Music

Between party lines

Reading the MIA/New York Times controversy

What's so special about a truffle fry? A variation on the traditional French fry, a truffle fry is cut julienne style, prepared with truffle oil, kosher salt and russet potatoes. It has a thinner, softer consistency than your average fry and is usual served with spicy mayo. They're delicious. Luckily, truffle fries are not isolated to high-end dining establishments. You can get an approximation at the grocery store.

During Lynn Hirschberg's New York Times exposé on the perceived flimsiness of Sri Lankan pop star MIA's politics, the writer juxtaposes the artist's eye-rolling shock statements ("Give war a chance") with her choice of meal (the aforementioned delicate baked good) to present a portrait of hypocrisy. But like a truffle fry, MIA isn't really that much different from the other products we digest on a daily basis.

Her single "XXXO" is junk food, a Happy Meal of seemingly straightforward synth pop that reveals itself over time to be a complex arrangement by Bmore house impresario Blaqstarr and dubstep whizkid Rusko. Label ringer special remix guest Jay-Z is the toy inside; we can choose whether or not we want to play with him and discard him when we lose interest (as usual, almost immediately). Somewhat tellingly, a malapropism in the chorus makes the song ("You want me be somebody who I'm really not").

The truth of the matter is that MIA's reputation for being a Sri Lankan rebel soldier girl is overblown. From the beginning, I've always seen her as a technoscout. She purposefully dates herself with the current state of media through extended metaphor. This is apparent on her older work ("URAQT in particular") and on "XXXO" ("Upload your photo, see below / You like what you see, you can download and store"; "You're tweeting me like Tweety Bird on your iPhone"). It used to be "call me if you need someone to talk to", now it's R Kelly saying "text me back something freaky". These lines are clumsy and base from a literary perspective but they represent the true direction of the artist and are effective in bonding with today's audience.

While the vague political affiliation is a creation of the artist, like Public Enemy before her, politics are merely a gateway to the party. Roman Gavras's sensationalist video for "Born Free" is fast-paced and visually interesting but the song itself is of little consequence. The video's presentation of the song implies that the sound is less important than the image, a special edit of which is made with several ambient moments for the action to be taken in fully. The video is famous for the execution of a red-haired child but more jarring is how its short film format mostly ignores the song, which has a pseudo-revolutionary message that you barely notice over the nine minutes and six seconds the video pushes the song length to. What is actually being sold here?

Please roll it back to "XXXO" to note the content of the previously mentioned toy's guest verse. Yes, Jay-Z, 40-year-old multi-millionaire part owner of the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets and Beach House fan, is still rapping about murdering someone (who is this guy he hates so much?) with a Tech-9 or semi-automatic pistol and "pushing weight" over a relatively plaintive future rap ballad about love and image. With this, we are again confronted by the concept of image influencing why we select our media.

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of things, the casual music listener needs easy shorthand to decide who comes into their parlour. So why do people like Jay-Z? Because he's cool. But cool is such an ephemeral concept. What is cool about him? He is a rich guy, he claims he used to sell drugs 30 years ago (but still talks about doing it today), he can afford expensive clothes, he is considered desirable by someone we collectively find to be desirable.

Basically, he tells us he's cool, the label tells us he's cool, so he must be cool. He is a movie character, a conduit for danger that lends the listener a vicarious thrill. No one wants to be a misanthropic guy with a patriarchal complex, thus people rarely self-identify with a rapper like El-P, for instance. Everyman artists can be successful but only if they reflect an idealized version of everyday reality back to the listener. When this reflection is done in a negative light, it's naturally conflicting. Nobody wants to be normal or flawed. But everyone wants to be rich.

Then again, some people just want to feel dangerous. MIA's background (daughter of a Tamil Tiger, temporarily banned from the US) connects this subtext to her music but shouldn't be considered the focus, even if she courts it by claiming people are trying to make her into a terrorist. She is not a sociologist: she's a musician. I don't look for my news on TMZ and I don't take political cues from musicians, so neither should you or the The New York Times.

So what Hirschberg is raking MIA through the coals for is actually the same conceit all pop stars must make to be successful. The message is window dressing for the image of the product. At least MIA has a strength in being a technological barometer. She bounces between the producers du jour like Madonna and includes media trends in her lyrics. The album cover for her new album ///Y/ (MAYA in ASCII) is made out of YouTube progress bars. There is value to MIA's pop art because unlike someone like Lady Gaga who is insular in her strive for fashion populism, it is actually reflective of world culture. It's world music that doesn't shun technology, making it more of a social statement than a political one.

Roland Pemberton is a musician and writer, as well as Edmonton's Poet Laureate. His music column appears in Vue Weekly on the last Thursday of each month. 

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