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Is MIA the Julian Assange of Pop Music?

With her new Vicki Leakx mixtape, Maya Arulpragrasm reiterates her case as America’s most important, politically savvy young popstar.
 
 
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MIA is an imperfect politico. Anyone who paid even half-assed attention to the firebrand pop star last year can tell you that. There was the gruesome, Romain Gavras-directed video for her punk single, “Born Free,” which featured redheads being rounded up by SWAT teams and seemed to make a vague statement about immigration. There were the 35-year-old’s tenuous, Tom Bell-ish diatribes accusing Google and Facebook of being strawmen for the CIA. And, of course, there was the disastrous New York Times Magazineinterview, in which writer Lynn Hirschberg went on a quote-distorting warpath to paint her as a manipulative idiot. (For revenge, MIA posted Hirschberg’s phone number on Twitter.) Though the vocalist, born Maya Arulpragrasm, is a savvy media figure and a brilliant artist, 2010 was the year fans and critics really started to believe her position as an agitprop musician was chipped. We need our political icons to be succinct and stalwart; MIA was neither.

There was precedent. When the Los Angeleno (via London, via Sri Lanka) released 2005’s brilliant beat-twitching, world-sampling Arular, named for her father, she claimed he was a Tamil Tiger in Sri Lanka, waging a rebel defense for the Hindu Tamils who were being persecuted by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. Her references were vague, but the iconography she used was not. She emblazoned gritty images of tigers and guns across the album, her Web site, her videos. (It was later revealed that her father had never been a member of the Tamil Tigers, but belonged to a less-violent rebel group, Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students, and had trained with the PLO.) But the point was never to create policy, but to shed light on the genocide in Sri Lanka. Her follow-up, 2007’s Kala (named for her mother), was recorded all around the world because she couldn’t get a visa back to the U.S. She blamed that fact on the political nature of her lyrics, owing to the Tigers yet again, but it could not be confirmed, thanks to a closed-door policy on visa rejection.

If you’ve paid attention to MIA from the start, you know her rebel tale has always had hairline cracks. But her intentions are true. And the fact is, in America, for a young, politically minded pop icon, MIA’s still the best we've got.

On December 31, 2010, MIA released a free mixtape through her Twitter titled VICKI LEAKX. It was a follow-up to last year’s ///Y/, the album that generated all the negative hype, and which was subsequently unfairly maligned by music critics and stalwart fans alike, despite being one of the most musically progressive albums in the mainstream last year. Typically overstuffed with globe-trotting beats, Bollywood-xeroxed samples and claustrophobic synths, the only thing about the mixtape that superseded the explosive innovation of its sound was the clear-headed, cutting nature of her lyrics.

MIA forever sounds like a playground double-dutch session in the middle of the Matrix, and the album’s content mirrored her main narratives -- the sometimes-unlawful transparency of an information society, the subjectivity of security cameras, the shameless profiteering of corporate war culture, global racism and oppression toward immigrants (often of color), the idea that we’re all being monitored at all times.

“Overdrive” puts a cutting anti-war cheer over a video game bass line; “Listen Up” charmingly defends her personal-is-political politics from detractors. On an ominous dubstep beat, “Generation N-E-Y” expresses an apocalypse generation’s dark defiance of corporate control, her chorus declaiming “You can have money but you can’t have me... Generation N-E-Y, we’re already dead.” On the tape’s intro, she’s programmed the generic MAC computer ladyrobot voice to say We choose the right format, we leak the information to the public, and we defend ourselves against inevitable legal and political attack.

She’s referring to Julian Assange, but she was also being self-referential. The mixtape’s WikiLeaks references were foreshadowed by MIA’s Twitter leading up to its release. For weeks, she’d been tweeting in defense of Assange and Bradley Manning, and the CableGate fall-out fit neatly into her viewpoints. More importantly, she finally backed up her seemingly out-of-nowhere comments about the Google-CIA connection, tweeting on December 7, “heres the CIA/GOOGLE shit that GOT ME IN SOOOOOO MUCH FUCKING TROUBLE IN 2010! finally found the site http://www.google-watch.org/inqtel.html.” The site details how, in 2003, a private leg of the CIA teamed up with the company developing the map technology that would eventually become Google Earth. That company was the Keyhole Corporation; Google Inc. acquired it in 2004.

VICKI LEAKX is a scathing comeback to last year's “smear job,” and reestablishes the case that she's the most relevant pop artist of 2010. MIA believes hard. Yes, she can be vague, her lyrics can be broadstroke, her rebel connections tenuous. But if this mixtape drove anything home, it’s that to focus on her porousness is to miss the point. We are meant to listen, and to connect our own dots. Just as WikiLeaks unleashes raw information and lets newspapers draw the conclusions, MIA is slinging statements and letting her listeners choose which stick, a far more effective way to open minds than to hammer home rigid ideas. She is giving us the aesthetically advanced clay and we can mold it.

Further, no other young pop star in America of her caliber of fame acknowledges politics within as broad a range. Through postmodernism and a sort of ideological Photoshop job that bleeds into her music, she’s transformed WikiLeaks, immigration, war culture, government life-tapping, the disconnected/overintelligent ennui of http babies into salient musical points. For certain, there are other examples of outspoken superstars, but most stick to their pet topics -- Lady Gaga with DADT, for instance, whose activism has proven fealty but who hasn't branched out beyond the topic. Others are less heralded, to be sure -- to pick a less obvious example, the formidable rapper Lil Wayne has released several songs denouncing the war and the culture surrounding it, but he's still best known for his alien mic flow and big radio hits.

But it's MIA who invites controversy, who makes us grapple with tough topics, to develop a viewpoint. On a red carpet last October, in the wake of the Park 51 controversy, she wore a full burqa emblazoned with her album art. Some decried it as an empty gesture or a marketing move, others thought it was a genius statement on religious freedom -- but whatever your stance, she forced us to really consider it.

Surely some of those who remember the staunch political musicians of the 1960s will (and have) chafed at the idea that a lyricist like MIA could be considered an important political artist. And, certainly, in the 2011 American underground there is an abundance of musician-activists who put their agenda forth in easier-to-understand plainspeak. But rarely do leftist political lyrics/sentiment converge with music that is so aesthetically of the zeitgeist, of the age, and more importantly, with a sound that will resonate with a younger generation and plant revolutionary ideas into their collective consciousness. For politics to work and change to germinate, they need pollination. That's always the rub with political art, right?

MIA’s found the perfect balance between her rebel viewpoints, scathing critiques and relevant aesthetic modes, fusing the sound and feel of politically inclined music before her -- rap, punk, techno, to name a few. In the information age, our motto is to keep it moving. To tap into the political awareness of younger generations, you have to speak our language. And even if you doubt how she constructs it, it’s clear that MIA is not only speaking the language -- she’s creating it.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.