Ed. note: This was written before the whole NY Times controversy!
Less than a decade on the scene, and two months before her eagerly awaited third album, M.I.A. is in a class alone. Maya Arulpragasam is a singular artistic force, pushing against musical boundaries and political sensitivities with equal aplomb. She is followed by a public that yearns to extract meaning from her every note, word, or Tweet.
So why the fuck is she attacking Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber?
Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a plea to leave Gaga and Bieber alone. As much as I enjoy the music that the two put out, it’s just pop. Neither is re-inventing the wheel; they’re following in the footsteps of pop stars before them. And that’s okay! Pop music can be iconic, especially with charismatic, interesting stars like these two. But it isn’t high art. Lyrically, Bieber uses the word “baby” 9 times in the chorus of his number one hit. Gaga sings about disco sticks and fame monsters. Musically, they put out well-crafted, hook-filled R&B and dance music, respectively. Nothing groundbreaking.
M.I.A. is different. Her music is a true melting pot of influences and genres, her lyrics bombastic poetry. She is definitely not a pop star, but has had no trouble getting press, be it critical fawning or political commentary. Her personal connection to and pointed views on the Sri Lankan Civil War, discussed with greater depth elsewhere, are a defining part of her public image. Her dedication to Third World issues and subjugated peoples worldwide is admirable; she definitely isn’t some Bono-come-lately. Her politics are personal; she has as much at stake as the political musicians of the 60s and 70s. So what happened?
A turning point here is the infamous video for “Born Free,” a bit of cinematic ultraviolence that depicts genocide in very graphic terms. With classic shock rock tactics, M.I.A. made a video “so violent” and “so controversial” that it was banned from YouTube… promptly buying her another few news cycles, all about a clip that is not particularly novel or creative. The video for “Born Free” manages to combine the worst parts of collegiate political discussion and overwrought film school productions. It’d be less smug if Michael Moore directed it.
M.I.A.’s release of the “Born Free” video is part is of the same cynical media strategy that includes running to NME every month to shit on pop stars. It’s not as if her album would have gone unnoticed, lost in Trending Topics to Justin Bieber’s haircut. It’s below her, and we should expect more from someone like M.I.A. She’s too important to music, culture, and art in 2010 to punch down like this.