M.I.A.'s Music Bravely Keeps Tackling Media Taboos, and Her Critics Just Can't Handle It
You could make a killing but don't forget the feeling
People stealing money and down with double-dealing
M.I.A. sets herself apart from other pop artists by creating more than the next explosive visual spectacle. While some reviewers call her actions and videos gratuitous, what they’re missing is that her message is largely rooted in histories of resistance. Much of the time, those reviewers write for outlets that have omitted coverage of popular resistance or nuanced analysis from their pages. Since her perspective isn’t something the writers are versed in, they dismiss her.
M.I.A.’s latest album MAYA, an inescapable component of any summer soundtrack, was eagerly anticipated after the shocking video for the single "Born Free" came out in April. The sequence featured an unflinching insight of authorities targeting young men of a certain complexion, and was instantly banned from YouTube.
In the video, redheads are a metaphorical “terrorist” group, putting light-featured faces where the nightly news typically might show brown and black visages. M.I.A. challenges the viewer's unconscious biases. There's no escaping the reality of state-sanctioned raids interrupting lives (including coitus, graphically if fleetingly), tearing apart homes and exacting terrible violence. The gory details of executions and limb-rending landmines nearly explode out of the screen. Unlike newspapers that rely on “embedded” reporting, M.I.A. gives it to us straight.
Some of M.I.A.’s background is well-known. Mathangi Arulpragasam (Maya for short), was born in England in 1975 to parents who had fled Sri Lanka. Part of the Tamil minority, her family moved back to Sri Lanka while she was still an infant, but her upbringing was hardly secure there. She rarely saw her father, who was active in a Tamil group and had to use an underground identity much of the time. To find a safer environment the family moved to India for a while, then back to Sri Lanka.
When Arulpragasam was a pre-teen, her single-parent family settled in some of London’s most dangerous public housing, the Phipps Bridge Housing Estate. Hers was one of two Asian families in the entire project, described in detail in this review of her first album.
M.I.A. overcame tremendous odds and attended college, becoming a visual artist and graphic designer. Those skills no doubt helped to form the commercial success she enjoys today. They also were a medium to relay experiences that shaped her childhood, and for parallels she had with other young people around her who were also seeking asylum from war-torn homelands.
In spite of her experiences, she’s either treated dismissively (as in a recent New York Times article), or subject to reactive anger for her political advocacy, getting death threats/wishes for her son even before he was born. The new track "Lovealot" is reported to be a tribute to a Russian suicide bomber. The lyrics don’t seem to support that theory, appearing to refer to a bomb thrower in a Nintendo game.
Even if there are between-the-lines references to the Moscow subway bomber that I’m missing, discussing the incident is not the same as endorsing it. But a conservative Web site dedicated to “documenting, exposing and neutralizing liberal media bias” says she’s referencing terrorism and getting kids to mindlessly sing “I really love Allah” when she drops the “t” in the song’s title.
The site also lumps her family in with “radical Sri Lankan terror groups,” omitting any reference to the Tamil minority. Because mainstream news stories often ignore or oversimplify Tamil resistance when they address conflict in Sri Lanka, there isn’t much to counter with when the right-wing starts throwing the word “terrorist” around. It seems that M.I.A. is aware of that tendency and fights it by normalizing the religion: “Get my eyes done like I'm in a black burka” references Muslims who choose to cover all but the eyes, wearing glamorous makeup on their sole visible feature.
The “I” in the lyrics is a common artistic expression and not meant to be strictly autobiographical. Sri Lankan Tamils tend to be Hindu or Catholic, so M.I.A.’s not singing something she’s lived in "Lovealot."
But reducing her outspokenness to agitprop doesn’t give her proper credit. Major news outlets have largely left out the context behind Tamil fighters, Palestinian solidarity or stereotyping of Muslims. When M.I.A. illuminates those struggles, the big outlets have no frame for what she’s talking about. Her words aren’t empty so much as marginalized.
At last year’s Grammy Awards, M.I.A. performed in a skimpy outfit three days before giving birth to her son. The New York Times article describes her as provocative and attention-seeking. Artists who seek attention by regularly performing in front of stadium crowds tend to pack the Grammies, so the description is unspecific at best. At worst, it has overtones of patronizing M.I.A.’s choices as a parent of color. If a mom-to-be is up for it, singing and showing off a belly are for her own pleasure and not inherently harmful to the kid. But a newspaper that tends to miss or oversimplify women's issues also missed the feminism intrinsic to the singer’s choice to perform. With abominable parents like Britney Spears and Mel Gibson around, you’d think the “what about the children?!” crowd could find a better target.
No one, least of all herself, denies that M.I.A. is living the high life. Critics love pointing out that she lives in the upscale Brentwood district of Los Angeles, as if that makes her incapable of acknowledging those who have it worse. Sean Penn went to Haiti to assist tens of thousands of homeless individuals who face threats to their health and safety daily. While his actions are more substantive than words alone, his wealth doesn’t negate the work he’s doing. Neither he nor M.I.A. are set on taking the spotlight from those who live the struggle – they’re setting up a spotlight in a large-media vacuum. Interviewers might be a little more interesting if they asked M.I.A. what it’s like to be brown-skinned in her predominantly white neighborhood where few have shared her humble beginnings.
What if you just want to dance? MAYA will electrify. M.I.A.’s music has almost too many forebears to list: dancehall, grime and hip-hop are at the top, and punk rock is the latest ingredient. It doesn’t hurt that her beats make it impossible to sit still. The synth-knocks of "XXXO" are a nod to the 1980s without being derivative, and the repeated “You want me be somebody who I’m really not” has a refreshing clarity compared to the I’m-nothing-without-you co-dependence that dominates the airwaves of pop. Clever lines like “I split the check like Slovakia” find their way into conversations. Hours later the chorus to "It iz what it iz" or "Tell Me Why" will still bounce around the brain. The intro that builds to the driving beats of "Born Free" hurtles from staid right into speedy rock borrowed from punk. The lyrics aren’t always far from the political side of that genre either:
They told me this is a free country
But now it feels like a chicken factory.
I feel cooped up, I wanna bust free.
M.I.A.'s political astuteness and lived experiences should be part of her reputation, as synonymous as partying is for the Hiltons. But too often reviews of her work reveal more about the critic than the artist. She’s not perfect and not the last word on world empire, but she’s breaking the mold of commercial superstardom by refusing to ignore histories that have been largely overlooked.