M.I.A.’s Saturday performance at HARD NYC did not go well. Like, kind of spectacularly not well. Her headlining set at the festival was the evening’s low point, by all accounts; her sound, in particular, was a catastrophe, and this was before the heavens opened up and sent most of the crowd sprinting for the ferries. She found herself ending her performance early, a capella, and in the rain, chanting “Born Free” at the retreating backs of her former audience. Is it possible for one artist to have this much bad luck?
HARD could have, and probably should have, been a coronation. The stage was certainly set for it. After an excruciating stretch of being pilloried by Lynn Hirschberg and various other critics that lasted all the way from May to her album release–which, by the way, was only two weeks ago–M.I.A. seemed poised to turn it around. She’d put together an unbelievably good performance on Late Night With David Letterman. ///Y/ sold well enough in its first week out to give her the ninth most popular record in America. On Saturday, she’d headed to Governors Island with a pack of backup singers dressed in burqas (wielding neon-painted power drills!), a bunch of tequila, a gang of lazers, and most of all, something to prove. It could have been the performance that finally turned the consensus on her around. Instead, the weather and the soundboard conspired to relegate the evening into the latest in a long string of disasters that now include:
This was actually in the fall of 2009, but it set the tone for what would become the template of coverage of M.I.A. in 2010: juxtapositions between her increasingly bourgeoisie personal life and increasingly radical political and aesthetic public profile.
The Times dubbed a newly post-war Sri Lanka 2010’s #1 tourist destination; M.I.A. responded in a fury. Though she was probably right in this case, the clash–along with an earlier one suggesting that she was a terrorist apologist–set the stage for Lynn Hirschberg’s May hit piece in the same newspaper.
A limp, unconvincing political allegory about the slaughter of redheads adds fuel to a growing narrative: that M.I.A. is a politically simplistic idiot. Not true! But that’s what you get for working with Romain Gavras.
A/k/a “trufflegate.” The apotheosis of a long brewing narrative, with one of the magazine world’s most deadly profilers wielding the knife. It didn’t help that M.I.A. responded by putting Hirschberg’s number on Twitter.
In retrospect, a harbinger of HARD: M.I.A. gets upstaged by her two openers, goes on late, and gets kicked off not one but two stages before she’s finished. A debacle, though P.S.1 and M.I.A. disagreed about whose fault it was. Either way, not the triumphant release party the elect few who were invited had anticipated.
It began as rumblings in the Times Magazine piece, was seemingly confirmed on Twitter, and then fully blown up in an interview with Blackbook in which M.I.A.’s former boyfriend and still sometime producer said about her new record: “she didn’t care about it. I was in the studio with her, she didn’t write anything.”
Now, many of these things Maya Arulpragasam did to herself. And, as a friend is fond of pointing out, had she made a great record, or one even half as good as Kala, none of this stuff would matter. She didn’t, though our guess is people will come to find, after we’re a few years removed from the relentless insanity of ///Y/‘s obnoxious press cycle, that it’s a much better album than anybody gave it credit for.
But you see, in retrospect, how bad luck compounded bad luck: failures she couldn’t control (weather, soundmen) happened to fit into a narrative of missteps that got going early and never really went away. Isolated profiles, contextless quotes, and justifiable conflicts started to take on an ominous valence when put together. Bad decisions (the “Born Free” video) obscured good ones (“Born Free,” the song). And the next thing you know, the internet is yet again crowing about the ongoing trainwreck that is M.I.A. That she’s overexposed, overworked, and overpaid, as our own Puja Patel wrote earlier today, maybe be the case; it may be merely the really unfortunate product of extremely unlucky circumstances. Either way, we agree about this much: M.I.A. sure could use a vacation.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 26, 2010