Home / M.I.A.: Is She For Real? What’s Real?

M.I.A.: Is She For Real? What’s Real?

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A few weeks ago I got it into my head to write a piece about popular music and political violence. You know, from “John Brown’s Body” up through Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” and Rage Against The Machine’s “Bomb Track”, plus Irish songs like “Rising of the Moon,” and Fela Kuti too.

To do justice to a piece like that would really take a mound of sociological and demographic data that I neither have, nor would gladly research and cook down just to put on the interweb for free. So the piece I had in mind lolled and languished, half-started and nowhere near any conclusions. Everything I grasped at dissolved into air.

The problem is, at the end of the day bullets have killed approximately a billion more people than guitars have. Including the unfortunate cases of former Yardbird Keith Relf and former Shadow John Rostill, both electrocuted while playing the guitar, I think the score is something like bullets: a billion, guitars: three-ish. That disparity has to be accounted for. It seems that words draw less blood than weapons and the very question of how to relate music to violence is a difficult one to frame. As Frank Zappa said, music is just decorated bits of time.

But then again that is letting musicians off the hook too easily. Sometimes music can matter, or Union soldiers wouldn’t have sung an anthem to a domestic terrorist (“John Brown’s Body”) when they marched into battle against the Confederacy.

The reason I started the now defunct piece in the first place was because of M.I.A. M.I.A. is a 28 year old conceptual artist from London who came by a secondhand drum machine and started creating beats and laying down tracks. Those tracks eventually became an album, Arular, that has become a chart hit in the UK and a critical sensation on this side of the Atlantic.

M.I.A.’s real name is Maya Arulpragasam. She was born in Sri Lanka and grew up dodging bullets and capture by the Sri Lankan army before escaping to London with her parents at age 11. She spent her teenage years in some truly dire London council estates (that’s “the projects”) and at first found she could not start school because her English was not good enough. Safe to say, she has had an “interesting” life, if by “interesting” you mean dangerous, bizarre, and difficult. The nickname “M.I.A.” is a double entendre which in London is understood to primarily mean “Missing in Acton,” Acton being (I am told) the council estate she grew up in.

As for “Arular”, that’s her father, a former member of the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan dissident group recognized as a terrorist group by several nations including the United States. This is the reason for her family’s flight from Sri Lanka and the direct inspiration for a good amount of her music and artwork.

M.I.A.’s music amalgamates an entire world’s beats into one exhilarating stew. Imagine a Sri Lankan woman from London rapping Jamaican dancehall style over Atlanta crunk spiced with Indian bhangra and you get the picture. Her debut single “Galang” is a rattling minor masterpiece that some people have hailed as the harbinger of a new era of world music. And it does seem that M.I.A.’s naïve newcomer approach has resulted in a truly “world” music that does not make distinctions between bhangra, crunk, baile, dancehall, and techno.

However, I have a problem. More to the point, I wonder why other critics don’t see a problem with the daughter of (what some would call) a terrorist appropriating the rhetoric and imagery of war and terrorism for the sake of pop music? Watch the video for “Galang” and then come back. It’s actually worth it; the song really grows on you. I’ll wait.

Check it out. Graffiti, stencils, spraycans, chainlink fences, tigers, tanks, Molotov cocktails, Hueys, burning palm trees, and bombs. Given that M.I.A. grew up in a war-torn nation and then saw the worst of what Margaret Thatcher’s England had to offer newcomers, it’s not particularly surprising that she draws her inspiration from what she’s seen. But something about how she, a grown woman, deploys this imagery of war and suffering comes across to me as unspeakably crass.

You see, the Tamil Tigers invented the suicide vest and the modern practice of suicide bombing, and in light of this, lyrics like “I got the bombs to make you blow” don’t read as ambiguously political party starters. They read – whether M.I.A. meant them this way or not – like half-assed slogans from someone who hasn’t thoroughly thought through the politics of the suicide vest. Given her past, I seriously doubt that’s the case, which makes her lyrics all the more puzzling.

It is possible for political music to be fatuous. For example, Madonna cemented her slide into cartoonish irrelevance on stage at Live8 with the cry, “Aah you ready foh a REVOLUTION?!?” and “We Are The World” was a study in smug self-contradiction. But on “Galang,” M.I.A. does the opposite, turning a slight but entertaining slice of clangy pop music into something strange and slightly disturbing.

Some critics have discussed M.I.A.’s background, but very few of them have addressed the contradictions she seems to embody. The closest anyone has come was Robert Christgau writing in the Village Voice:

Sinhalese depredations have been atrocious. But my reading suggests that more Sri Lankan Tamils want equality than want Eelam, and from this distance I’m not pro-LTTE. Hence I strongly advise fellow journalists to refrain from applying “freedom fighter” and other cheap honorifics to M.I.A.’s dad. But I also advise them to avoid the cheaper tack taken in last week’s Voice by Simon Reynolds: “Don’t let M.I.A.’s brown skin throw you off: She’s got no more real connection with the favela funksters than Prince Harry.” Not just because brown skin is always real, but because M.I.A.’s documentable experience connects her to world poverty in a way few Western whites can grasp. Moreover, beyond a link now apparently deleted from her website to a dubious Tamil tsunami relief organization, I see no sign that she supports the Tigers. She obsesses on them; she thinks they get a raw deal. But without question she knows they do bad things and struggles with that. The decoratively arrayed, pastel-washed tigers, soldiers, guns, armored vehicles, and fleeing civilians that bedeck her album are images, not propaganda – the same stuff that got her nominated for an Alternative Turner Prize in 2001. They’re now assumed to be incendiary because, unlike art buyers, rock and roll fans are assumed to be stupid.

