Is the "Swagger Wagon" Racist, Silly, or a Disturbing Ongoing Trend?

The Busta Rhymes-aided "Swagger Wagon" advertisement is getting all sorts of negative attention for Toyota. Yet is it racist, or just typifying an emerging trend of cultural insensitivity?

Toyota has been blasting out a lot of videos on its YouTube channel to promote its forthcoming 2015 Sienna, all in an attempt to try and make a good solid viral campaign, going with everything from fathers having conversations/getting pep talks from the vehicle to kids pretending they're in their own action movie. It's actually a nice way to kind of "road test" (forgive the puns) ads to see what reaction is before buying slots from advertisers, which costs far more money than actually making the clips themselves.

Yet no one is talking about those previously-mentioned ads at the moment. Right now, everyone is talking about the "Swagger Wagon" ... and if the entire video is actually racist.

The clip -- which opens up with the daughter of a white suburban family saying "All right: listen up motherfathers!" over a Bangladesh-styled beat -- has raised a lot of eyebrows, as it plays on the "white people who shouldn't be rapping actually rapping" trope, but does so with a severity and commitment that had made some people question just how much cultural appropriation is enough for what is really supposed to be an innocuous ad for a mini-van.

Yet, clips featuring white people rapping for comedic effect have been around for years, and what a lot of critics are focusing on is the inclusion of Busta Rhymes this time around, as if adding an established rapper somehow gives "legitimacy" to what is so obviously a parody of genre standbys, his presence really pulling the clip's cultural clout into sharp focus. Stereogum writer Chris DeVille rounded up a lot of the knee-jerk reactions the ad has been receiving, and then ends by asking a much more potent question: "If Toyota made the same commercial but with a black suburban family, would people be more or less pissed off?"

While some might simply note this clip is ultimately a joke that's either tone-deaf or just went a bit too far -- but isn't intrinsically racist -- there has been a recent trend of heightened sensitivity around cultural re-appropriation in pop music, and a surprising amount of it has come out just within the last year alone.

Last year, tween starlet Alison Gold released "Chinese Food", a pop song that's, well, about liking Chinese food. The song was a product of Ark Music Factory, a company where rich parents can plunk a few thousand dollars down on their kids and have a professional-sounding pop song and corresponding music video get made. Their most famous client was Rebecca Black, and although not a single Ark Music signee has been able to match Black's viral outbreak, Gold came the closest with "Chinese Food". While the song sounds innocent-enough to some, others found it racially insensitive, what with her naming some foods that aren't actually Chinese, her dressed up like a Japanese geisha near the end, and a camera zoom to the Oriental Avenue space on a Monopoly board.

While the accusations of racism were short-lived, a little bit of digging shows that Gold actually seems to not have any problems with cultural reappropriation at all ... because she's already done something far far worse.

While "Chinese Food" opens with the somewhat questionable lines "After ballin' / I go clubbin'" (very odd terminology to hear from a young white girl), that is nothing compared to what she did a mere ten months prior to the release of "Chinese Food" -- she was in a rap duo called Tweenchronic. While their song "Skip Rope" wasn't in and of itself all that inappropriate, the music video -- again produced by Ark Music's Patrice Wilson -- doesn't play on archetypes as much as it does out-and-out stereotypes. One child in the music video is presented as "dealer", selling lots of sugary sweets like candy bars and pixie sticks to pre-teens while Gold and her rapper friend Stacy buy cans of Arizona Ice Tea and take it out of the store wrapped in brown paper bags (which is to say nothing of them rapping in front of a police car with sirens spinning):

The video has been seen by a million people (scant compared to the 15 million that "Chinese Food" gathered), and has been widely condemned by those who actually took the time to view it. Although Gold has released follow-up music since "Chinese Food" first hit, it's obvious that her 15 minutes of fame are obviously up, the novelty of the song having crested long ago.

Yet small-time viral cilps are one thing -- big name pop stars deal with problems in a much more public forum. On the Katy Perry cover story of issue 1215 of Rolling Stone, writer Brian Hiatt isn't afraid to brief Perry on many of the same "insensitive" issues that have been levied against her at one time or another:

"We turn to the issue of her alleged cultural insensitivity. She's been criticized for having big-bootied mummies dance in her tour (one critic called them 'hyper-sexualized caricatures of black women's bodies'); dressing up as a geisha at the American Music Awards, and a stereotypical, yarmulke-wearing Jewish comedian in her 'Birthday' video; and for including a split-second scene in her 'Dark Horse' video in which a guy wearing a pendant that reads ALLAH is disintegrated (she ended up altering that one).

"[...]She knows the rules are changing, that cultural appropriation is increasingly uncool, but she's not thrilled about it. 'I guess I'll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that's it,' she says. 'I know that's a quote that's gonna come to fuck me in the ass, but can't you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don't know.'"

Ultimately, not much may come from the "Swagger Wagon" clip outside of a more incisive discussion of cultural co-opting in the media (very doubtful this is going to help sales of Siennas, though). That being said, it's worth noting the increasing frequency of which these accusations are appearing, all of these issues above having come up within the course of the past year, which is to say nothing of Wayne Coyne's Native American headdress flap (much less Pharrell's), OutKast's supposedly racially-insensitive Grammy performance nearly a decade ago, or even Lily Allen's recent defense of the use of using twerking black dancers in her "Hard Out Here" clip (which is just a drop in the barrel compared to the swarm of Miley Cyrus thinkpieces we all had to read last year).

Needless to say, it's doubtful you'll hear anyone calling a Toyota Sienna a "Swagger Wagon" anytime soon.

Owls, Aliens, and Others

Essayist Brian Phillips is no staunch empiricist, nor does he want to shatter delusions or expose machinations. In Impossible Owls, he is content to remain in a wide-eyed and owl-ier place.

Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.