The Modern Media Assassin
It’s created a buzz well before its release date. For the past several months, every pop music outlet has speculated on its content. It’s provoked fervent anticipation among fans, censorship from the World Wide Web, and derision from elitist establishment journalists (I’m looking at you Lynn Hirschberg).
Now, it’s finally here. M.I.A.’s Maya has arrived, and it’s predictably polarized the critics. Some find it difficult and near-unlistenable. Others are likewise confounded with the album’s sheer weightiness, but nonetheless herald it as a glimpse at music’s dark, demented future. Neither seem willing to parse through the dense content to see what the artist is actually getting at.
Even looking at the album’s artwork, it’s clear that Maya Arulpgragasam--like anyone living in today’s tech-heavy world--is suffering from a case of information overload. First listen most certainly confirms this. For one thing, M.I.A. is heard singing much more. And where 2007’s Kala pulled on the wide diversity of sounds emanating from India, Liberia, Jamaica, Maya is positively Orwellian in its mish-mash of computerized, post-industrial noise. Often, it sounds like a the musical communique of some dangerous clandestine resistance movement that’s somehow found its way onto the airwaves through a mole DJ.
Introduced by the sounds of clicking computer keyboards, our ears are soon gripped by a dissonant, sparse drill-and-bang, over which M.I.A. seems to warn us in nursery-rhyme fashion:
“Head bone connects to the headphones
Headphones connect to the iPhone
iPhone connects to the Internet, connects to Google
Connects to the government”
This is “The Message.” The trope of Big Brother-on-the-Internet isn’t a new one. Neither is the attempt to link up Google with C.I.A. spies. But at less than a minute long, it serves as more a snippit than a song, setting the dystopianism of Maya quite well.
“Steppin’ Up,” the album’s first full song, insists “you know who I am,” but initially we’re not so sure we do. The song, deft though it might be in piecing together a discernible beat from the flotsam, sounds like Arulpragasam snuck into an abandoned machine shop and recorded the noise produced by the old, rusted-out power tools.
Lyrically, “Steppin’ Up” mixes the cliched, empty-headed imagery of the sweaty club floor with bomb blasts and fire-chucking mobs. It’s jarring for sure, by the end of the track, we’re putty in M.I.A.’s hands: “I can make a sound, and the shriek will make you jump.” Whether that sound will come from the synth or the molotov isn’t really clear, but hey, that’s part of the excitement.
The willingness to simply let one’s self become immersed is definitely a prerequisite for hearingMaya’s content, there’s also a kind of post-modern Brechtianism to it. Try though we might to get comfortable in the album’s dense soundscape, the sheer jaggedness simply won’t allow it. It's fun, and certainly engaging; oftentimes it's also a hard pill to swallow.
Arulpragasam has said that she intends the album to be “so uncomfortably weird and wrong that people begin to exercise their critical-thinking muscles.” In May, she told Complex magazine that such thought is necessary for ordinary people to navigate through the world:
“So many corporations are merging, I don’t even know who’s telling the truth anymore. If Time is bought by CNN, am I gonna get a different opinion in Time than from CNN? I don’t think so. Corporations mold politics, and if the agenda of a corporation is to make money, then surely the information that we’re going to get is edited so it makes you think a certain thing at the end of the day... You can Google the words ‘Sri Lanka’ and it doesn’t come up that all these people have been murdered or bombed, it’s pages of: ‘Come to Sri Lanka on vacation, there are beautiful beaches.’ You’re not gonna get the truth ‘til you hit like page 56, you know what I mean?”
For this last comment, Arulpragasam reportedly received death threats against her and her son.
The past few years have seen a wide array of roles foisted on M.I.A.; indie fans may have rejoiced when Kala carried her to the greatest heights of pop stardom. That this success loosely coincided with the civil war in Sri Lanka and the exposure of its murderous policy against the ethnic Tamil population necessarily turned the militantly outspoken Arulpragasam into something of a spokesperson. Her country’s government denounced her. Commentators thumbed their nose at her for encouraging violence.
Given all this, observers might be forgiven for blurring the line between M.I.A.’s public and private personae. M.I.A. herself has often had fun fudging the distinction. What she hasn’t been able to abide by, however, have been the deliberate attacks, the misquotes, the cavalier way in which her art and message have been manipulated and taken out of context.
