Thursday, May 06, 2010

Mistaking Pop Stars For Political Theorists

I just listened to the third episode of the Hit It Or Quit It podcast, which is (in case you ain't heard) a fine cultural-commentary radio show to have on whilst doing your laundry on a sunny afternoon. I mean that as a sincere compliment; not everything need be immersive gesamtkunstwerk. Anyway, Nick Sylvester made an appearance to speak about the controversy surrounding M.I.A.'s "Born Free" video, the consensus about which seems to be that it's neither interesting nor illuminating.

At which point, the conversation should naturally end. But sweet merciful crap, it don't. God knows how many terabytes have been dedicated over the past two weeks to this very topic (of which I'm also, however minimally, guilty). This is due to the epidemic mistake of perceiving M.I.A. as a political artist. Of course, Ms. Arulpragasam has worked overtime to portray herself as such: Jessica Hopper opined on the podcast that the political sloppiness of "Born Free" is because it's more calculated image construction than commentary. But signifier-slinging and bumper-sticker sentiment do not a political artist make. The only thing discerning M.I.A. from Eddie Veddar, Michael Stipe, or my favourite punching-bag Bono is her demographic.

I've never had much time for Nick Sylvester. While his creative fiction is mildly more interesting than his criticism, his tastes don't hew far outside the post-pomo orthodoxy of deconstructionist pop. He occasionally hits it on the head, as when he called A Place To Bury Strangers "a songless one-trick turd" (though I then wonder what he makes of the sophomore effort by Serena Maneesh, for whom Sylvester once went purple with praise). But Sylvester's conservatism is laid bare when, in discussing "Born Free", he professes that "the avant garde need not be moral" and that M.I.A. is "acutely aware of structural violence."

If M.I.A. is the avant-garde, then our cultural limbo contest is into sudden-death overtime, wherein only expert practitioners of the dope-fiend lean can escape elimination. And to say someone as prone to meaninglessly broad gestures as M.I.A. is "acutely aware" is like citing Idiocracy as a definitive argument for eugenics.


Anonymous said...

What would/does a political artist look like? This is a question I've been struggling with forever. The closest example I think of is Diamanda Galas...

Seb said...

It certainly deserves a more careful & concentrated examination. The short answer is that a political artist is one whose entire M.O., from business practices to public performance, are exercises of their politics. Banner-waving & polemic lyrics are "political" in only the blandest, most superficial sense. So artists who talk a left-leaning revolutionary game but are willingly assimilated into the corporate apparatus are not political. This includes M.I.A., the Clash, Rage Against the Machine. Of course, I've never put much stock in the "play the game to change the rules" strategy. If something is palatable to the mainstream, it by definition cannot be revolutionary.

Diamanda Galas is a good example of a political artist. Other obvious examples are Fugazi (or really any band Ian MacKaye has been in) and The Ex. Gangsta (pre-playa/hater) rap like Wu-Tang is political, despite its place within the corporate framework, as representative of the scratch-and-scrape, Darwinian remainder of late capitalism. Public Enemy, on the other hand, were founded as a political group, but stopped being so once they betrayed their radical populism by becoming integrated into the culture industry.

I'd say there's a political dimension to the miasmic dreamspace Loveless-era My Bloody Valentine, rendered by Kevin Shields' subsequent fade into the shadows behind the pop-cultural curtain. Even now MBV is regarded as a kind of collective reverie we all want to relive, which is consistent with Loveless' aesthetic. But by that measure, MBV in the '80s was not political.

Of course, we can't forget that professing not to have politics is, in and of itself, political - albeit a conservative politics that normalizes & perpetuates the status quo.

Jenny said...

To be fair, MIA has expressed concern for the Sri Lanka government oppressing the Tamils..

TV's David Caruso said...

Here's where it gets sticky for me:

I will preface that I really love Fugazi, The Ex, Crass and similar bands for both being great bands and having strong statements.

Within a developed, capitalistic country, the stakes for being a politically activist artist are not very high. I've never heard of Fugazi getting arrested, Crass was certainly harassed by the cops, and I can't speak to the Ex, but they 1) were never in mortal danger and 2) their impact, though significant, was still pretty marginal. Crass and Fugazi aren't household names, and barely anyone knows the Ex. Most of the people listed are nobodies for most of the world.

I'm not trying to just poke holes in your argument, but you're poo pooing any possibility for a connection between popular success and the capacity for a musician to enact political change. When I think of political artists, "truly political" ones, I think of ones from the developing world. Like Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Fela Kuti; people whose music alone put their lives and their families' lives in danger. At the same time, they were remarkably successful and besides their political lyrics, they were traditional pop stars. I might even be tempted to add Bob Marley to the mix, though his legacy has been tainted, at his peak he was a political force in his country.

What I'm getting at is, does a political artist, as it were, look different in a developing country as opposed to a developed. In the former, politically incisive lyrics are enough to get your killed, but in the latter, you seem to argue that one needs to remove themselves as far out of the mainstream as possible before their political statements have any weight.

Seb said...

No, you're absolutely right: it's a completely different game in developing countries. Gil, Veloso, Thomas Mapfumo, anyone who dares pick up an instrument in Afghanistan - they're not only political artists, but of a sort that is far more militant & oppositional than anything you or I have ever seen in concert.

The reason I didn't mention anyone of their ilk is because that's not the context in which to think of M.I.A. - she belongs somewhere between Ke$ha and Grizzly Bear, not alongside Fela Kuti. (And I guarantee you, M.I.A. would drop the whole thing if the cops even hinted at throwing her mother out a window, let alone doing it.) I'm not saying that you have to be outside the mainstream to be a political artist: Toby Keith & Ted Nugent, repugnant fucks they may be, are very effective political artists, but that's because they support & operate within the status quo. Artists who are anti-capitalist, left-leaning, etc. yet willingly insert themselves into the repetitive production of the culture industry are like those Republicans who propose "protection of marriage" legislation but then get caught diddling transvestite hookers in airport bathrooms.

It's also a different cultural environment in developing nations. Music still has a weight, a special presence there that it just doesn't any more in the west. Music's presence in a developing nation is always purposeful, intentional, out-of-the-ordinary which is why it's still an effective tool for disruption, friction, protest. But here in the G7 zone... Add up the amount of time every day we hear music just 'cuz it's around via radio, iPods, muzak, shop PAs, TV, and the internet. I'd almost wager we're more around music than not. As a medium, it's no longer noisome.

pollywog said...

midnight oil ?