What Went Right With… M.I.A.?

A caricature of M.I.A. by

M.I.A. is a great example of a Pop musician, she makes extremely catchy, easily repeatable, memorable music which although radio friendly is also brimming with a sense of credibility, style, and a hint of subversion. Her musical style perfectly blends Hip-Hop, Dance Music, Dancehall, and Bhangra with avant-garde music videos and up-to-the-minute clothing to make a highly creative and entertaining mix of art, style, and fashion. For me she is the modern-day equivalent of someone like Madonna, a beautiful performer who granted isn’t the best singer, in fact she isn’t even the best rapper or the best visual artist, but she possesses the so-called “X Factor”, something which has alluded the television show of the same name ever since its inception. M.I.A. is always ahead of the curve when it comes to her material, from her music video aesthetics, her fashion, to the music producers she enlists, in fact she made music with Producers such as Diplo and Switch way before they became mainstays of Pop. Way before Beyoncé, Iggy Azalea, and Justin Bieber, M.I.A. made Diplo and Switch’s trademark sound her own underground sub-genre of Hip-Hop and Dance, and despite being one of the few genuinely entertaining and authentically cool celebrities out there she is rarely mentioned by the mainstream media, unless of course they’ve got something bad to say.

This brings me neatly to the New York Times so-called “expose” on M.I.A. which outlined her contradictory and sometimes hypocritical lifestyle, it basically compared her public persona and her political stance to her private life. I have to say that some of what Lynn Hirschberg wrote about M.I.A. was correct (her rich husband, her method of giving birth etc.) but for me this was yet another occasion by the mainstream press to try and drag down a person of colour and occurrences like these seem to be part of a widespread web of institutional racism. You never see any mainstream newspaper exposing fakes like Russell Brand, a fake-anarchistic, anti-capitalist capitalist, and back in the day these same media outlets didn’t call out the Hippie Movement for being a sham or point out their connection to the military and the C.I.A. so why single out M.I.A.? It has been widely acknowledged that pretty much all the “known” hippie singers and songwriters during the so-called Summer Of Love were fake, but it doesn’t stop their music being enjoyable or listenable. In the same way I can say I like listening to M.I.A.’s music and I agree with many of her sentiments and statements, but I have to detach her outward political stance, her somewhat hollow and sometimes contrived opinions from her personal life which if researched is hypocritical in places, something which these Journalists seem to do when it comes to certain people within the entertainment business but not others, a little selective for my liking.

If you start to look in any great detail at any celebrity it becomes clear that pretty much all of them are fakes or sellouts, if you solely supported 100% “real” celebrities, you’d have to go and live in a cabin in the woods and begin to write a manifesto, all we can do within the insincere culture that we live is pick and choose the best art and leave the personal life of the Artist behind. But I digress.

M.I.A.’s discography is a weird blend of extremely creative, almost underground and alternative music peppered with some strangely mediocre Pop, but thankfully for every “Jimmy” there is always a “Bamboo Banga” and a “Boyz” to even things out. For every sub-par album like ΛΛ Λ Y Λ there’s two great albums like Arula and Kala and even after the lacklustre Maya, M.I.A. came back with the much better album Matangi. Despite her best work being released on XL Recordings, hopefully her upcoming Interscope album Matahdatah is more akin to her first two albums; refreshing and innovative. Regardless, her discography is loaded with more creativity and originality than many of her peers, and even though she may not be the only creative mind behind her music or her music videos, M.I.A. like the 80’s and early 90’s Madonna has a knack for selecting the best talent to bolster her material.

In Britain we love to stereotype, so if a British Asian wants to “make it” in the UK, they have to succumb to what the white majority know of them. That’s why we had “Arrange Marriage” by Apache Indian and “Brimful Of Asha” by Cornershop doing well in the Top 40, and that is why the only time M.I.A. gained any kind of fame in Britain was because her song “Paper Planes” was embraced by and subsequently featured in the film Slumdog Millionaire. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when someone born in London doesn’t gain fame in their own country unless of course they stereotype or caricature their ethnicity.

M.I.A. always brings in other ethnicities into her music and visuals, from the West Indies in “Boyz” to the Middle East and North Africa in “Bad Girls”, in fact her music is usually a fusion of club music and ethnic beats and melodies which make use of syncopation and staccato notes to create extremely original compositions.

It’s always great to see a minority making something credible rather than stereotypical, it’s even better to see a woman not conforming to sexual stereotyping and looking and sounding like something other than what the media machine want them to be. It’s also quite pleasing to see a 40 year old making music that’s more refreshing and avant-garde than many Artists half her age. In fact the majority of M.I.A.’s material, from her music to her fashion is more innovative than most people working in mainstream music today. Aside from music, M.I.A. has directed music videos for the likes of Elastica and even designed their album cover, she also signed the Noise-Pop duo Sleigh Bells proving that she has an ear for credible Pop music other than her own. All in all she is a great talent, I just wish she wouldn’t do tracks with obvious, overexposed producers like Timbaland, perform at mainstream shows like the Super Bowl, and hook-up with billionaires. But like I said before, her overall music is enough to make me forget about her conflicting agendas.

Ten, twenty, or fifty years down the line the same people who have been underrating M.I.A. for more than a decade will be singing her praises, if she was a white, twenty year old boy from New York making the same music she does, they’d be heralded as some kind of genius and be incessantly hyped and plugged by everybody and their mother, but I guess a 40 year old female British Sri Lankan called Mathangi Arulpragasam doesn’t fit into the media’s neat little box of mainstream acceptability.

Missing In Action.

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2 replies »

  1. On your point about how British Asian musicians usually aren’t successful without pandering to stereotypes, there are exceptions. For me Babylon Zoo is a major example of this, as their frontman was of Asian heritage but whose music wasn’t catering to stereotypes, as their band was an alternative rock band with clear grunge and industrial rock influence. Despite this, they were incredibly successful managing to top the UK singles chart for 5 weeks and whose debut album was Gold certified. As such, while many successful British Asian musicians succumb to stereotypes, there are exceptions.

    • I agree that Babylon Zoo didn’t pander to stereotypes but the main reason for their success was the Levi’s Ad, not because of the group’s sound or style. There are of course a few exceptions to the Asian/Middle Eastern stereotype (Kaliphz, UK Apache, and one half of Mantronix spring to mind) but without the help of something like a mainstream advertisement to get the public interested, these types of acts rarely attract widespread acclaim or adoration (and to me that says something about the majority of the British public).

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