I don’t usually write about politics. If I do, it’s folded into a post about something else. Make no mistake. As a feminist, political consciousness and activism are very important to me. I just don’t think writing on policy and legislation is something I do well. I tend to forget representatives’ names and feel I lack the rhetorical nuance to report on issues the way I write about, say, Odd Future’s problematic cultural ascendancy. I provide commentary. I follow and contend in-depth analysis from folks like LaToya Peterson, s.e. smith, Everett Maroon, Amanda Marcotte, Melissa McEwan, Katherine Haenschen, and Rachel Maddow, and check in with Slate, Salon, NPR, the Guardian, Racialicious, Tiger Beatdown, and ColorLines like a good liberal. I also have friends who commit their lives to politics. I try to absorb as much of what they have to say as possible while parsing out what party ideology jibes with my own beliefs.
Where possible, I do like to take political action. I believe my work with Girls Rock Camp Austin is political in nature. If I lived in Wisconsin, I’d be picketing with the students and police officers. Matter of fact, there’s a distinct chance I’ll be marching with them soon enough if Scott Walker continues to sell out his constituents. Once I know where I’ll be next fall, I’d like to get back to volunteering. I don’t make a lot of money at my job, but I donate some of my earnings to organizations like OutYouth. I recently attended Austin’s Walk for Choice and proudly hoisted a sign I got from the March for Women’s Lives, which I participated in during college. I believe civic action is important. That is why I’m bowling with Lilith Fund in the National Abortion Access Bowl-a-Thon. It’s also why I’m taking time out to ask that you sponsor my team.
I don’t ask for money very often. I took a telemarketer job for six months in college and it was pretty degrading. I’ve never set up a PayPal or a Kickstarter account for this blog. Instead, I rely on downloading, review copies, and promo CDs to keep overhead low. As I’d love to revamp this blog and start recording podcasts for it, I may solicit at a later date. I also don’t want to perpetuate the idea that feminists of my generation come down from the mountain only when our reproductive rights are in jeopardy. There are a lot of issues that affect women and girls that we should be fighting for. Prison and education reform, equal pay, trans rights, eradicating human trafficking and child abuse, comprehensive sex education, dismantling rape culture and institutional racism, same-sex adoption and partner benefits, universal health care, and closing the technology gap most immediately come to mind.
But preserving reproductive choice is also of integral importance to me. I have always believed that giving women and girls the right to choose to enter into motherhood rather than foist it upon them improves the quality of life for all involved parties. I believe allowing abortion as an option following conception from traumatic experiences like rape and incest is a necessity we have to protect. I believe providing women and girls with autonomy by providing them education about sexual health and contraception will make the world a better place.
However, I’m not just bowling so that more girls and women have access to abortion. Anti-choice folks tend to think all we’re concerned about is making sure women and girls can get abortions. They also believe we come to our decision to have them in a cavalier manner. The former assumption simplifies a complex, interrelated set of issues into one watch word. The latter myth is just stupid and insulting. Organizations like Lilith Fund work toward providing information, counseling, and resources to their community. Facilities like Planned Parenthood provide folks with birth control and information on family planning, as well as administer pap smears and other standard procedures to guarantee women’s health. This is especially important at a time when proposed legislation is getting scary on a medieval level. Georgia state rep Bobby Franklin wants expectant mothers to prove their miscarriages occured naturally (read this great Crunk Feminist Collective enumerating recent attacks on reproductive justice). My own governor Rick Perry (who I’ve never voted for) wants me to look at a sonogram before going through with a termination. This is at a time when abortion providers are becoming an endangered species and access to contraception continues to be compromised.
It’s not a game. It’s about livelihood. I’m willing to do many things, including bowl for it. I hope you’ll support me and my team (seriously, just click on the link and provide us with whatever you can spare), as well as take personal action.
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.