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.