It's been almost ten years since she became a fixture on the indie music scene. Since then she's been nominated for Grammys and sold hundreds of thousands of records. But music journalists still have no idea how to treat M.I.A.
On the other hand, she sure knows how to treat them! Recently she took to her Tumblr to remind us that she was right while the haters were wrong when they tried to level criticism against her song "The Message" from 2010's Maya. I say tried because, to be blunt, they failed. And it's unfortunately all too common among today's brand of journalists.
Here's the deal: the revelations of spying by the National Security Agency and the PRISM program have shone probably the most painful light on government surveillance since Watergate. It's also potentially widening the already large cracks in America's designs abroad as well as against the left and progressives at home.
What seems most surprising -- at least to this over-thirty writer -- is how unsurprised so many young people are at these revelations. This isn't to say they aren't upset by it, but plenty of polls (and to be fair we know how accurate they can be sometimes) show that the under-thirty crew have more or less assumed that someone was watching their internet activity all along.
So why was M.I.A. pilloried so much? Why were both mainstream and supposedly "indie" sites writing these things about the song?
Fuse's website has attributed a bunch so I don't have to do the work:
"['The Message' is about as] effective as someone in a dorm room ranting about the CIA inventing AIDS. It’s not the best idea to kick off your politically charged album with a song that demolishes the possibility of addressing a serious issue about privacy with any degree of depth or nuance." – Pitchfork
"'The Message'… [is] a nursery rhyme about Big Brother's digital omnipotence." – Washington Post
"The combination of would-be narcissism and paranoia…. is dismayingly reminiscent of late-period Public Enemy." – Uncut
"'The Message' is a song that seems to be her paranoid, equally awful version of the The Secret. M.I.A. needs conflict to exist, even if this means living in a 'Google connects to the government' delusion." – Washington Square News (NYU student newspaper)
"Album opener 'The Message' is a horribly paranoid rant of information politics and media conspiracy lyrics rambled over a distorted and staccato beat. 'iPod is connected to the Google is connected to the government.' Yes, and if you watch The Wizard of Oz while listening to Dark Side of the Moon, they synch up. Woooaaaah." – Urb
It's notable that most of these reviews set up a double standard. Those who might bring a more nuanced line of thought to art might understand that all art whether it is political or not is to be looked at as art first. The politics of a song aren't completely irrelevant to whether it works or not, but expecting manifestos or in-depth analyses from a three minute song is disastrous for artist, journalist and listener alike.
These reviewers, on the other hand, are essentially saying that the song doesn't work because of the politics, then that the politics don't work because of the art. It's lazy, circular logic that comes from a shyness to engage with the world around them and see music as part of that world.
So again, how did we end up here where this kind of mushy-mindedness actually flies in the world of music journalism? The simple answer is just that they're out of touch. The more complex answer involves a long march from the peak of political activity the 60's and 70's, when, as Mat Callahan points out in The Trouble With Music, artists and journalists alike didn't see themselves so much as "the enemy" as in a conversation of sorts.
Ultimately this is a much more effervescent way of looking at cultural generally. After all, art is a social act and if it doesn't involve an exchange of ideas, even between different fields and media, then it begins to ossify.
The past thirty years have seen a consolidation of media on countless levels -- not just record companies but news outlets of all stripes and really just about any place that people gather information. And while this isn't completely across the board, this reality shapes how even supposedly independent outlets (again, I'm looking at you Pitchfork) respond to the world around them.
One could say that M.I.A. herself hasn't ossified. This isn't to say anything particular about the quality of her music (though I do believe she allows a degree of experimentation of herself that most others don't nowadays and I think it's paid off with a few exceptions). So much of the culture industry nowadays is dedicated to a kind of segmenting off: music won't touch journalism, visual art won't cross over with poetry except when it's "allowed."
It's rather alienating, and I'd put forth that, at least instinctually, M.I.A. doesn't see much credence in that set-up. She's allowed her career as a visual artist to bleed into her music and vice versa, not to mention has been exploring countless ways to blend genres together.
Does this matter when it comes to politics? I'd argue so. Remember Lynn Hirschberg's hit piece? Remember how M.I.A. responded by punking Hirschberg herself? That wasn't just because she didn't like the journalist. It's because Hirschberg wasn't acting like a journalist. She was looking for points to score, easy points, and the easiest were having to do with M.I.A.'s politics, which she poked fun at without any kind of real principle.
Those who reacted by saying that the artist was crossing some kind of line were ignoring the fact that the line was fake to begin with.
There is, of course, a parallel here. Namely that, as events have unfolded over the past couple weeks over the NSA/PRISM revelations, we've seen a whole slew of other journalists who've been left wanting, doling out spineless apologia and equivocations as opposed to holding power accountable.
The gang at Pitchfork and the Washington Post alike might not be subjected to M.I.A.'s "gloating" or caught with their pants down now if they had bothered to actually ask questions, respect their audience and held power accountable. Instead they just did the easy thing: they griped about the whistle-blowers.
Red Wedge has an editorial dealing with the implications of the NSA's spy programs for artists. It mentions this whole episode and a lot more.