M.I.A. has no consistent political program and it’s foolish to expect one of her. Instead she feels the honorable compulsion to make art out of her contradictions. The obscure particulars of those contradictions compel anyone moved by her music to give them some thought, if only for an ignorant moment – to recognize and somehow account for them. In these perilous, escapist days, that alone is quite a lot.

I respect Robert Christgau, and much of what he writes above is dead on the money. But I feel he gives M.I.A. too much leeway. By minimizing the symbolic freight carried by pastel tigers and burning palms, he trivializes both M.I.A.’s art and experiences and the real world events those stenciled images refer to. Moreover, by simultaneously assuming that M.I.A. is fully in charge of how these symbols are deployed, and arguing that these pastels (and the rest of Arular) show that she is undoubtedly deeply conflicted about South Asia’s history of violence, he gets to have it both ways.

But “Guns, armored vehicles, and fleeing civilians” can be both empty images and incendiary in exactly the same way Che Guevara or Red Army t-shirts can, or swastikas, or the idiot slogan that from time to time appeared on blackboards in my high school: “The south will rise again!” Similarly, M.I.A. can namecheck the PLO, the Tigers, and bombs to make you blow. But this duality doesn’t make any of these things more profound or less crass.

Whether or not M.I.A. is using them as mere decoration, people still have the right to ask if there’s something more for these images to say. Journalists have been having a joyous field day with M.I.A.’s exotic background and rock fans are stupid. But if we the listeners have to confront the contradictions in M.I.A.’s music that goes triple for M.I.A. herself, given that those contradictions originate in a war whose participants have contributed, however inadvertently, to the ongoing misery that rocks Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and now London.

A grenade is a grenade, a tank is a tank, and terrorism isn’t much more fun in a club track then it is on stage at a white separatist convention. M.I.A. is using political violence for her own artistic ends, and it’s impossible to tell what – or how unserious – those ends are. In a way, political violence is the “momma joke” of the music world. Christgau wants to give her a pass for that; my gut won’t let me.

I’m not here to indict M.I.A. for anything; Christgau is right that she doesn’t come out and endorse the Tamil Tigers at any point. I also agree that it’s vanishingly unlikely that she has any designs on using her music as a PR campaign for such a cause. Moreover, I really like “Galang” a lot. But to use terrorism and revolutionary insurgency in the service of pop music in this day and age is either a pop-culture triumph of the highest order or a tasteless and ill-considered act of exploitation, and I can’t for the life of me figure out which one.

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About John Owen

  • Just saying, I got a chance to interview her – you can listen to it here

  • Michelle

    I think there’s an area that a lot of people are missing with M.I.A. and that is: humor. I feel like a lot of what she says is tongue-in-cheek. If you look at it that way, it takes on a whole new meaning. Maybe that’s just my take, but when you take a song like Sunshowers and think about how U.R.A.Q.T. is on the same record, you have to wonder how “serious” this is all supposed to be. I feel like there may be an element of spoofing gangsta rap. Something to think about.

  • Antonia

    Interesting article. I’m glad someone had the guts to put this out there. It’s what I’ve felt all along about the content of her music. Yea, it sounds good… “catchy”… but really, the content is vile. It’s worse than vile. And you’re right… fans are stupid. And that’s why, despite the world scene and how WRONG her music is especially in light of it… she still succeeds. It’s disgusting.

  • Antonia

    I just noticed that article was forever ago.

    LoL… ah well… point is it all still applies… doesn’t it.

  • Acton isn’t a council estate, it is a borough of London.

  • Trust –/— (this is a cross if you look sideways)

    Okay so first of all, “Antonia”, her music isn’t so “vile” compared to other artists like Ke$ha, Rihannah, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and tons of rappers. If you listen to some of her songs she is venting her feelings and things that she has seen that have possibly scarred people and herself. And these vile things are things some of us Americans don’t know about. Most of us don’t know about how brutal people are and how twisted situations are outside of America. She is educating us through her music. And at least she says things in her songs to teach us while other stars talk about sex and drinking in their songs and how much they love it. And no one should hate her because she rocks. She is strong and brave for wanting to let people know about things. And your hateful comments hurt me because I am certainly not stupid. And if you think I am, your wrong because you don’t even know me. But how you feel about your music is your opinion. But I think you should take a little time to compare her music values to current music. And look up some articles about her. Like she is striving to change how Tamil people are treated. And her trip to Africa to learn the African’s everyday life.
    Also don’t be to cruel if you would like to comment about me. I’m a bit young.

  • zingzing

    “born free” rules my world.

  • dimple

    However this “education” isn’t correct. The Tamil Tigers were a terrorist group. They killed innocent people, used them as human shields, etc. The Sri Lankan government isn’t attacking Tamils, and no one is really holding any grudges against Tamils. She simply likes painting herself as the victim and big government as the corrupt dictator, when really the situation is neither so simple nor similar.