Maya, then, is peppered with lyrical middle fingers to the hack nay-sayers and yellow journalists. “XXXO,” the first single leaked a few months back, is ostensibly a love song, and the thoroughly danceable beats initially suggest little more. But when she insists “you want me to be somebody who I’m really not,” and as the sounds evolve into an increasingly foreboding cacophony, we get the feeling she’s not just talking to a potential beau.
It’s not infrequent that M.I.A. spins this somewhat personal vitriol into a wider scope. “Lovealot” sees her confrontationally mocking her opponents like a pumped-up amateur boxer: “They told me this was a free country... I fight the ones that fight me!” And while one can picture Arulpragasam saying this in any song, she notably places it in the context of even more controversy; the song’s inspiration was the true story of an Islamic militant killed in 2009 by Russian police and his young wife who attempted to avenge his death in the Moscow subway suicide bombing this past March.
While M.I.A. is singing from the young woman’s point of view, any attempt to paint the artist a “terrorist” (and they’re coming, believe me) won’t have any real argument. One gets the sense that Arulpragasam’s lyrics are meant to raise more questions than answers. They provoke, yes, but they also dare to imagine what kicks around the head of those mowed over by the empires that dare not speak their own name. If M.I.A. can somehow identify with these faceless denizens, it undoubtedly springs from her own personal understanding of blowback.
And then, of course, there’s “Born Free.” So many cluttered, confused comments on this video have clogged the Internet in recent months that it the song’s actual content has been lost in the shuffle. And M.I.A. has by no means made it easy. “Born Free” drips with effects--the centerpiece synth-keys are fuzzed and distorted to an insane degree, the percussion sounds more like a meth-addled drummer banging on a trash-can after reaching “the zone.” And M.I.A.’s own deadpan lyrical delivery is highly reverbed:
“Yeah man-made powers, stood like a tower
Higher and higher... hello
And the higher you go, you feel lower
I was close to the end, staying undercover
With my nose to the ground I found my sound”
Lines like these give the later declarations of artistic independence (“I don’t wanna talk about money, ‘cuz I got it / And I don’t wanna talk about hoochies, ‘cuz I been it...”) an actual context. Same for the refrain of “I was born free,” almost as if M.I.A. has lined up her enemies one by one--from America itself to every last condescending journalist--before stating it loud and clear.
The weird, seemingly never-ending pattern that’s generated from M.I.A.’s relationship with the media--one where she makes a public statement and is denounced personally which then ends up woven into her musical fabric--has sent even sharp music critics on the wrong scent. Jessica Hopper, writing in the Chicago Reader, ends her rather disparaging review of Maya by pointing out Aruglpragasam’s engagement to Ben Brewer, son of Universal Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman. It forces Hopper to reach the conclusion that Arulpragasam is simply “making art of her contradictions.”
Never mind the vaguely sexist undertone that exists in the assumption that M.I.A.’s art is somehow compromised by her “marrying into money.” What is really staggering about Hopper’s conclusion is that making art from contradictions used to assumed of any decent artist! Consumerism, the music industry, the whole capitalist shebang--these are systems that force self-aware artists to straddle between the lure of individual success and communal longing, between the personal and political, between the millions dangled before them and the promise of a better tomorrow. If Hopper finds this in itself worth noting, then it speaks to the depths of the historical nightmare from which music journalism needs to awake.
In this light, the controversy that surrounded the de facto YouTube ban on the video for “Born Free” can be seen as part of the game. Whether M.I.A. intended for the vid to get buried is less to the quick than was the opportunity it provided her to point out the contradiction that lies at the heart of the Internet: on one hand, unprecedented access to information, and on the other, the cutthroat interests of Google and the rest. It’s a move that makes Arulpragasam less a mere contradictory artist and more of a modern media assassin.
Shaking the modern world into consciousness isn’t an easy task to take on by yourself. But M.I.A. seems more hellbent than ever to hold the fractured mirror up to society and point out the wide gaps that exist. Rather than be knocked on the defensive by the shit she’s had shovelled at her, she’s taken the opportunity to grab hold of it and add it to her bag of ammo. It’s one of the many things that makes her possibly the most original artist in pop music today. And like most of the best artists, she forces the audience to ask if maybe we’d be better off in charge.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the blog Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts. His articles have also appeared in Z Magazine, SocialistWorker.org, New Politics, CounterPunch and PopMatters.com.
He can be reached at email@example.com.