The Internet on Appropriation

The Internet has a wonderful way of raising its collective voice on issues of social justice, and cultural appropriation in particular. It also has a way of yelling through the computer screen, so googling appropriation is a little bit scary to me. I am certain that I have done wrong, (mis)appropriated culture(s) unconsciously or semi-consciously, and caused someone else harm. And I am certain that somewhere in the World Wide Web someone has written an appropriate response - a scolding grounded in perspective, perhaps - to the approximate wrong I've done. 

I am equally certain that there is more noise than nuance on the internet, and that much of the noise is too mean to engage with (or best considered as catharsis). But don't be fooled! I love The Internet because I love conversation. I do not trust my opinion to grow and inform itself in a vacuum. I don't fully trust my immediate surroundings to educate me, so I seek out alternate sources (and a lot of them). The following pieces are contemplations that have helped me sort through and develop my own thoughts. I have done some editing and brought to you The Internet, at it's best.

I suggest that you read the pieces below in order. The first is a short, sophisticated primer on cultural appropriation, complete with its own links to related source material. The second is the entirety of author Lionel Shriver's controversial speech at The Brisbane Writer's Conference, which I present as context, and the third is a compilation of peer reactions to Shriver's speech. After the jump, I share a few excerpts and thoughts of my own.


The Cultural Appropriation Primer by K. Tempest Bradford

Fiction and Identity Politics by Lionel Shriver

Whose life is it anyway? Novelists Have Their Say On Cultural Appropriation by Assorted Writers of Fiction


"Honesty and precision are one sort of currency."

Nisi Shawl


"Attempting to think one’s way into other subjectivities, other experiences, is an act of ethical urgency. For those who have never experienced the luxury of normativity, the warm and fuzzy feeling of being the world’s default setting, humility in the face of otherness seems like a minimal demand."

Hari Kunzru


"The solution is simple, my fearful friends. Give up. Accept that some things are not for you, and others are not about you. You will find you have lost nothing."

Hari Kunzru


"Readers are mostly ignored in this debate, but the worldly and widely read reader has a hinterland, is quick to spot an agenda and is willing to call out fakes. Readers are more heterogeneous than writers will ever be, and in their multiplicity a book finds its measure of truth."

Chris Cleave


In many ways, I agree with Chris Cleave's call (above) to use the temperature of a work's readership (i.e. public opinion) as a guide. The objectionable-ness of a work could well be measured by the quality and number of objections to it, no? Readers know honesty. They are not fools. They can be the judges.


Somewhat relatedly, one common refrain in authorial responses to the conversation around cultural appropriation in fiction is that good novels or "good writing" cannot appropriate cultures in a problematic way.  A lot of (mostly, and probably not coincidentally, white) authors bring up "good" as opposed to "bad" writing, and I think (or hope) that they stand so fervently behind the assertion that "good writing and good writers can do what they want" is because they use "good writing" not only as a shortcut for well-researched, cogent, coherent and thoughtful writing, but also for something a bit more "mystical," if you will.

Authors (and I) like to think that writing can ask and sometimes answer, albeit obliquely, our most fundamental questions. "Good writing" should be so precisely observed that it could only come from a place of genuine curiosity. It should have no agenda, and that combination of specificity and guilelessness makes it something like accurate or true. Truths are something like emotional, as opposed to historical, facts. When sitting in the realm of honesty and compassion and connection, cultural appropriation is an afterthought because we, as readers and writers (and people) are right on the brink of what connects us to every other reader and writer. 

I Beg You To Listen To This Version of Chelsea Hotel No. 2

A cover of Leonard Cohen to listen to while we (its singer & I) talk about cover songs as an artform (or not).

Hello, World!

Hi Alice! This is our google doc. Would you respond positively if I asked you to introduce yourself?

Indeed I would! I’m a 22-year-old student, bartender, and musician in New York, and when I’m not engaging in one of those activities you can usually find me cross-stitching or drinking Jameson on the couch with my cat.

What are you studying? When do you make music? Why do you make music? (Is cross-stitching like needlepoint?)

I’m a Religion major at Barnard College. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why I made that choice, but I do enjoy it about as much as I can imagine enjoying school ... In terms of when I make music, I like to think that there’s a constant energy of development in the air between me and my band mates. I am unbelievably lucky to be in my band Social Skills, which is a trio with my very dear friends Nina Khoury and Zakk Bluford. Nina and I have both done a good deal of songwriting for the band, but Nina especially is an extremely talented and prolific songwriter. We always say that we are each other's’ best editors, which I think has a lot to do with the differences in our musical sensibilities that can often clash and meld in ways that neither of us would have thought of on our own.

Tell us about the circumstances behind this cover (Chelsea Hotel No. 2). And I would really love it if you would talk a little bit about Leonard Cohen.

I did this cover with the amazingly talented Zack Dawson and Mark Sundermeyer at Beyond Collective in D.C. It was my senior year of high school. They were super fun to work with, and extremely patient with my nervousness-- it was my first time in a professional studio and I was 18 and in awe, trying to act cool when I was just so floored. I really wanted to cover this song, and Zack and Mark kind of just made this amazing, moody atmosphere materialize in the instrumentation. It was exactly the sound I wanted, and I ended up just staying in the sound booth for an hour or so layering the harmonies. The process of this record felt so natural and had a very cool and satisfying rhythm to it, and I definitely have Zack and Mark to thank for that.

