With profit margins slimming in the music industry, the idea that Avril Lavigne’s April 22nd video release for “Hello Kitty” (the fifth single from her album Avril Lavigne) even exists shouldn’t be nearly as surprising as it has already proven to be. The internet has buzzed with aghast and knee-jerk reactions to the song’s dubstep-meets-rock sound and robotic, terribly stereotyped Japanese women dancing behind the Canadian pop star. However, if we pause, breathe, and take a deeper look, “Hello Kitty” doesn’t look so bad at all. Rather, it looks worse. In being the ultimate example to-date of what desperate times do to desperate people, this is a moment when the music industry must contemplate greater acceptance of sustainable practices so that artists need not consider videos like “Hello Kitty” as absolute necessities insofar as maintaining financial stability.
Starting in 2002 with hugely successful mainstream pop singles “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi,” Avril Lavigne’s career as a teen pop star making the awkward crossover to adult hit-maker had actually in no way been effected by the bottom falling out on sales of recorded music until 2011. Her first three albums (Let Go, Under My Skin and The Best Damn Thing) were all released prior to 2008, and sold a combined 40 million copies. As well, she sold a grand total of well over 10 million singles globally in that same time period. Also, in the first six years of her mainstream career, Lavigne went on three world tours and grossed a total of $22 million. How does an artist who clearly has mainstream appeal go from being a certifiable Billboard chart-buster and worldwide box office draw to being a 29-year old woman wearing a skirt adorned with cupcakes while name dropping a famous Japanese lifestyle brand? In the answer more-than-likely involving the words fear and desperation, it bespeaks of a sad reality facing many who market pop music and brand pop stars.
According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s (IFPI) 2014 “Digital Music Report,” global music sales dipped to $15 billion dollars overall in 2013. Comparatively, in 2008, spurred by a massive decline in American sales, the 2009 IFPI Report showed global sales hitting $18.42 billion. Though the drop in sales is only 19 percent in five years, the broadening of available avenues of revenue from music in the past five years must be considered. How this affected Avril Lavigne must be addressed when attempting to put together the why of the “Hello Kitty” song and video’s existence.
To date, Avril Lavigne’s 2007 album The Best Damn Thing has sold eight million copies worldwide. By comparison, her current release Avril Lavigne has sold in excess of 650,000 copies overall. The 92% drop off in album sales may have something to do with album content, but it almost certainly has something to do as well with people buying less music overall. Even further, when looking at the markets where her music performs best, throughout her career, the gap between her sales in the United States and Japan is intriguing, as the margin shrinks from 6:1 to 3:1 to 2:1 for her first three albums. Insofar asr her 2011 and 2013 releases, Japan actually overtakes the United States as her best-selling market.
In breaking down the numbers, the reasoning for “Hello Kitty” is abundantly clear. Japan is Lavigne’s top market in a global marketplace that is increasingly difficult to sell to, and thus a video obviously pandering to said market was shot. Intriguingly enough, if one were to look at the aforementioned 2014 IFPI Digital Music Report numbers, music sales in Japan fell 16.7 percent in 2013, thus placing Lavigne’s ability to successfully push to her best-selling audience in danger. Again, if looking at “Hello Kitty” and trying to figure out why this quite possibly racist clip was shot? Blame complete desperation.
Yes, I’m also aware (as likely were Avril Lavigne’s team) that the concept of white female pop stars making money off of Japanese stereotypes has been done before. From 2004-2008, No Doubt lead singer Gwen Stefani’s highly successful solo career was intrinsically intertwined with the Harajuku district of Tokyo, and its trademark street fashion. However, instead of appearing as if it were a hastily ascribed notion to boost her career ascent, Stefani’s clear comfort with and organic embrace of Japanese culture and the Japanese people caused few to raise an eyebrow in a manner serious enough to say, have a video be pulled down from Youtube and Stefani be subject to massive public derision. In Lavigne appearing awkward and less-than-comfortable in the video for “Hello Kitty,” she fails at mimicking Gwen Stefani, and may have possibly lost full grip on the future of her career.
On May 14, 2002, Avril Lavigne released “Complicated,” an inoffensive and fun “Song of the Year” Grammy award-nominated single featuring fun-loving teenagers wreaking havoc in a shopping mall and skateboarding at a skate park. Nearly 12 years to the day, Lavigne released “Hello Kitty,” a pop song with the lyrics “come, come kitty kitty, you’re so pretty pretty” — co-written by Lavigne and the lead singer of Nickelback (her husband Chad Kroeger) — and featuring a video that is insensitive, stereotypical and insulting to Japanese people. As the adage says, desperate times certainly call for desperate measures.
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