M.I.A.: A modern media assassin

October 30, 2010
M.I.A.’s new album, Maya, is Orwellian in its mishmash of computerised, post-industrial noise.

N.E.E.T. Recordings
Big Day Out tour
January/February 2011

It created a buzz well before its release date. For months, every pop music outlet speculated on its content. It provoked fervent anticipation among fans, censorship from the internet, and derision from elitist establishment journalists.

When Sri Lankan-born Tamil musician M.I.A.’s Maya finally arrived in July, it predictably polarised critics.

M.I.A.’s third studio album, some find Maya difficult and near unlistenable. Others are confounded by the album’s sheer weightiness, but nonetheless herald it as a glimpse at music’s dark, demented future.

Neither group seem willing to parse through the dense content to see what Maya Arulpgragasam (better known as M.I.A.) is actually getting at.

Even looking at the album’s artwork, it’s clear that Arulpgragasam — like anyone living in today’s tech-heavy world — is suffering from a case of information overload.

For one thing, M.I.A. is heard singing much more. And where 2007’s Kala, which featured the dance hit “Paper Planes”, pulled on the wide diversity of sounds emanating from India, Liberia and Jamaica, Maya is Orwellian in its mishmash of computerised, post-industrial noise.

Introduced by the sounds of clicking computer keyboards, our ears are soon gripped by a dissonant, sparse drill-and-bang, over which M.I.A. seems to warn us in nursery-rhyme fashion: “Head bone connects to the headphones/Headphones connect to the iPhone/iPhone connects to the Internet, connects to Google/Connects to the government.”

This is “The Message”. At less than a minute long, it serves as more a snippet than a song, setting the dystopianism of Maya quite well.

“Steppin’ Up”, the album’s first full song, insists “you know who I am”. But initially, we’re not so sure.

The song, though deft in piecing together a discernible beat from the flotsam, sounds like Arulpragasam snuck into an abandoned machine shop and recorded the noise produced by the old, rusted-out power tools.

Lyrically, “Steppin’ Up” mixes the cliched, empty-headed imagery of the sweaty club floor with bomb blasts and fire-chucking mobs. It’s jarring, but by the end of the track, we’re putty in M.I.A.’s hands: “I can make a sound, and the shriek will make you jump.”

Whether that sound will come from a synth or a molotov isn’t really clear, but hey, that’s part of the excitement.

A willingness to become immersed is definitely a prerequisite for hearing Maya, but there’s also a kind of postmodern Brechtianism to it. Try though we might to get comfortable in the album’s dense soundscape, the sheer jaggedness simply won’t allow it.

It’s fun, and engaging; but often, it’s also a hard pill to swallow.

Arulpragasam said she intended the album to be “so uncomfortably weird and wrong that people begin to exercise their critical-thinking muscles”.

She told Complex magazine in May that such thought is necessary for ordinary people to navigate through the world: “So many corporations are merging, I don’t even know who's telling the truth anymore.

“If Time is bought by CNN, am I gonna get a different opinion in Time than from CNN? I don't think so.

“Corporations mould politics, and if the agenda of a corporation is to make money, then surely the information that we’re going to get is edited so it makes you think a certain thing at the end of the day …

“You can Google the words ‘Sri Lanka’ and it doesn’t come up that all these people have been murdered or bombed, it’s pages of: ‘Come to Sri Lanka on vacation, there are beautiful beaches.’

“You’re not gonna get the truth ’til you hit like page 56, you know what I mean?”

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For that Sri Lanka comment, Arulpragasam reportedly received death threats against her and her son.

The past few years have seen a wide array of roles foisted on M.I.A. Indie fans rejoiced when Kala carried her to the greatest heights of pop stardom.

That this success loosely coincided with the exposure of Sri Lanka’s murderous policy against the ethnic Tamil population necessarily turned the militantly vocal Arulpragasam into something of a spokesperson.

Her country’s government denounced her. Commentators thumbed their nose at her for “encouraging violence”.

Observers might be forgiven for blurring the line between M.I.A.’s public and private personae. M.I.A. has often had fun fudging the distinction.

What she hasn’t been able to abide by, however, are deliberate attacks, misquotes, and the cavalier way her art and message have been manipulated and taken out of context.

Maya, then, is peppered with lyrical middle fingers to the hack nay-sayers and yellow journalists. “XXXO”, the album’s first single, is ostensibly a love song, and the thoroughly danceable beats initially suggest little more.

