One thing rings very true after reading Gary Shteyngart’s GQ profile of M.I.A.: Neither the magazine nor the interviewer had any interest in giving her the Hirschberg, as it were. Gary Shteyngart–the much-lauded young writer releasing his third novel next month–brings up Maya’s relationship to her food, but this ain’t no truffle fry. “She refuses to buy the restaurant’s pickles, curry paste, and cashews because they come from Sri Lanka,” he notes of one lunch they shared, but he just presents these moments — he doesn’t tacitly judge them.
Instead, he vibes off some Star Wars: “I think to myself, ‘The refugee is strong in this one.'” Shteyngart is empathetic to a fault, identifying with Maya as a fellow immigrant, and highlighting her relationship with her father as well as her son. Yet things get a little awkward when Shteyngart reveals too much personal detail. He’s no music geek (which likely registers with the GQ readership), and he emphasizes this point. “One thing you should know before we proceed together is that my taste in music isn’t very good,” he admits, but there’s more: “I stopped seriously listening to music when Ice Cube began appearing in the Friday movies.” This is the sort of thing to make actual music geeks kvetch–Friday was 15 incredibly long years ago, and a lot of music has happened since then (and War & Peace wasn’t that bad).
He’s rusty, and so even his own memories come across a little…well, like this: “N.W.A. and Public Enemy gave Maya a lift out of the quotidian, filling her head with dreams of a new life as a gangsta’s bitch in South Central L.A.” And for some reason, this is the Death Certificate line he remembers: “‘Bitch, you shoulda put a sock on the pickle,’ Ice Cube rapped firmly as he educated two guys in a Saab about the correct uses of birth control in a tone no Oberlin woman would ever tolerate. ‘And your pussy wouldn’t be blowing smoke signals.’ Uh, yes, I’ll take that with fries.” And when he talks about the reception of Maya’s first two albums, his metaphors get both mixed and gross: “Arular and Kala . . . wet the pants of our nation’s music critics, a slow drip that continues to this day.” Or the more current critical appraisal–“///Y/ is more polished than Arular or Kala“–which, maybe it’s an adjective he uses differently, but it nonetheless contradicts the fact that, for those who heard the leak, the first two records sound like Alphabeat in comparison.
But while Shteyngart’s piece might not offer much to chew on for those of us who doggedly stuck with music in spite of Ice Cube’s first film foray, it’s a worthwhile read for those who’d confuse Diplo and Wilco. Writing of his first exposure to the new LP, Shteyngart wedges in some responsible journalism: “A white Escalade stretch limo pulls up with Maya’s publicist inside, along with a bottle of Jose Cuervo and some low-fat Alpine Lace cheese…. ‘This is not M.I.A.-sanctioned,’ the publicist says.” This is responsible in light of the ostensible audience for this piece, an audience probably partially engineered by the same publicist aiming to have her client pushed more fully into the pop-cultural realm. Who don’t have the time or remote inclination to seek out such distinctions, and who might, without that crucial last bit of quotation, conflate M.I.A. the conflicted designer and musician with M.I.A. the crucial commodity. He’s admittedly distant from all this music stuff, but Shteyngart gets that one part exactly–if accidentally–right.