Okay, so M.I.A.’s divisive third album, /\/\/\Y/\, has been out since early July. Its official release was on the 13th, though she “leaked” it on her MySpace page earlier in the month. Of course, the release of lead single “XXXO” and the music video for “Born Free” ramped up anticipation, as did her sound-bite shit-talk toward Interscope label mate Lady Gaga.
Pitch escalated when Lynn Hirschberg’s scandalous New York Times profile damaged the M.I.A.’s profile, prompting folks to provide advice for how to put her suddenly waning career back on track. Back in 2007, M.I.A., LCD Soundsystem, and Panda Bear topped many critics’ best-of lists (and dazzled this moi) with albums that expanded the studio boundaries of fringe-audience pop music. All of these artists release follow-ups this year. James Murphy has made it through his most recent foray relatively unscathed. I imagine that Panda Bear’s Tomboy will be kid-gloved as a musical evolution while M.I.A.’s self-titled /\/\/\Y/\ will be framed as a manic detour. How’s that for sexism?
I’ll admit some bias. I’ve been an M.I.A. fan since I saw two girlfriends execute the “Galang” dance with perfect synchronicity at a college party. Her first two albums rank amongst my favorites of the decade, though I’m always aware of how middle-class and white I am when I pump “Paper Planes” in my Mazda 626. But for me, there aren’t that many female artists at the level of fame she’s achieved who consistently relish in having pop culture ram against political insurrection. As Jessica Hopper put it in her review, she makes pop for capitalist pigs.
But I’ve also been critical of M.I.A. She was the subject of the first presentation I gave at a national conference. At the 2008 PCA/ACA conference, I proposed that her deliberate use of b-girl fashion projected a subversive racialized femininity. Predictably, this resulted in the Sri Lankan refugee turning outdated, second-hand designs into a hot commodity once she reached a certain level of fame, making her a hipster icon for designers like Marc Jacobs and retailers like American Apparel and Converse. Unfortunately, the current backlash was bound to happen.
Some folks wrote incisive commentary on Hirschberg’s article, evident in LaToya Peterson’s Jezebel article and Sady Doyle’s Tiger Beatdown piece. Unfortunately, the piece irrevocably skewed the reception of M.I.A.’s new album, forcing buried tensions to surface around the actual political merit of her artistic contributions that previously went unquestioned. Thanks to this article, many critics now seem to think she’s crazy, phony, constructed, and untalented (though unable to admit that they’ve been had, as Arular and Kala were almost unanimously praised). Much of this criticism seems short-sighted and blind to how popular opinion is engineered. Apart from explicit references to Hirschberg’s profile, its influence is particularly evident in the annoying ubiquity of the term “agit-prop,” which has lost all meaning for me.
So now that the album has been out for a few weeks and writers don’t have to play hand pile with Twitter, how about we calm down? M.I.A.’s third album is not that bad. Actually, it’s pretty good. More to the point, it’s remarkably consistent with her previous offerings, leading me to wonder why folks are just now getting annoyed with her tendency toward mock-incendiary sloganeering and posturing. Let’s put things in perspective, shall we?
Oh and let’s also get truffle oil French fries out of our minds as a symbol of her waning credibility. Like it’s hard to find a basket of those in Los Angeles. Matter of fact, I remember sharing a pizza topped with truffle “essence” at the Brick Oven before a Gravy Train!!!! show a few summers back. I was doing some contract voice-over work at the time, which wasn’t especially lucrative but could afford me to go in on a $10 pie. Also, I find Maya and fiancé/Seagram heir Ben Brewer’s decision to turn a Brentwood mansion into a squat for their friends a far more interesting application of wealth, perhaps more clearly indicating the couple’s political values.
If I rated things on a scale of 10, I’d give /\/\/\Y/\ a 7. It retains much of her signature while loosening its grip periodically to incorporate dub and industrial’s influence into her sound. It meanders a bit and lags toward the end in a free associative haze, not unlike fellow pop iconoclast and mother Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two. For me, its tangential feel simulates the non-linear nature of online interaction that’s foregrounded in the album art as well as the typing sounds and the mantra that comprise opening track “The Message”.
As an album, /\/\/\Y/\ doesn’t pack the immediate wallop of her first two albums — particularly the breakthrough Kala, which made her a household name and also guaranteed that she’d disappoint people after her Grammy performance, involvement with Slumdog Millionaire, and musical cameos in movie trailers.
However, I’d put the compressed energy of “Steppin’ Up,” “Born Free,” and “Meds and Feds” up there with “Bird Flu.” I also like the contrast with smoother numbers like “It Takes a Muscle,” “Tell Me Why,” and “Space.” I side with Ann Powers’s reading of “XXXO” as a statement about the problematic nature of constructing a pop star and a commentary about M.I.A.’s assumed role as a producer’s muse. I’m fine with the pro-weed chorus to “Teqkilla,” as it plays like a commentary on the post-ironic hipster inanity of a Nylon party that’s honoring her. And if Mark Richardson believes the lyric about Googling yourself in Discovery’s “Orange Shirt” captures “the low-level digitally assisted narcissism of the current age,” I wonder what he makes of M.I.A.’s line in “It Iz What It Iz” about having discussions with her partner while playing Wii.
Part of what prevented me from writing this piece earlier is the inability to reconcile her status as international pop star with her national heritage and cultural origins. Recently, I was having a sloshy party conversation with my friends Alex and Jessalynn about this problem. They proposed that M.I.A. has mythologized her family’s move from war-torn Sri Lanka to London to the point of distortion. They were skeptical of how she got to London, noting that her family must have some connections gained through privilege that the pop star is obscuring to lend credibility to the marginal cultural position she’s defined for herself. Fair point, because while London has a considerable immigrant population, I do wonder what educational programs were offered to a South London teenager that granted her enrollment at St. Martin’s College. I am also troubled by how a pop star is expected to speak on behalf of her home country’s systemic oppression, particularly as she grows more distant from its citizenry while exploiting a telegraphed representation of her heritage for profit.
Yet I find these set of issues especially interesting, particularly as many of our contemporary female pop stars make interchangeable hits about partying in appropriated pan-Native American couture or cupcake bras. I’ll take M.I.A.’s recent Late Show performance of “Born Free” over any of this nonsense. There may not have been gun shots to censor this time, but the army of M.I.A. avatars bested Eminem’s VMA performance of “The Real Slim Shady” and Suicide’s Martin Rev bleating out the sampled riff to “Ghost Rider” created televisual drama. M.I.A. might be a frustrating pop cultural figure and a guaranteed sell-out, but she’s far from boring.