Why M.I.A. Doesn’t (Really) Care About World Politics

Let me start off by saying that M.I.A.’s new album Matangi is generally pretty enjoyable, and that “Bad Girls” was used to excellent effect in the trailer for “The Heat.”

Moving on…

M.I.A.’s sometimes frustratingly reductionist views on world politics can easily get in the way of simply enjoying her music; music that is often pretty good, and at its best, manages to pull off a tricky blend of catchy memorability, adventurous experimentation, and irreverent fun. Still, it’s hard to ignore her consistent need to obliquely detail the struggles of the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. Which of course she does only as long as it all takes place over a hot beat featuring indigenous drummers recorded in various exotic locales around the world, ’cause that’s how she rolls.

Which highlights one of the more frustrating inconsistencies of M.I.A.’s music. It’s not about the annoying but forgivable contradictions between her lavish lifestyle and her political views – because really, what successful musician making a living from an anti-authoritarian image can really sustain that point of view once the checks start rolling in? For M.I.A., what’s more questionable is the way in which she portrays herself as the musical mouthpiece of the world’s poor and forgotten third-world citizens, while really using their plight to further her own self-aggrandizement with musical tropes that come straight out of the mainstream pop playbook.

M.I.A. is obviously pretty eager to place herself in contradistinction to meaningless, uncontested pop cliches in favor of more spiritual and alternative leanings, especially on Matangi. “Y.A.L.A.” is a song-length Eastern repudiation of Drake‘s unbearably ubiquitous exhortation to live life to the fullest, and ”Come Walk With Me” turns the tables on generic pop calls to action, with lyrics like:

You ain’t gotta shake it, just be with me
You ain’t gotta throw your hands in the air
Cause tonight we ain’t actin’ like we don’t care

OK, M.I.A., we get it. You’re an iconoclast! You’re different! But, honestly, even if M.I.A. isn’t commanding you to party until the sun rises like the Ke$has and Mileys of the world, most of her lyrics still manage to center around the pretty well-trod pop territory of how chest-thumpingly awesome she is. When she spits out half-baked lines like:

I’m ice cream
And you’re sorbet
They got guns but it points the wrong way
Yeah I’m on it they cirque de soleil

on the album’s title track, it almost doesn’t matter that she’s rapping over tribal beats and occasionally throwing out references to Buddhism, favelas, and vaguely revolutionary politics. She still sounds like just another blaring pop self-promoter, who may appropriate world music, yes, but who does so mostly just as a background pastiche over which she can brag about her own awesomeness.

Even M.I.A.’s political appearances seem less for the betterment of those people whose problems she supposedly brings to light and more for the advancement her own profile. See: Julian Assange‘s ten-minute long Skype call that took place during the opening of M.I.A.’s November 1 show at New York’s Terminal 5, in which he called her “the most courageous woman working in western music, without exception.” Sure, Assange was mostly praising M.I.A. for her political perspectives rather than her hot beats and passable rapping (because you can’t expect a man who looks like he was kicked out of a second-rate Krautrock band to have reliable taste), but his comments and his appearance do highlight the hypocrisy of M.I.A.’s public image as the musical martyr-savior of the politically persecuted. From calling in notorious friends to proselytize for her greatness, to engaging uncritically with hip-hop tropes of self-aggrandizement, M.I.A. comes off as less of a populist organizer and more of an authoritarian leader who co-opts the bandwagon of proletarian equality just so he can erect kick-ass bronze statues of himself in every public square.

Which leaves M.I.A.’s musical message in a pretty precarious place overall. Self-contradiction is a fact of life, and musicians are no more immune to it than anybody else. But there does seem to be something disingenuous about a musician who raps about the problems plaguing the impoverished majorities of the globe, while not-so-covertly pushing her own personal agenda by appropriating and re-selling the very music of the people she is supposedly benefiting. Still, though, it could be worse. She and Assange hopefully aren’t scheming to start a Kraftwerk cover band anytime soon.

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