In Defense of M.I.A.

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When M.I.A.'s debut mixtape, Piracy Funds Terrorism, Volume 1, first debuted back in 2004, I was working as a political reporter-editor in Beirut. I asked a stateside friend to send me a zipped file of the MP3s, which took me more than an hour to download in broadband-less Lebanon. While waiting for the paper's front page to close—there was some late-breaking cabinet shuffle—I gave the record a first, dizzy spin. It seemed every bit as good as the (mostly Western-derived) Internet media buzz had promised. I burned off a quick copy for the paper's music editor, a London-raised kid with family in ritually war-torn South Lebanon, and of course he flipped for it. Piracy—and M.I.A. herself—seemed fully formed, and impossible to improve on via anyone's remixing or second-guessing. She'd taken her own art to the global, cross-pollinated nth degree already, with everything from radical politics to so-DIY-it's-haute fashion represented and balanced.

Which is just a way of noting that sometimes it's your moment, and other times it ain't. Right after Bush 43's reelection, almost any beat-savvy rapper-singer with a patina of international awareness seemed a godsend to lefty art obsessives. That M.I.A. (real name Maya Arulpragasam) was a Londoner of Sri Lankan heritage only sweetened the narrative. But now, in 2010, with President Obama owning both Deepwater Horizon's 24/7 crude-vomit as well as a lethargic pace on his promised legislative reforms, the pro forma liberal arts-and-culture commentariat has ever so tactfully booted rebel rock from the cool kids' tent. And that may go double if you recently married the heir to the Seagram's liquor fortune, as M.I.A. has. (To wit, on one new song, she straightforwardly admits, "I don't want to talk about money, 'cause I got it.") So if you're presumably in power—or at least have access to means—and not much is getting done, you don't even have Brando's "What you got?" retort to the question of what to fight back against. Which means it's a bad time to be an even halfway politically engaged artist coming up on your third record (especially if your second record managed to avoid the sophomore-slump curse).

Almost as bad as that is trying to work as a soul-searching pop artist, period. Right now we prefer our dance-music auteurs to keep it simple, conceptually. The thinner the persona, the better. In a recession, minting a strong brand means keeping your job and making bank. It means status—about which pop remains unfailingly sensitive. So we're talking it to death about Gaga's "Fame" trope, The-Dream's Love Trilogy, and Lil' Wayne's "Young Money"—ideas or concepts that boil down to a word or two. The contradictions that may result from such ritual enactments of the duh-simple are fine so long as the artists refuse to engage them in depth. This avoidance equals the "on message" discipline of successful politicians, and thus what passes for public-sphere profundity—or, short of that, winningness. Anything self-consciously complex is anathema. So if The New York Times should goad you into eating "truffle fries" while discussing the developing world? Well, would-be renegade pop artist, that's very, very naughty of you (and not in the sexy way). It means you're not focused enough as a brand. (The upshot of the reaction to The New York Times Magazine profile of M.I.A. seemed to be "either get your revolutionary politics Camus-grade sophisticated or else don't talk about them at all.") It means—gasp—that you might even be in a state of active development.

So it's no surprise that, in an age when simplicity reigns, M.I.A.'s restless, occasionally exasperating, but never-not-interesting new album, Maya (or, in crypto-computer script, // / Y /" is getting some pans. The raft of critical consensus about Maya is largely correct when it notes that this thing is a mess. But that's different from saying that M.I.A. doesn't know what she's doing. In the past, when M.I.A. built up dense sound collages from foreign-recorded drum circles, she did it under the aegis of great pop tunes—such that Jay-Z rightly recognized her "Paper Planes" as the basis for a chart hit. There was once a yin-yang relationship between M.I.A.'s top-40 heart and her outré brain; her motto could have been an English remix twist on a foreign phrase—maybe like "sturm und bang." Now, though, she's off the wholeness bandwagon. The pop songs on Maya—like "XXXO"—are simpler than her past singles. Meantime, the clatter has been fully outsourced to the album tracks—to the point that, now, getting on her grind actually means sampling power tools in action, with no kind of ear at all for a hook (as on the album's second song, "Steppin' Up"). On other cuts, though, such as "It Takes a Muscle" and "Space," M.I.A. flashes an ambition to be a no-nonsense singer. The result doesn't just feel like the output of a sonic contrast filter, but instead feels as though M.I.A. has done what Andre 3000 once asked his lover to do, and taken off the pretense of her cool. If having done so makes her less hip, that seems like a useful tradeoff—so long as the benefit is in becoming less a perfect, walking remix and more of a wart-and-pimpled human.

At minimum, despite her recent run of bad press, M.I.A. can't be dumb about the fact that her new approach is so violently out of vogue. One of this year's most critically adored bands, Sleigh Bells, not only satisfies the zeitgeist's desire for simplistic jamming, but also counts M.I.A.'s label as a recording home. The crunch of the band's guitar lines and the distorted stomp of their pep-rally beats are the only things that anyone needs to process in order to love them, since the lyrics are mostly free-floating fragments that outright preclude any kind of direct from-artist-to-listener communication. Take this line, for example: "Straight wars, straight men. Cowboys, Indians. Red souls, red friends. Infinity guitar, you're hard." That Rorschach scramble of refrigerator-magnet poetry comes in a song where only the two-word title phrase, "Infinity Guitars," can be said to matter. The upshot is that it's a workable single for both the indie set as well as the yuppies at your local Body Flow class. So while M.I.A. is happy to make money with them—and swipe one of their riffs for her own purposes—she's clearly less interested in that über-studied narrowness herself. (With apologies to Sleigh Bells, she appears to want shards of glass on the ground, not crowns.)

Does it all add up to good music? That depends on your appetite for construction—or else musique concrete-cum-dancing away an identity crisis. (Me, I dig Karlheinz Stockhausen's Helicopter String Quartet just as much as I enjoy R. Kelly, so I'm more or less sold.) The tracks by familiar M.I.A. collaborators (think Diplo and Switch) sound less intriguing this time than the contributions from new partners like Rusko—such that I think I'd like to see M.I.A.'s next album be completely Diplo-free. But whether you get down with Maya or not, M.I.A.'s honesty about confusion is at least making one important stand, and that's on behalf of music that's not buffed down to "high concept" (in the doublespeak of Hollywood) before it even hits your ear. Like most pop artists, she may not be your best source for the latest on the developing world, or theories about what the CIA is actually up to these days, though Maya still asserts itself as sound politics of a different and more musically relevant sort.