“Chelsea Hotel No. 2” became my favorite song the first time I heard it, and I loved it in such a greedy, hungry way-- I wanted to make it my own, and I got the chance when I teamed up with Mark and Zack. I remember being really satisfied with myself at the presentation of senior projects because I got to project my voice singing the lyrics “giving me head on the unmade bed” in front of all my teachers and peers. Very mature of me.

I have loved Leonard Cohen since I first discovered him. I had heard “Hallelujah” a million times through osmosis, but strangely enough my first true introduction to Leonard Cohen came by way of James Taylor. I’ve never really liked James Taylor, but my parents used to have a CD of covers that he did in the early-2000s. One of the first songs on it is “Suzanne,” and I remember hearing it and being enchanted by the lyrics. It’s sort of lame way to discover a favorite artist--via another artist you don’t particularly like-- but I think it says something kind of lovely about the poetry of Leonard Cohen. I was a little kid, probably 9 or 10, and there I was sitting on the living room floor connecting with these words written by a somber, middle-aged Canadian guy. I then started to listen to Leonard himself, and there was no going back.

Oh, that’s such a convenient answer seeing that I really want to segue into covering as an artform, and where the impulse to do so comes from. I love covers, and I love covering things. I am nowhere near good enough at anything to make covers that I think are “good” but there handfuls of covers that I will always like better (or as much - in the case of Sufjan’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris”) than the originals. But regardless of their merit as standalone ventures, I think covers are a fascinating artform - and I do think they’re an artform, but that opinion is heavily influenced by how fun I think they are to make. So perhaps what I’m really interested in is why are they so fun to make? And fun can mean satisfying or interesting or agonizing or any number of other things. That’s my question for you: Why do you like making covers? And then the follow up: how do you feel about making them?

It’s so interesting that you bring up the different implications of fun, because I think music is just the most deeply fun and joyous activity, but it also can be--to use your word--completely agonizing. I find that working on original music is both the most rewarding and the most draining activity in my life, I think because sharing original material is nerve-wracking, since you’re so attached to it in a very direct way. So that’s part of what’s so fun and lovely about covers, is that one the one hand, they feel more low-stakes, but on the other hand, they still have a tremendous amount of depth--they inevitably express something very close and intimate about the person covering, because unless they’re getting paid, no one ever chooses to cover something that isn’t close to their heart in some way.

I love covers, because covering a song is the closest you can really get to crawling into a thing that you love. It is a sort of possessiveness, which I definitely felt when I was recording “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.” I do subscribe to the fairly popular opinion that most covers are, in practice, pretty bad, and that the greatest successes are usually a big stylistic departure from the original material. I’ve noticed that I much prefer recording covers of songs by male artists, because it forces me to warp and stretch a bit musically. When I’ve covered songs I love by female artists with a similar vocal range to mine, I think that love translates into a sort of reverence that makes me stay true to the original in a way that can come off flat and kind of pointless. But if I’m covering Leonard Cohen, for example, it’s going to be different, and it’s going to be a departure from his version, because I couldn’t sound anything like Leonard Cohen i if tried. It makes me start from square one. That definitely translates to my tastes, and some of my favorite covers are Bon Iver on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and James Blake doing Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.”

I also will always admire the songs of, the paintings of, the clothes of, the hair of, whatever, of other people (i.e. people who are not me). There’s something really enchanting about only knowing the partial origin story of something, and the appeal of that “faraway” quality makes it so that even if I could write a good song (which I can’t), it would always be worse than a good song by the likes of Leonard Cohen or yourself.

And then it’s also cool to be able to align yourself with - possess, maybe? - your heroes.







Diamonds & Rust, Reimagined.

Liberties taken by Susannah Emerson.

Backbone by Joan Baez.


Well, I'll be damned 

I’m in your house again

You stayed here an extra week

To stand there and cook for me

And you knew it would work.


Back for you

To tell me how cruel it was 

To send you a story I’d wrote 

A number of winters ago 

on how you made me a child.


I have a good memory, you said - 

That is, for my version of things -

But you won’t say more than that

Suddenly you’d hit the thrust

And were quite a bit drunk.


Five years ago

I sent you ant candy

I wanted to your near me

We both know what memories can bring

They bring itches and lust.


Now eventually

You decided you missed me

Might hit Spain to see me

But I had a loved one in grief

And was sane for the spring.


And for a moment you see

You were a friend to me

But I painted you once times three

And when you are in paintings from me

There’s nowhere to go.


You once feared you’d hurt me

Tucked your eyes down cause I watched with great care

Said I was right not to trust you

You were too lost to be something like fair

Your breath comes out sweetly

Words don’t land when I’m cut with your stare

Speaking strictly for me,

We both could’ve died then and there.


Now you’re label free

Assembling tables -

Destinguished and able -

You who found a place for an e  

When it’s not really there.


I need your shaky hand now;

I see you too clearly.

I still love you dearly,

And if you'd say a sorry to me

I’d write a much nicer song.




The Original