Going to a higher state of consciousness, or something
M.I.A. + Holy Fuck
McCarren Park Pool
June 6, 2008
“I know you’re in a swimming pool, but I’m gonna take you to the jungle”: This is basically the stage-patter you can expect at an M.I.A. show. Three years after Arular, deeply entrenched on the summer-festival circuit, she still doesn’t look that comfortable onstage, and her stages have only grown bigger. And so she covers for it by cluttering things up: with backup dancers, with bright neon palmtrees, with random drunk dancing audience members. (That’s what jungles look like, according to M.I.A. Hey, I’ve never been to one, so maybe she’s right.) Glancing at the stage, it’s not always immediately apparent which of the fifty people is M.I.A.; she might be wearing neon-puke nu-rave tights and a fluorescent rainbow wig, but then so are half the people up there. And so this wasn’t exactly a show, at least in the way I’m used to using the term. Fifty people on a big outdoor stage, everyone dancing to badly-amplified bass-heavy synth-beats while someone chirps catchphrases over the top, a vast crowd dancing hard and maybe half-paying attention to what’s going on onstage: this is a rave. And it’s not necessarily anything like the cool early Castle Donnington-type British raves that M.I.A. remembers on “XR2.” Or maybe it’s that; I can’t claim anything like firsthand knowledge. But it’s also something a whole lot less cool. It’s a few thousand high-as-fuck kids in elephant-pants losing their shit to, like, Bad Boy Bill and Scott Henry in a park somewhere. I’ve been to those raves, and I haven’t had fun. The only real substantive differences between then and Friday night: it was over by 10:30 and nobody tried to sell me K.
So maybe that description isn’t entirely fair to M.I.A. Bad Boy Bill, after all, has never put out an album of effortless but tangled-up and powerful button-mashing uber-pop; M.I.A.’s got two of those already. And she could take credit for at least two transcendent pop moments on Friday night: the anthemic ya-ya-hey “Galang” climax and the gun-fingers-up “Paper Planes” chorus. Maybe there were more; I spent damn near a third of her set in the bathroom line. (Note to McCarren Park event planners: If you’re going to sell beer, you really need to step up your Port-a-Potty situation.) Maybe there would’ve been still more if the sound at McCarren Park weren’t so flat and lifeless. And it was heartening to see how completely M.I.A. has crossed over. Thousands upon thousands of people, it turns out, are willing to pay $40 plus service charges to see M.I.A., and her hipster base is only part of the story. These days, she’s pulling in plenty of other crowds: Jnco goths, red-faced fratty types, Flatbush tight-jeans rap kids, moms with kids. But she still hasn’t developed anything resembling a stage-presence. When Rihanna sang “Paper Planes” at Madison Square Garden a few weeks back, she brought way more confidence and verve to it than M.I.A. herself managed on Friday night. Near the end of the set, M.I.A. announced that this would be the last show she’d do promoting Kala since she was canceling her European tour. Maybe when she comes back around, she’ll bring something other than chaos.
Voice feature: Tom Breihan on M.I.A.
Voice review: Robert Christgau on M.I.A.’s Arular
Voice review: Simon Reynolds on M.I.A.’s Arular
Voice review: Douglas Wolk on M.I.A. and Diplo’s Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1
I don’t know if any weird backstage tension came out of this, but Diplo, M.I.A.’s ex, showed up unannounced onstage in an Elmo costume before her set and played “A Milli” and a whole bunch of Baltimore club. He also brought out Rye Rye, the 17-year-old kid who rapped on Blaqstarr’s “Shake It to the Ground.” Rye Rye can’t particularly rap, but she sure can dance, and she stayed out onstage through M.I.A.’s headlining set, usually outshining the backup dancers M.I.A. brought along. I wish M.I.A. had that much fun up there.
Openers the Holy Fuck might be the perfect daytime summer-festival band. Last time I saw them, they were the four anonymous doofs backing up the pink-mohawked Antipop rapper Beans at some eminently forgettable CMJ show. They’re still not much to look at: four dudes who stand in a semicircle, hunched over their equipment, heads bobbing, fiddling away, sort of like Battles without all those godforsaken squeaky noises. But they’ve built a deeply satisfying warm live-electro sound since then. Friday evening, their bleeps and swooshes and crashes piled up just gorgeously, and their best moments (like the single “Lovely Allen) brought a lush, euphoric Chemical Brothers sweep. Even if they didn’t quite demand attention, they were never anything less than pretty, and I’m surprised they haven’t made a run at the jam-band circuit already.