How M.I.A. (and America) Got Her Swagger Back


When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. Or they demand comically oversized jewelry in exchange for romantic fealty. Or they commit armed robbery to combat global inequality, just as they did to tremendous acclaim last year. Your choice. But if you could only grab hold of two things in 2008 (and God help you if a voting lever wasn’t one of them), the choice between a MasterCard, Jay-Z’s hand in marriage, or a gun wasn’t much of a choice at all once the economy went straight to hell just as Obama ascended. All hail the right to bear arms: “Paper Planes” is the top single of 2008. That it actually came out in summer 2007 is mere trivia.

A quick word on that trivia: M.I.A. prevails via Pazz & Jop’s time-honored Chuck Eddy Corollary ©, whereupon votes from the previous year’s poll are added to those from the current one, provided it’s not merely the same voters touting the same song/album twice. Fifty voters hailed “Paper Planes” a year ago; to that tally we add 57 new converts, though whether they are “new” or “converted” is debatable, as are the details of that debatable conversion. Was the song’s resurgence due to 1) the triumphant and exhilarating political climate, crossed with the patently hideous socioeconomic climate; or 2) prime placement in the Pineapple Express trailer, the chorus’s gunshots synched up to on-screen gunshots, the chorus’s cash-register ring synched up to James Franco punching Rosie Perez in the face?

The Rosie Perez thing probably explains the song’s absurd iTunes surge, that’s true. And to graft too much of our currently fraught political moment onto M.I.A.—to exalt her as some sort of Robin Hood/Joan of Arc/Tom Joad figure, our angel of proletarian vengeance—doesn’t quite scan: She is engaged to a Bronfman and made her highest-profile public appearance (and inadvertent pregnancy announcement) of 2008 at a ludicrously extravagant Diesel party in Brooklyn, rubbing shoulders with T.I. and N*E*R*D mere months after threatening to quit music forever. But the gleeful subversion of “Paper Planes” isn’t worth resisting; that next month she might conceivably accept the Record of the Year Grammy for it and then give birth onstage is a delirious prospect. The song simultaneously hails a monumental electoral victory and seethes at a monumental financial collapse, consolidating what we’ve already won and laying out a blueprint to take back what we’ve lost. By force. And then, like James Franco, perchance we would deign to do the Worm. In slow motion.

Neither Estelle’s “American Boy” nor Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” carry quite that much subtext, though a few P&J voters posit the latter as a brutally bittersweet gay-club anthem in the wake of California’s gay-marriage-squashing Proposition 8, Election Day’s other major portent. The former is a bit more lighthearted. Perhaps we gravitated toward Estelle—a chirpy, strategically sassy Brit—simply to thank her for stimulating our economy; that she’s probably just taking advantage of our weakening dollar and weakening pop-superstar power structure is forgivable or, at the very least, not her fault. (That she’s charmed us via a frivolous vacation-montage of a song wherein she and Kanye West discuss her starry-eyed longing to become a spoiled little L.A. girl is just hilarious.) The bassline alone is buoyant enough, but Estelle’s lithe and bubbly delivery is thrilling, too, and doubly so because she uses it to describe America as someplace magical and desirable—an interest in and affection toward us the international community has not offered much lo these past eight years. She sang, “I’ve never been to Brooklyn/And I’d like to see what’s good” without an ounce of sarcasm. (What’s good in Brooklyn: Santogold and MGMT, i.e., an M.I.A. analog who entered the Converse-ad tier of rock stardom by mocking faux-bohemian artistes, and faux-bohemian artistes mocking the depravity of rock stardom, respectively.)

Already, in 2009, we’ve had some corners insist that this peculiar moment in time—our exquisite mixture of hope and abject terror—will change What We Want From Pop Music, and other corners insisting that that’s just flighty academic bullshit, that we’re no more prone to escapism and frivolity than we ever were. (For the record, my two favorite songs this year are called “Hot N Cold” and “Pork and Beans”—neither one struck me as particularly timely.) It stands to reason that “Blind” or “White Winter Hymnal” or “A Milli” would resonate with their respective core constituencies regardless of what those constituencies were holding in their hearts or their 401Ks at that exact moment. Would the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood howling “I got a whole lot of debt/And a whole lot of fear” on “The Righteous Path” have hit harder (re: the fear) or softer (re: the debt) a year ago? How many fewer people would’ve voted for Young Jeezy’s “My President” if his president turned out not to be black? And who does M.I.A. ultimately have to thank for “Paper Planes” slowly morphing from a major critical smash to the major critical smash that’s also a minor commercial smash? Obama? T.I.? Bernie Madoff? Or Seth Rogen?

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