininity, sexuality and whiteness, to ask myself the hard question: Where are the remnants of these racist images in my current self?