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M.I.A. is mad at MTV. Just recently, she wrote a MySpace blog rant, one that’s since been taken down, about how the MTV-edit version of her “Paper Planes” video has fallen victim to the channel’s standards-and-practices department. The gunshot noises on the track’s hook are gone, replaced with, in her words, “this fucked up mess with double-tracked bullshit mess.” Something similar happened when she did the song on the David Letterman show, except there the gunshot noises got changed to some weird pitch-shifted clicks that sort of sound like the gunshot noises that come from those little wartime-noisemaker toys that I drove my parents nuts with when I was nine.
All this makes a difference because “Paper Planes” is probably the best shot that M.I.A. has of entering the pop mainstream in any significant way without stamping out any of the confounding, ambiguous political subtexts that her music carries. “Paper Planes” is a light and airy and bewitchingly pretty song, but it also rides on a Clash sample and has a chorus that’s all gunshot noises and cash-register chings and a chorus of amped-up kids singing a double-dutch refrain about taking your money. It’s a great song, and its remix is something like an epic, the guest-verses from Bun B and Rich Boy adding manifold layers of anger and desperation and swagger. Bun’s verse, in particular, is a manifesto in favor of directionless violence disguised as a pearl of sage wisdom, done by a virtuoso veteran who has plenty of ideas and knows how to get them across in plain everday language. I’d rather M.I.A. release the remix as the single, but even without Bun and Rich Boy, it’s a dizzying song. Without those gunshot noises, though, the meaning of the track changes massively; it loses all its tense, ominous charge. If M.I.A. is to escape the indie ghetto where she seems increasingly out of place, she’ll do it through a version of her song that’s been gutted of meaning (though, to be fair, it still sounds pretty amazing). On that disappeared MySpace rant, M.I.A. calls it “sabotage.” Should MTV be allowed to pull that stuff?
Lately, 50 Cent has been going on and on about MTV’s double standard, how they’ll change the title of his single “I’ll Still Kill” to “I Still Will” and change the kill on the chorus to chill (as in “I still will chill,” which sounds stupid) but that they won’t think anything of running a video by a band called the Killers. He’s got a point. In my comments section a while back, someone floated the theory that rap sales are nosediving in part because MTV and BET and radio remove anything that sounds like it could possibly be a reference to drugs or sex or violence, and so a lot of rap verses become unlistenable, their bleeped-out silences sometimes outnumbering their actual words. Whenever a rap video wants to imply violence, it has to pull some goofy nonsense where the character’s hand is outside the camera’s frame or whatever. But whenever a big-budget rock band like My Chemical Romance or Green Day or whoever wants to stage a war scene, guns appear again. Maybe “I’ll Still Kill” glorifies violence and that Green Day video doesn’t but what qualifies MTV to make that call? And when it comes to “Paper Planes,” a song with an actual meaning buried under layers of implication, the question of whether or not she’s actually advocating violence gets a whole lot thornier and more ambiguous. MTV probably wants to avoid those questions altogether, so it’s eliminating any possible trace of violence. But the effect ends up being weirdly racial. On the Letterman show, Dave introduced her as being an “acclaimed Sri Lankan rapper,” a label that doesn’t really fit her at all. But MTV is treating “Paper Planes” the way it treats all rap songs, and it’s hard not to wonder how they might’ve handled the video if she were white or played guitar or whatever. The weird thing about all that is that MTV is totally cool with airing commercials of movies or video games that prominently feature guns. Any impressionable little kids watching MTV are learning that violence is cool anyway. So why bother removing gunshot noises from a song? Would the uncensored version of “Paper Planes” really offend anyone?
As it is, the “Paper Planes” video, with its sandwich truck and its computer-generated paper airplanes and its unnecessary Beasties cameo, is still pretty good. It might even get some early-morning airplay, since that’s the only time MTV sees fit to air actual music videos. I remain unconvinced that M.I.A. really has a shot at crossover pop stardom, especially since pop stardom itself has become vastly more nebulous and meaningless over the past few years. More people will probably watch the “Paper Planes” video online than on MTV anyway, and it’s not as if the uncensored version would inspire rioting in the streets even if it premiered on prime-time network TV during Lost or whatever. But “Paper Planes” is a song that deserves to start a few arguments, and it should go out into the wider world with its argument-starting potential left intact. So, I’d argue, should “I Still Kill”; that one is lifeless gangsta cliche and the other is confused capitalist critique is immaterial. Nobody expects MTV (or BET or radio) to be a stronghold of mainstream morality anyway, so what’s the difference? It’s not as though antisocial, dangerous ideas are disappearing from popular music, but the cultural outlets in which that music makes itself heard are increasingly afraid of offending anyone, ever, for any reason. That weird standoff between artists and gatekeepers means that we can’t watch videos on TV or listen to music on the radio without a whole lot of songs being reduced to meaningless gibberish. No wonder so many of us are downloading.