404 ERROR: M.I.A.'s music has become buried beneath an internet din.
M.I.A.'s new record is full of greatness. So why is it so hard to hear?
By Gabe Meline
In case you missed it, a month ago on May 30, which is about 20 years in internet time, M.I.A. was profiled in the New York Times Sunday magazine with a critical eye to her knotty politics. Resonant throughout the piece was the fact that the once-underground M.I.A.—who either claims or doesn't claim, depending on the day of the week, to support the revolutionary group Tamil Tigers of her native Sri Lanka—has connected herself with the American upper class by becoming engaged to Ben Brewer, the Seagram heir and son of billionaire Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman.
The ensuing Trufflegate, as it were, went down like this: In the piece, M.I.A. was quoted as saying that she wanted to be an "outsider" while "eating a truffle-flavored French fry," which is pretty damn great. M.I.A. took her outrage to Twitter, where she posted NYT staff writer Lynn Hirschberg's cell number, and her own blog, where she posted a supposed response-in-song mp3 that failed to live up to its "diss track" Googlability. She also posted recorded evidence that Hirschberg herself ordered the truffle fries, which didn't vindicate the overall theme of the piece but allowed a slight smug satisfaction before going back to dressing up for photographers, shouting about war and making videos in which a kid's head gets blown off.
I really don't care who ordered the truffle fries. Really. The supposed hypocrisy of supporting the Third World while hustling the First World? I see no problem with that. She went to art school, people. What you learn in art school, or by listening to Madonna, is to strike a pose, shunning authenticity in the quest of the illusion thereof. It's pop music's No. 1 rule.
What matters to me as a longtime M.I.A. fan is whether or not she can continue to make engaging, forward-thinking records. Six years ago, she blew the music industry wide open with Piracy Funds Terrorism, a mix tape promoted on hip-hop sites largely due to its producer, Diplo, a star in underground circles. (M.I.A. and Diplo have since gone on to publicly denigrate each other's contributions but still work together.)
With debut album Arular and breakthrough follow-up Kala, with the smash hit "Paper Planes," M.I.A.'s (or Diplo's) sound has now infiltrated pop music to an innocuous degree. You can hear the signature dancehall triplet beat, pseudo-analog effects and dry vocal delivery in everything from Lil' Wayne protégée Nicki Manaj to pop icon Christina Aguilera.
Yet M.I.A.'s distinctly modern music has been overshadowed by her distinctly instigative stance. At last year's Outside Lands Festival, extra security was brought to the front of the stage because, pissed off that Tenacious D had filled the headlining slot instead of her, M.I.A. had pre-announced that the crowd could join her onstage. She never delivered on the promised bumrush, instead singing the entirety of "Paper Planes" completely off-key and futzing through a sloppy, noisy new song, "Born Free," which met with stunned silence from the crowd.
So it's a little weird that "Born Free" became M.I.A.'s first video—the one with the kid getting shot in the head—from her upcoming record. With a guitar sample from post-punk pioneers Suicide, muddled vocals and hardly any rhythm, it defines what labels deem "not a hit." "XXXO" was quickly leaked to steer the conversation into a more accessible realm, but it was an overcorrective turn with Lady Gaga–sounding production and dimwitted lyrics about "tweeting me like Tweety Bird on your iPhone."
Maya, or /\/\/\Y/\, as it's known typographically, is out July 13 and is not as much a piece of shit as these two songs would have one believe. Rather, it's daringly creative, a pastiche of noises culled from post-punk, industrial and experimental palettes arranged into structured form and immediate hooks. References to living online abound, from the YouTube-inspired cover art to intentionally glitchy digital noise, and cultural globetrotting is still M.I.A.'s gambit. "Steppin' Up" rattles like the inside of a Detroit car factory; "It Takes a Muscle" siphons Caribbean reggae by way of Brixton; "Meds and Feds" channels D.C. hardcore.
M.I.A. sings that "all I ever wanted was my story to be told," and now that it has been, and exhaustively so, she croons ("Tell Me Why," "Space"), squawks ("Teqkilla") and mumbles ("It Iz What It Iz") stories more removed from whatever political stance she may claim. As far as I can ascertain, the record teems with political references but conatins no actual political songs. Despite an intro connecting Google to the government, Maya namechecks the Taliban, Obama, the CIA, the FBI, time bombs, the Pope, marijuana, cops and Gandhi without tying any of these concepts together. The rest of M.I.A.'s songs are mostly about love, a subject as knotty as politics but one which rarely gets pop stars in trouble, and, in increasing frequency, herself and her wealth and her fame.
Is this what moving to America, and more specifially Southern California, has done to M.I.A.? Made her kick against the country she calls a "chicken factory" while aping its lowest forms of art? Perhaps. But remember that her art-school pose relies on embracing contradiction, in this case selling a critique of America to America from an area of Los Angeles—she lives in Brentwood—with a median income upwards of $100,000. Beneath the media din, not only is M.I.A. owning the pose, it's a blaringly original pose set to an album with dramatic production and unexpected highlights.
With one concessionary "hit" single anchoring a pastiche of noises culled from post-punk, industrial and experimental palettes, the fact is that Maya is the perfect record for M.I.A. to be making right now.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.