But when she insists, “You want me to be somebody who I’m really not”, and as the sounds evolve into an increasingly foreboding cacophony, we get the feeling she’s not just talking to a potential beau.

M.I.A. often spins this personal vitriol into a wider scope. “Lovealot” sees her confrontationally mocking her opponents like a pumped-up amateur boxer: “They told me this was a free country … I fight the ones that fight me!”

And while one can picture Arulpragasam saying this in any song, she notably places it in the context of even more controversy; the song’s inspiration was the true story of an Islamic militant killed in 2009 by Russian police and his young wife who attempted to avenge his death in the Moscow subway suicide bombing this past March.

M.I.A. is singing from the young woman’s point of view, but any attempt to paint the artist a “terrorist” won’t have any real argument. One gets the sense Arulpragasam’s lyrics are meant to raise more questions than answers.

They provoke, yes, but they also dare to imagine what kicks around the head of those mowed over by the empires that dare not speak their own name.

And then, of course, there’s “Born Free”. So many cluttered, confused comments have clogged the internet since its film clip depicting brutal repression of redheads was censored by You Tube, that the song’s actual content has been lost.

And M.I.A. has by no means made it easy. “Born Free” drips with effects — the centrepiece synth keys are fuzzed and distorted to an insane degree, and the percussion sounds more like a meth-addled drummer banging on a trash can.

And M.I.A.’s own deadpan lyrical delivery is highly reverbed: “Yeah man-made powers, stood like a tower/Higher and higher … hello/And the higher you go, you feel lower/Oh!/I was close to the end, staying undercover/Staying undercover/With my nose to the ground I found my sound.”

Lines like these give the later declarations of artistic independence (“I don’t wanna talk about money, ’cuz I got it /And I don’t wanna talk about hoochies, ’cuz I been it”) an actual context.

Same for the refrain of “I was born free”, almost as if M.I.A. has lined up her enemies one by one — from the United States itself to every last condescending journalist — before stating it loud and clear.

The weird, seemingly never-ending pattern generated from M.I.A.’s relationship with the media —where she makes a public statement, is denounced personally and then weaves it into her musical fabric — has sent even sharp music critics on the wrong scent.

Jessica Hopper, writing in the July 13 Chicago Reader, ended her rather disparaging review of Maya by pointing out Aruglpragasam’s engagement to Ben Brewer, son of Universal Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman.

Hopper concludes Arulpragasam is simply “making art of her contradictions”.

Never mind the vaguely sexist undertone in the assumption that M.I.A.’s art is somehow compromised by her “marrying into money”. What is really staggering about Hopper’s conclusion is the assumption that no decent artist makes art from contradictions!

Consumerism, the music industry, the whole capitalist shebang — these are systems that force self-aware artists to straddle between the lure of individual success and communal longing, between the personal and political, between the millions dangled before them and the promise of a better tomorrow.

If Hopper finds this worth noting, it speaks to the depths of the historical nightmare from which music journalism needs to awake.

In this light, the controversy surrounding the de facto YouTube ban on the video for “Born Free” can be seen as part of the game.

Whether M.I.A. intended for the clip to get buried is less important than the opportunity it provided her to point out the contradiction that lies at the heart of the internet: on one hand, unprecedented access to information, and on the other, the cutthroat interests of Google and the rest.

It’s a move that makes Arulpragasam less a mere contradictory artist and more of a modern media assassin.

Shaking the modern world into consciousness isn’t an easy task to take on by yourself. But M.I.A. seems more hell-bent than ever to hold the fractured mirror up to society and point out the wide gaps that exist.

Rather than be knocked on the defensive by the shit she’s had shovelled at her, she’s taken the opportunity to grab hold of it and add it to her bag of ammo. It’s one of the many things that makes her possibly the most original artist in pop music today.

And like most of the best artists, she forces the audience to ask if maybe we’d be better off in charge.

[Slightly abridged from the Society of Cinema and Arts. Alexander Billet maintains Rebel Frequencies.]

Below: Audio for “Steppin’ Up”: "Lyrically, ‘Steppin’ Up’ mixes the cliched, empty-headed imagery of the sweaty club floor with bomb blasts and fire-chucking mobs. It’s jarring, but by the end of the track, we’re putty in M.I.A.’s hands”.

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