M.I.A.’s Arular, for me, falls into that gap between “what’s not to like?” and actual outright love. The record sounds great. The voice, with its expertly slack enunciation and insistent insolence, is addictive. And yet, trust me here, it’s not simply knee-jerk recalcitrance in the face of hype that makes me feel there’s something ever so slightly off-putting about the whole phenomenon.
The music’s canny composite of street beats makes all the right connections, organizing a pan-global conference call between Kingston’s concrete jungles, Dalston’s grimy council estates, Rio’s funky favelas, and, er, whatever the name is for the bad areas reggaeton hails from. Brit blogger Woebot coined the witty term “shanty house” as a catchall for all these world-is-a-ghetto musics: impurist genres (see also: kwaito, desi) that typically suture bastardized vestiges of indigenous folk forms to pirated elements of rap, rave, and bass ‘n’ booty. Locally rooted but plugged into the global media sphere, these scenes don’t bother overmuch with sample clearances, and vibe-wise they typically project ruffneck raucousness leavened with party-up calls to shake dat ass. They also speak, vividly if obliquely, of a new world disorder where Tupac Shakur vies with Bin Laden as a T-shirt icon and terrorists keep in touch via text messaging.
Seemingly the inevitable emanation of the shanty house theory, M.I.A. isn’t just a perfect pushes-all-the-right-now-buttons package for media and marketers to build a buzz around. She’s a veritable vortex of discourse, catalyzing fevered debate around most likely irresolvable questions concerning authenticity, postcolonialism, cultural tourism, appropriation, and dilettantism. She’s a dissertation (“Riddims of Resistance: Sub-Bass and Sub-altern Pressure”) given fine fleshly form.
Pulp’s Steve Mackey has some production involvement in Arular, which is sorta funny given that M.I.A., a former St. Martin’s College art student, has a tiny bit in common with “Common People” ‘s downwardly mobile posh girl, also enrolled at St. Martin’s. Neneh Cherry often comes up as a reference point, but I’d say Neneh’s old white Rasta flatmate Ari Up is more apt: the outsider who’s worked hard to master the walk and the talk. Don’t let M.I.A.’s brown skin throw you off: She’s got no more real connection with the favela funksters than Prince Harry. There’s also some sleight of hand involved in her refugee/”freedom fighter father” credentials. (Arular gets its name from her dad’s guerrilla alias.) Sourced in the insubordinate energy of street soljas across the globe, her music vaguely evokes third-world-versus-first- world struggle, but the actual independence movement M.I.A.’s dad was involved in (Tamil Tigers versus the Sinhalese majority government of Sri Lanka) doesn’t fit that model. Like Rwanda, it’s an ethnic war within a third-world nation.
Seeing M.I.A. onstage at the Knitting Factory a couple weeks back didn’t really help dislodge me from the proverbial fence in either direction: Swayed by her chutzpah and ability to deliver live, I was also turned off by the stencil-sprayed projection imagery of grenades, tanks, and so forth (redolent of the Clash with their strife-torn Belfast stage backdrops and Sandinista cred by association). And what was up with having four genuwine black girls from the ‘hood troop onstage to dance for a bit, before M.I.A. herself materialized? They danced, not very well as it happens, to her DJ Diplo’s expert meshing of the Cure’s “Love Cats” with Snoop’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (cats and dogs, geddit?), while the 99 percent white audience punched the air.
Perhaps they simply don’t care (and fair enough) about the rockist trinity of categories by which music is usually judged valid: (1) context, (2) content, (3) intent. For (1), as we’ve seen, the modus operandi on Arular essentially is decontextualization (placing her in the tradition of Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock as much as, say, Ms. Dynamite). Content-wise, we’re talking a blend of undeniable sass and radical chic, the latter ranging from the already infamous no-surrender line about the PLO in “Sunshowers” to the distinctly incoherent politicking of “Pop” (hidden track 13) to the way the drum machine beats often sound like gunfire. As for “intent,” I’m inclined to give M.I.A. the benefit of the doubt and take her desire to be down with the most exciting sounds around as both pure-hearted and totally understandable. Nor is it likely, as some accuse, that her success will impinge on the sales of grime, baile funk, etc. (if anything there’ll be a slight trickle-down effect). In the end, what keeps me teetering on that fence is that for all M.I.A.’s evident intelligence, feistiness, great taste in Other Peoples’ Music, and terrific backstory, what’s missing from Arular is character: not quirkiness (although she’s no Bruza or Elephant Man) so much as local character—those telling details that transmit the true flava of a scene. Arular, strictly speaking, comes from nowhere.