M.I.A. showed up as part of Spank Rock’s entourage on Friday night at Irving Plaza; photo by Rebecca Smeyne
by Bret Gladstone
“Fucking interview me man!” some guy shouts in my ear.
“With that fucking notebook!”
“Right! First question: Why are you wearing a headband and wristbands?”
“I just came from a dodge-ball game.”
“How did it go?”
“We killed those fuckers!”
“Ok! Well, thanks.”
“Yeah, right, M.I.A!”
Terminal 5, the newest venue presented by Bowery Presents, is pretty much as it sounds–a vast, three tiered airline hanger for the hipster-set which gets progressively clubbier the higher you travel inside it. On the second floor, there’s a comfortable little lounge with swank leather couches and a bar that charges you ten dollars for a jack-and-coke. The building still smells of fresh paint, has an over-abundance of cheap chandeliers, and everything is new new new : new styles, new tastes, new haircuts. And for just its second show, M.I.A: surfing the charging crest of acceleration, her music so catchy and “culturally eclectic,” and did you see Robert Christ-Gau nearly giving himself a stroke fawning over her in his Rolling Stone review? Oh, man. And not even a backlash to the hype, so prodigious is the talent in that tiny frame, so great her capacity to instill fear and awe in all those who surround her. M.I.A!
M.I.A., however, is appropriately nowhere to be found. This is not meant to be ironic. Actually, she’s just late as fuck. As a result, two psychotically over-long DJ sets presage her appearance on stage, which is appropriate for two disparate reasons. First, Terminal 5 is capitalizing on that new hipster sub-strain formed by the confluence of indie-rock and dance music, and DJ culture–where the “artist” is applauded as much for his taste and sense of ironic contrast as he is for preserving momentum and shaking asses–is pretty much the space where the ethics of indie-rock and pop converge.
More importantly, I’m entirely convinced these long sets are a premeditated tactic to psychologically condition us to her music. Hell, to psychologically condition us as an appropriate audience for her music, which is more disturbing. Mash-ups of Biggie and Queen build energy to a fever pitch, then, as the whole thing gets incredibly tedious, that energy coalesces with frustration into rage. Suddenly, we’re an angry crowd, an audience verging on becoming a mob–a mob that’s had the slogans, chants, and shibboleths of pop music drilled into our skulls for over two hours. And M.I.A.’s music loves slogans and angry crowds. In fact, much of its genius lies in how it understands that kind of psychology, and it thrives on antagonism. So here we are: more than mildly pissed off, jostling and sweating and pushing, and helplessly subjected to the whims of her absolute authority. In other words, she’s basically re-created the environment of political outrage.
Then the lights drop, and the panoramic screen behind the DJ altar shows an Asian man standing over a podium spewing anarchist propaganda in subtitles. He is marginally angrier than we are:
There is no other option but to abandon the country….
Destroy it all….
To speak precisely, I have nothing but contempt for you and this system….
Reforms will do nothing….
There is no choice but to overthrow the government….
Heralded by a storm of simulated gun-shots (a la “Paper Planes”) and real screams, M.I.A. hits the stage wearing a baggy, sequined blouse belted over elaborately reflective tights, and a feathered black hat which is purely ridiculous. The crowd goes fucking ape-shit, and continues to do so for about an hour and a half. Which is understandable. M.I.A. is a completely authoritative performer. She has the aura of a political demagogue–the type of person whose charisma is founded in how their ideologies and righteous indignation are equaled in intensity only by their vanity. Of all the chants she leads through the night, M.I.A.’s clear favorite is “M.I.A.” At a certain point in the show, she becomes her own ideology, which in its way is very empowering.
The show itself is nothing less than an informational barrage. M.I.A works hard to manifest the chaos of her music in an actual environment, and, more than that, to actively create discomfort, energy, and yes, anger, through sensory overload. Behind her, that enormous screen becomes a canvas for mass hypnosis, bombarding us with disembodied images–break-dancing street kids, strippers, tigers, war footage, video games, political rhetoric, graphs, globes, and a fair share of heaving crowds which mirror the one she’s facing. M.I.A. performs in the middle of those two crowds–artificial and human–as in the eye of a storm. At one point, the two blur when she orders a good part of the audience to storm the stage. It’s a striking image–all colors and movement, MIA lost somewhere in the middle of the mass, head banging so that her hair flies around in circles. She’s the type of artist who actually looks most at home with a throng of bodies writhing behind her, singing like she’s leading a march.
That singing isn’t really “singing” in the conventional sense. Like Thom Yorke, M.I.A is brilliant at staging her voice within as well as against her production, using it (like Yorke can) mainly as another sound-shaping instrument. Like any form of chant, most of her lyrics are etched in her listener’s minds by virtue of the fact that they’re inexorably locked to her percussion. Almost entirely devoid of conventional melody, M.I.A’s music puts a religious amount of emphasis on rhythm–not just the cross-cultural ones she’s mined for postmodern collage, but mainly the rhythms of chants, hooks, and slogans–anything she can isolate and repeat to move torsos and ignite crowds. She loves those devices so much, in fact, that she doesn’t discriminate between their “high” and “low” forms. To read the fact that politicized chants like “Pull up the People” run right along side pop hooks like “Whoomp There it is”–or that “Paper Planes” is a variation on “Rump Shaker”–as pure satire is to miss half the point (at least).
When bodies move, they’re indoctrinated in one sense or the other.
Ultimately, the compelling thing about M.I.A isn’t that she’s woven political weight into pop music. Rather, it’s that she’s located how intensely political the pop song is by its very nature.