I guess I never really thought about MIA as a real person. I always envisioned her as more like a tornado of signifiers, clearly devoted to image above everything else. It wasn’t just that she was using terrorism as accoutrement, since Rage Against the Machine did that too; she was using 8-bit day-glo neon reproductions of terrorist symbols as video backdrops, and I didn’t see how anyone could take that seriously. Maybe it genuinely mattered to some people that her dad was supposedly a terrorist, but to me, she was presenting so aggressively (and successfully) as a capital-a Artist that I wasn’t sure how much biography mattered, at least as truth rather than story. Or, for that matter, intention. Maya’s never been the best judge of her own work (announcing her retirement shortly before her biggest hit, for instance), and I’ve always separated Maya-the-person from MIA-the-artist. What Maya’s good at in constructing MIA is, as many people in Lynn Hirschberg’s piece point out, is making connections between things, in apparently either an instinctual or willfully obtuse way, given how her public statements about the work seem better at further developing her ideas rather than explaining them. But I know that’s not true for everyone, and that’s fine. MIA is a person, after all—or Maya is, anyway—and artists should matter. In my youth, I was more apt to insist that everyone see music the way I did, but I’ve since realized that the way I see music is pretty weird. What I try to do now is just present that, in a sympathetic way, and if you want to pick up on it, you can.
I think it’s impossible to separate MIA from her/its implicit artistic project: putting the genre conventions of rap in the mouths of the global underclass as a way of drawing parallels between the social and economic conditions in America that spawned rap and the contemporaneous social and economic conditions in the world that most Americans prefer not to think about. That’s easy to see in “Paper Planes” (though Hirschberg seems to think that the decision to have twins sing the chorus is a better guide to the song’s meaning than, say, the song itself), which is essentially “Can’t Knock the Hustle” transposed to Somalia, though it may as well be Juarez or Moldova or Angeles City. The lyrics mock the illusion of control the West thinks it has over the world, flaunting cross-border lawbreaking as a way of asserting freedom. Of course, the hustlers in these places aren’t good people, and I chose those sorts of places intentionally. MIA seems interesting to me not so much as a conveyor of rigorously conceived political treatises and moral clarity, but as the vessel for a particular viewpoint that’s largely absent from US culture. But it’s important that she’s using a familiar form to push it through; it’s no accident that a line from the song got used as the basis for another rap hit, and as Jonathan points out, rappers were portraying themselves as terrorists before MIA came along. MIA’s great gift is for aesthetics, and while we’re accustomed to thinking of that as meaningless superficiality, probably the primary reason Americans don’t care about global culture is because its aesthetics are so, well, foreign to us. Most non-Western mass media has considerably lower production values than Americans are used to, and purely by dint of the cameras they’re using, we largely miss out on the content of global culture—while at the same time, of course, pushing our culture on them. MIA reframes the aesthetics, using rap and fashion and pop culture as a way of communicating accessibility while keeping the message the same (-ish). Hirschberg sees the photoshoot where Maya wears expensive jewelry to take cheesy ethnic-underclass pictures as gross, but that combination of the foreign and the familiar is essentially MIA’s point.
So if we’re willing to accept rappers comparing themselves to terrorists and glorifying nihilistic violence, why aren’t we OK with MIA glorifying politically questionable resistance groups? We’ve had to come to terms with rap’s themes by realizing that they’re not necessarily meant to be taken literally or autobiographically, but are metaphors for prowess, or stories. (Which gets complicated, but let’s wave our hands here and move on.) Why can’t MIA be doing precisely the same thing with her political rhetoric? The Tamil Tigers are awful, sure, but hey, so is the drug trade! They are both morally complicated things enmeshed in giant ambiguous political systems, but for the purposes of artistic expression they both get reduced to the sound of a gunshot on a track. But that’s what art does. Madonna’s religious provocations certainly didn’t have any substantive content; she’s not going to be a theologian anytime soon. The provocation was itself the point. The flouting of norms was a way of arguing that they shouldn’t be norms, and this seems to be what MIA is doing too. And when it’s not, then they’re stories, or metaphors, or character, or language.
I think the problem here is that art’s allowed to be reductive and metaphorical as long as we know that the artist is at least aware that they’re being reductive and are making the choice consciously. Maya’s public statements seem to make that impossible to believe. But I’m not so sure. The assumption seems to be that her political understanding is more shallow than, say, the average political musician’s, but I have long marveled at our ability to see political sophistication in sentiments that, at best, rise to the level of a college sophomore who just started reading Chomsky. Which is pretty high, for American culture, but not really that much higher than the incoherent kind of stuff Maya’s coming out with. And at the end of the day, you’re coming to her not for political analysis (there are way better venues for that), but for artistic expression, which is, in at least one formulation, the conveying of other perspectives. I still think Kala does that very well. “Bird Flu” uses pandemic as a metaphor for fears of the invisible global underclass breaking through borders and destroying everything, and that’s exactly what the music sounds like. Why I like MIA more than almost any other political art is because it’s possible not to see it as self-righteous. It’s not expressing a view of the world that demands moral purity, but one that admits the complicated nature of political issues—even if Maya seems incapable of doing that on, say, her Twitter. (Though I still don’t know how you can take the statements of someone who has worn pants that light up at face value, but whatever.) Whereas most political art needs to focus on grand tragedies, demanding perfection, the banality of the events in MIA songs present a more lived-in picture of the world, and their insistence simply on change rather than utopia make them, at their core, expressions of freedom. Where most political art ultimately sends the message that everything is awful and seems to stay that way, MIA’s political music insists that we are always already free—born free—and that things could change at any moment. Just not necessarily in ways you’ll like.
Again, this may just be my weird understanding of art. But I like it, and I get a lot out of it in the case of MIA. I think there’s more going on there than she (and certainly than Hirschberg) realizes. And that’s what I’m interested in, much more so than truffle fries.