The new queen of radical chic, agit-pop provocateur, fierce agitator, media lightning rod, controversial popster, the ultimate blog artist, truth-telling Robin Hoodrat, ambassadress of multiculti swagger, global street-beat cut-and-paste artist, Maya Arulpragasam is a musician who performs as M.I.A. The British-Sri Lankan is an intriguing gal, with legs and a life story that just won't quit. I like M.I.A.
So here we are, in July 2010, a month after New York Times writer Lynn Hirschberg wrote a spiteful feature painting M.I.A. as a contradiction-filled faker. As every rock-blog reader knows, in the media scrum leading up to the release of /\/\/\Y/\ (that's not a typo) M.I.A. has taken some hits for allegations of truffle fry ordering. Media hoo-hah = "The Truffle Kerfuffle." The moment where her profile is highest has also produced her weakest album. Her music isn’t much fun anymore. /\/\/\Y/\ (attention-whoring title) is a challenge marked with fight-the-power shout-outs, references to Gandhi and the Pope, and murmurs of anti-establishment sentiment -- statements and brutal treatment of sonics that will have iTunes in classification prolapse. /\/\/\Y/\ (weird syntax) is more art project than album — a comparison often used as critical shorthand for "this music is unlistenable." The cumbersomely-titled /\/\/\Y/\ is hardly easy listening. It's abrasive in the extreme, a determinedly nontuneful wall of alienating noise, frenetic, whirring sounds, static, reckless beats and splintered grooves; an electro-mechanical soundscape; a riot of scorching noise, mangled digital beats and filling-loosening sub-bass; tambourine-shaking, synthesizer-blipping, sample-chirping mayhem; a disorienting mix of industrial clatter and digital slush; a puzzling collection of magpie-ish pop hybrids and abortive experiments; a mix of her hectic, eventful collages; a manic pastiche; music that positively revels in noise -- nothing short of an aural all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s the sound of war, warped data, heavy machinery, politics and oppression. M.I.A. has never shied away from noise, often recruiting aggravation and distortion as aesthetic weapons, but she's never done it quite so literally. This cacophony doesn't signify much of anything, aside from perhaps a desire to seem confrontational and daring. M.I.A. is predictably unpredictable. She’s certainly not out to make friends on /\/\/\Y/\. I feel as if I’m breaking up with my girlfriend of three years.
/\/\/\Y/\ might mark the point at which Maya Arulpragasam’s self-aggrandizing finally catches up with her ability to deliver. /\/\/\Y/\ is Maya's album. To talk about /\/\/\Y/\ (the record we've all heard too much about at this point) is to talk about M.I.A. A lot of /\/\/\Y/\ certainly has the feel of a vanity project. Each track on /\/\/\Y/\, no matter how different, is unmistakably the work of M.I.A. Throughout the album she broadcasts her ID. It's a growing-pains album for Arulpragasam. It feels like a serious artist's sometimes tentative but very promising step toward a broader vision of herself (truffle fries-eating phony?). M.I.A doesn’t just own this record, she is this record. "All I ever wanted was my story to be told," she insists: she wanted to be famous (a star who sought the spotlight in order to barrage it with glitter and shrapnel), and now she is.
Arulpragasam is trying to negotiate a middle ground between her status as an underground rebel and rising pop celebrity. /\/\/\Y/\ is mostly about M.I.A., her ability to shock and enthrall us, straight out of the Malcolm McLaren and Madonna school of controversy courting. (A friend once said, “M.I.A. is controversial, just to be controversial.”) The problem with /\/\/\Y/\ is that the clamor around what she says seems to have begun influencing some of the music that she chooses to make. It isn't easy being a revolutionary carrying the weight of her own self-importance. “I just give a damn,” she says over and over—but apparently not enough of a damn to make a good song. You can almost hear the snarl on her voice. She asserts: "I don't wanna talk about money / 'Cause I got it / I don't wanna talk about hoochies / 'Cause I been it" -- wordplay that will amuse some and inspire others. "Born Free," is a slick piece of agitprop leaning more toward exploitation than genuine discourse. M.I.A.‘s new concerns feel equally mundane. This is an album where the title "Teqkilla" is considered a brilliant pun. "Teqkilla" and "Meds and Feds" are thumping party jams whose subject matter is beside the point. The sometimes inane lyrics of “Tell Me Why” arrive in waves: "If life is such a game/How come people all act the same," oh dear.
It’s just not as incendiary as you’d expect (there's less of a Third World vibe here). Forty-five minutes, one big statement, what to do? What is the Tamil going for? That Rorschach scramble of refrigerator-magnet poetry? Intoxicating gobbledygook -- perhaps inspired by the birth of her baby, Ikhyd? Who is she talking to? Does a lullaby still soothe a little boy if it's been refined through Auto-Tune? Why would you have a typical rap song, on what is supposed to be a bureaucratic blame album? Does it all add up to good music? I hate to return to that damn NY Times article, but the answers are there (truffle chips). /\/\/\Y/\'s purported reason for being: "'Cause I got something to say." But what exactly? /\/\/\Y/\ is unsure of itself on that question. Perhaps the next time around, M.I.A. should take the time to figure out what it is that she does want to say before heading into the studio. Any statement that she is making gets lost in translation. It's hard to tell whether she's genuinely trying to convince anyone of anything. Perhaps she means to say stay thirsty, my friends, stay thirsty. What does ‘XXXO’ really mean?: Enjoy.
