Schlepping through the Union Square subway station last week, blithely cranking M.I.A.’s Vicki Leekx mixtape and still internally scowling over her 2010 critical indictment, I passed a disheveled African-American woman with a defiantly jutting jaw hunched over a set of bongos, wailing Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” the 1973 synth-funk opus about a kid who comes to New York looking for work but quickly gets nicked in a minor drug hustle, earning a 10-year bid and the memorable bon voyage, “Get in that cell, nigger!”
Pausing M.I.A.’s squelchy frenzy and snatching off my headphones, I harbored conflicting thoughts: This grimy lady is on key and killin’ it (especially compared to the godawful drummer who’s usually posted up). M.I.A. should hear this (and listen to more Stevie and less dubstep). How would Stevie’s music have sounded if he’d grown up like M.I.A. (and vice versa)? How many Pazz & Jop critics would argue that this subway gig was a more “authentic” protest than the agitated gestures on M.I.A.’s vilified Maya (and should those critics be forced to eat a bowl of dicks)? And why am I always trying to turn random mass-transit incidents into poignant epiphanies?
Such sputtering speaks to music critics’ increasingly chaotic thought process—a rush-to-refresh ticker of childlike enthusiasm, glib put-downs, presumptuous advice, false dichotomies, fantastical speculation, abrasive careerism masked as political rhetoric, and honest revelation marred by cloying narcissism, all in a desperate quest to churn out splashy content and escape irrelevance. In other words, virtually the same shtick for which M.I.A. has been bitterly denounced, despite creating the year’s most vividly imaginative broadside (Maya) and New Year’s Eve 2011’s giddiest free party (Vicki Leekx).
Don’t get me wrong—sometimes our critical clusterfuck catches a groove, like the one around the one-man carnaval that was Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Passionately reasoned cases were paraded on all sides, and Kanye’s maximalist élan was fully inspected—those who rolled up with self-righteous, ill-considered gripes (no, he’s racist!) came off like carpetbaggers. The Internet free-for-all—particularly Kanye’s gnomic Tweets—did spotlight music criticism’s lessened role as a gatekeeper, but it also proved how exhilarating (even enlightening!) the ritual can be when spirited voices testify.
Such was not the case with Maya, M.I.A.’s third album and first as wife of a Seagram’s heir, mother of an infant son, and U.S.-residing pop star (via the Wreckx-n-Effect–sampling “Paper Planes”). From jump, the press formed a dodgy narrative: Maya was a problematic departure from 2007’s Kala, her ebullient patchwork of fugitive, pied-piper field recordings. Ensconced in her new family’s cushy Los Angeles digs, whiling away the wee hours online, she’d become an “information politics” obsessive intent on making “uncomfortably weird” music that reflected her “schizophrenic” feelings about our digitally entangled future. Some mocked her as more Real Housewife than hyperreal hipster. She referred to “genocide” in her native Sri Lanka and reportedly got death threats. She ditched her management. Release dates were abandoned, songs and titles and mixes and track sequences were changed. The advance copy I received in early April to review for SPIN’s June issue differed from the finished album (which was released July 13); most notably, the introductory digital-conspiracy hambone of “The Message” was originally followed by the Suicide-invoking synth-punk grrrrr of “Born Free,” which functioned as a liberating, skull-snap manifesto. Oddly, on the final version, it was orphaned as Track 9, then diminished by a gruesomely reductive video.
Point being, her immaculately conceived quilt of cred was fraying. In retrospect, it didn’t matter that the record sounded neither uncomfortable nor weird nor schizo (just poppier and punkier, with a touch of the young-parent hair-trigger familiar to us veterans of the 3 a.m. siren—not the DJ-booth prop). But that slight fraying was enough, especially when The New York Times Magazine inexplicably sent Lynn Hirschberg, celebrity journalism’s queen of disingenuity, to shadow M.I.A. for a May feature.
Hirschberg has written, by my Googling, two significant music stories in the past decade (one, a clueless Rick Rubin puff piece; the other, a detailed chronicle of the pathetic packaging of pop wannabe Amanda Latona). She has made her name, in large part, with methodical eviscerations of prominent women: 1992’s Vanity Fair shiv to Courtney Love that resulted in a loss of child custody, and 1997’s dismantling of ABC’s Jamie Tarses, the first female head of a broadcast network entertainment division. Of course, like both those victims, M.I.A. should’ve known better and dummied up. But when Hirschberg works a con, the mark rarely sees it coming—in this case, the scam involved ordering those now-infamous truffle fries, encouraging M.I.A. to sample them, and when she bit, nailing her as a radical-chic phony. Co-producer/former boyfriend Diplo often seems to crave credit for his ex’s success (although that success boosted his stock immeasurably), so Hirschberg deftly deployed him as an outside man, quoting him to demean M.I.A.’s talents, and to support the piece’s distortion of M.I.A.’s relationship with her once-militant dad.
Still, the dust-up could’ve blown over, but after M.I.A.’s aggrieved overreaction (Tweeting Hirschberg’s cell number), a Tea Party–like shout-down commenced that bedeviled her year. Pitchfork, after turning over its Twitter feed to M.I.A. in a pre-release publicity stunt, savaged Maya as a “shambling mess” that was “anti-pop,” suggesting fans were no longer willing to put up with her “shit.” Stereogum decried its “obscurity.” The Guardian, Q, and Urb recoiled. Her tastemaking pussy posse was heading for the exits. After glitches at a record-release show and Governor’s Island concert, even the Voice’s Sound of the City blog asked if M.I.A.’s 2010 was cursed. Apparently not, since a story later appeared in December titled “Redeeming M.I.A.” (Stereogum belatedly recanted, as well.) This backlash to the backlash was certainly fueled by the music’s undeniable merit, but it also reeked of impulsive, click-me-please grandstanding.
Maybe a revolt was inevitable for such a strident, trickster-ish pop star whose music aspires to be nothing less than global pirate radio—static-y, disruptive, ephemeral, rump-shakin’, code-breakin’. Some suggested that the Vicki Leekx mixtape accomplished that goal more effectively than Maya—giving the raucous beats the flow of a DJ mix as M.I.A. flicked playful gibes—but it was simply less stressed-out, a sassier after-hours rumpus. The “Vicki Leekx” alias, for example, is so ingeniously sly because it transforms WikiLeaks founder and supervillainous will-o’-the-wisp Julian Assange into the kookiest clubrat alter ego Nicki Minaj never envisioned. Vicki, at least on the surface, is more into dancing deliriously than dumping docs—or maybe that’s just an artful guise to evade critical capture.
Bottom line: Were their 30 better records in 2010 than Maya (or Vicki Leekx, for that matter, released well after Pazz & Jop voting closed)? Is Maya such a joyless slog compared to her earlier records, Arular (#2 in 2005) and Kala (#3 in 2007)? After all the authenticity litmus tests thrown at someone who was born in a war zone (which most of us couldn’t find on a map) by desk jockeys who practice a profession that’s basically a glorified work-release program, those questions remain moot. Too many people showed their asses. Back in August, I embraced Maya as a cause célèbre, but as the nonsense wore on, it became pointless to defend a record that people refused to hear.
So what’s left to say? One answer lies in the always-relevant music-critic homage Mean Girls, when Plastic wannabe Cady pathetically asks outcast Janis Ian, “Hey, are we still in a fight?” To which Janis replies, eloquently speaking for M.I.A. fans worldwide, “Are you still an asshole?”