In Defense of M.I.A., Circa April 26, 2010


She released an incoherent polemic of a video featuring nudity (NSFW!) and some truly distasteful violence (child murder! landmines!). For some reason, Pitchfork handed her the keys to their Twitter feed; she’s spent the day spewing out streams of “go egosurfing DRINK A SHOT OF TEQUILLA spamouflaged in brandalism #miap4k” and “R MY C/LOK KEYS REALLY REALLY REALLLLLLLLLLY OFFENDING U OK ILL TAKE THEM OFF” as the #miap4K hashtag became a vector for a familiar brand of mildly inconvenienced internet backlash and rage. So what’s her crime here again, exactly?

Once, M.I.A.’s particular blend of fractured identity–a Tamil Tiger’s daughter turned London expatriate and budding young painter, designer, musician etc.–and sonics (the now well-thumbed blend of rap, “Roadrunner,” bhangra, etc.) was pretty much the reason people liked her. Being theatrically unintelligible was part of the schtick–was she a Tiger sympathizer? What the fuck was “Galang” about, exactly? The best early take on her schizophrenic public posture came via, who else, Robert Christgau:

M.I.A. has no consistent political program and it’s foolish to expect one of her. Instead she feels the honorable compulsion to make art out of her contradictions. The obscure particulars of those contradictions compel anyone moved by her music to give them some thought, if only for an ignorant moment–to recognize and somehow account for them. In these perilous, escapist days, that alone is quite a lot.

For special consideration, Christgau singled out Simon Reynolds, who’d written, “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.” This was cheap: “Not just because brown skin is always real, but because M.I.A.’s documentable experience connects her to world poverty in a way few Western whites can grasp.” That was 2005.

Since then, she’s tacked on a bunch more of what you might call “first world”-type contradictions: a relationship with Ben Brewer, the son of WMG mogul Edgar Miles Bronfman, Jr.; a deal with that same label, via XL/Interscope; plus ad campaigns, licensing checks, a fashion line, and her own budding label. “I don’t want to talk about money,” she says on “Born Free,” “’cause I got it.”

No doubt. And a lot of the mystery about M.I.A. has fallen away in the years she’s more or less called New York her home. You could see her onstage at the Grammys, eight and a half months pregnant and rapping with Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and T.I, and easily mistake her for what she’s always sort of been–one of the cool kids. Especially in music critic-type circles, this has always been one of the cardinal sins, or at least it is when it happens in the present. And you don’t need to be hung up on who is or isn’t a hipster to be miffed at how easily M.I.A. seemed to join a society she once pointedly disdained and placed herself outside of.

Then again, some of her earliest patrons were Elastica, John Singleton, and Jude Law; Jay-Z gave her a look for a Roc-a-Fella spot relatively early on. So it’s not like it’s new, the fact that she has feet in both worlds. Nor has she ever made much sense, from a public statement perspective–what exactly was she supposed to do with Pitchfork’s Twitter feed today? Talk about the plight of the Tamil in post-LTTE Sri Lanka? She’s done that in public plenty of times. What’s more, how are the people gleefully sending her up for stuff like this–“come be my U.S.B baby we could be digital natives A BELIEVER with citezenships #miap4k”–so sure she’s not making more or less the same joke that they are?

And the video: failure though it may be–and, in its hackneyed, apartheid-allegory-cum-video-violence way, it probably is a failure–at least it got people discussing aesthetics, politics, and the morality of televised violence, rather than, say, RAD BLINKING NEON. For which M.I.A. is, of course, also very well known. Her primary talent is blowing up either/ors, and making people–at least hopefully–try to sort out their own tangled politics, even as they rev up to start critiquing hers. She’s not always right. But she’s the best proof alive right now that there are more interesting things for a musician to be.