Even when you think you get the message, there's something else to be considered. On /\/\/\Y/\, M.I.A. doesn't connect dots. The notion that M.I.A. isn't politically meaningful because her motives are mixed and her ideas are screwed up is clueless about how pop music works -namely, all kinds of screwy ways. M.I.A.’s honesty about confusion is at least making one important stand: TruffleGate. Her contradictions, her incongruities, her frustrating oversimplifications of lethally complex geopolitical phenomena are precisely what make her so fascinating, so vital. They're what make her compelling, and why her rebel-girl image—calculated and genuine, with both halves magnified in the limelight—is so hard to take at face value. On /\/\/\Y/\, she is trying to stay in the thick of her own life. She’s humanized herself. Joe Strummer would be proud.
/\/\/\Y/\'s low-def beat-beds and sparse melodic content assert themselves eventually. In the end, the sound sells it, her ear saves her. A beat-shopper, or a catalyst, or a selector: what a singular talent we’re dealing with here (curatorial superpowers that border on Warholian). She triumphs when it comes to the poppier numbers, including the 1980s-styled electro of current single "XXXO," her greatest pop concession yet. Diplo still gets at it best, her initial cohort and foil, coaxing airy prettiness out of the fairly lightweight '80s pop-reggae cover "It Takes a Muscle." There's a whole lot of weirdness, chipmunks and dybbuks. "Steppin' Up", a Switch collaboration with Rusko, is the album's most successful attempt at grafting her jarring new aesthetic to a traditional M.I.A. rhyme. "Lovealot" is the album's most powerful jam. No one else on earth could make this song and sell it to however many tens of thousands of people will buy this record this week. “And I won’t turn my cheek like I’m Ghandi/I fight the ones that fight me,” she raps, a chilling reference to the teenage Islamic widow who avenged her terrorist husband’s killing last year by suicide-bombing a Moscow subway. Would-be renegade pop artist, that’s very, very naughty of you (and not in the sexy way). It's too bad New York Times writer Lynn Hirschberg didn't listen to this track before she interviewed Arulpragasam for a profile.
There’s an over-riding sense of familiarity to the brash cut-and-paste energy of M.I.A.’s music. She means to attack the new information age: broadband paranoia, the theme of a jacked-in Wi-Fi culture, the Internet as a zone of surveillance and miscommunication, the concept of connectivity. Communication technology – “a digital ruckus” – concerns M.I.A., but the sonic and lyrical allusions to the Twitter lifestyle don't really offer a critique (tweetin' me like Tweety Bird sticky-icky-icky-icky fbwwzzzzzzz kzzzz internet internet). M.I.A. can't help but fight the powers that be. Megabyte upon megabyte of commentary, she remains vitally important to The Discourse (the friends also said, “You know, maybe people will listen to it, just because [she’s M.I.A.].”). We are all hopelessly linked, infamous truffle fries. The gulf between how much fun it is to talk about M.I.A. and how much fun it is to actually listen to M.I.A.'s music has stretched into a yawning, bottomless abyss. Let's just stay there, shall we?
Some formatting changes for the sake of uniformity aside, the review above is composed entirely of phrases from already published write-ups of M.I.A.'s third album, /\/\/\Y/\. Each quote is hyperlinked to its source, but it seems necessary also to list all 41 works cited separately:
Aaron, Charles. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. Spin.
Baron, Zach. "Last Night: M.I.A. Got Kicked Off Stage At Her Own Record Release Party at P.S.1." Sound of the City.
Bennett, Matthew. "Maya's trajectory and output is now utterly unique." Clash Music.
Bennett, Matthew. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. BBC.
Bright, Evan. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. Consequence of Sound.
Brockman, Daniel. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. The Boston Phoenix.
Brody, Gideon. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. musicOMH.
Cataldo, Jesse. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. Slant Magazine.
Christgau, Robert. "Illygirl Steppin Up." The Barnes & Noble Review.
Dean, Jonathan. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. Tiny Mix Tapes.
DeLuca, Dan. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Dunlevy, T'cha. "MIA fights the power, but doesn't fight the dance floor." The Montreal Gazette.
Farber, Jim. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. New York Daily News.
Greenblatt, Leah. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. Entertainment Weekly.
Gundersen, Edna. "Listen Up: 'Maya' deftly remixes M.I.A.'s art and politics." USA Today.
Halder, Arwa. "M.I.A.'s Maya: Raises the musical bar." Metro.co.uk.
Harvilla, Rob. "M.I.A. Is Mad at You." The Village Voice.
Hopper, Jessica. "Making Pop for Capitalist Pigs." Chicago Reader.
Jayasuriya, Mehan. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\
Kornhaber, Spencer. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. The A.V. Club.
Kot, Greg. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. Chicago Tribune.
Lipshutz, Jason. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. Billboard.
Modern Tonic. "Music News..." Towleroad.
O'Neil, Luke. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. The Boston Globe.
Parles, Jon. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. New York Times.
Perpetua, Matthew. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. Pitchfork.
Petridis, Alexis. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\
review. The Guardian.
Powers, Ann. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. Los Angeles Times.
Price, Simon. "The return of M.I.A.: pop's rebel without a clue." The Independent.
Rayner, Ben. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. Toronto Star.
Richards, Chris. "M.I.A.'s 'Maya,' missing in action." Washington Post.
Saba, Michael. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. Paste.
Sheffield, Rob. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. Rolling Stone.
Silveri, Alex. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. sputnikmusic.
Sims, Melanie. "M.I.A. gets mellow but stays gritty on issues on latest disc 'MAYA'." The Canadian Press.
Skinner, James. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. Drowned In Sound.
Sperounes, Sandra. "M.I.A.'s 'digital ruckus'." Edmonton Journal.
Walls, Seth Colter. "In Defense of M.I.A." Newsweek.
Weingarten, Christopher. M.I.A. /\/\/\Y/\ review. 1000TimesYes.
Wheeler, Brad. "M.I.A.: Back in action." The Globe and Mail.
Zwickel, Jonathan. "M.I.A.'s third album a cut-and-paste masterstroke." The Seattle Times.