Monday, May 31, 2010

Mrs. Bronfman Jr.'s New Clothes

On one hand, I'm embarrassed that, a month later, the internet is still aflame with intense detraction & defense of M.I.A. before her new album's even hit the shelves. On the other, the tide has turned in favour of her haters, thanks to Lynn Hirschberg's instantly infamous NYT profile of the pop star. For several thousand joylessly skeptical words, Hirschberg observes M.I.A. play dress-up, self-mythologize, confuse knowledge of with solidarity with, make facile juxtapositions of first-world glamour & third-world aspiration, and repeatedly refer to herself as a "terrorist" in the same blasé tone with which Liam Gallagher discusses his hairdo. It's awkward if marvelously entertaining to witness M.I.A. tar herself as (in Simon Reynolds' words) "bullshit artist of the decade". Even ex-flame/producer/co-cultural appropriator Diplo dog-piles atop Ms. Arulpragasam: "She can’t really make music or art that well."

Hirschberg's first brush with journalistic notoriety came in 1992, with her persona-defining profile of Courtney Love in Vanity Fair. This has prompted M.I.A. boosters to cast the NYT piece as character assassination (slight return), though I'd say Hirschberg specializes in selling her subjects surplus rope. Much has been made of silly ephemera - who bought the truffle fries?! - but possibly dumber than M.I.A.'s own shallow shibboleths is her fans' renewed insistence that we take her seriously as a political artist by, er, not taking seriously her political statements. It's apparently enough that she merely exists as a marble-mouthed fashionista raising her fist, outside the realm of the usual sledgehammer-subtle suspects of "political" art: punkish anarconservatives (Rage), crunchy socialiberatrians (Ani), and earth-mother superfreaks (Badu).

Among the more eloquent defenses of M.I.A. is Mike Barthel's elaboration on her role as "globalism's enfant terrible", but even he falls back on the old canard: "The provocation was itself the point." I'd accept such an excuse when the provocation is transgression of form or process, but with regards to content, shit-talking for the sake of talking shit is doomed to one of several failures:
  1. The provocation fails to provoke. Congrats, you're boring.
  2. The provocation succeeds, at the expense of banalising the provocative.
  3. The provocation succeeds to the point of returning the threat to the provocateur, who stands by the ever-present escape hatch of "not meaning it."
And to that end, through her incessant backpedaling & self-rationalization, M.I.A. has renovated "not meaning it" from emergency exit to a revolving door.

Content cannot eschew politics or meaning; it cannot substitute for itself vacuous beauty. Content without conviction is cowardice, and let's not be so obtuse as to confuse "conviction" with "literal advocacy of". Writing a song about Josef Mengele does not necessarily constitute an endorsement, but there is no way for it to be winkingly void of intent or ideology. Even Genesis motherfuckin' P-Orridge criticized Whitehouse for their commentary-free employ of "extreme"/taboo content. Meanwhile, the only subject for which M.I.A. has consistently stood up is her own ego.

So her politics are pure shin-kicking, the content is symbolically unstable, but evidently we're not meant to "take the statements of someone who has worn pants that light up at face value." This bequeaths M.I.A. the sole purpose of channeling subjectivity. She is a purely aesthetic identity, Barthel argues:
MIA seems interesting to me not so much as a conveyor of rigorously conceived political treatises and moral clarity, but as the vessel for a particular viewpoint that’s largely absent from US culture. ...MIA’s great gift is for aesthetics, and while we’re accustomed to thinking of that as meaningless superficiality, probably the primary reason Americans don’t care about global culture is because its aesthetics are so, well, foreign to us.
After 25 years of Live Aid, enviro-globalism, My Beautiful Laundrette, Youssou N'dour guest spots, and the Sublime Frequencies label, I seriously doubt that many (non-xenophobic) Westerners are unfamiliar with the aesthetics of the third world. What they're unfamiliar with is the political subjectivity of the third world: the poverty, the disease, the instability, the fear. These are affects of which most Americans & Western Europeans have no genuine experience. Even if M.I.A. were more interested in performing as the third-world political subject than goofing on American gangsta-ism, reconstructing such a subject in the first-world would be impossible. She instead prefers some kind of horrid first-generation immigrant buffoonery.

What I particularly enjoy about Barthel's argument, though, is that it comes from a fellow who, just two months ago, wrote the following:’s possible that, in becoming cynical about art’s ability to comment on the wider world, we find ourselves in a situation where the self—identity—is the only source of truth. And as such, those artistic creations considered valuable by any particular individual are the ones that impress that individual—that “speak to me,” as the saying goes. Thus, we find an emphasis on aesthetics and referentiality. ...With culture, you have the totality there before you to examine, and the meaning is constructed rather than manifest. ...Art becomes valued not for its discursive possibilities, but purely for its expressive features.
Well, then... projection of meaning, an insistence upon referring to instead of being referent, and the solipsistic dead-end of identity politics. Yeah, I'm going to agree with Barthel-circa-March on this one.


pollywog said...

Shes still a bit of a hottie tho'...

William said...

I would have considered myself an M.I.A. apologist up until a week ago. I like her music, and maybe there is something to be said for a non-white non-Western pop star blowing up while appopriating paramilitary rhetoric and imagery. But posting someone's phone number because they wrote a bad article destroys any semblance of that illusion of being a bad-ass terror-artist. That's Facebook level bullshittery.

My girlfriend told me a funny story; M.I.A. was playing Voodoo Fest in New Orleans last year, and her childhood friend, R, went to see her with a companion. Watching her from the back row, R's companion, who is true-blue born and raised in Louisiana and has no conception of post-modernism or cultural appropriation, turned to him and said that her jacket looked like a Wal-Mart parking lot after it rained.

Seb said...

Pollywog - Oh, for crying...

William - That's damned funny. I love those whip-crack insults that critics couldn't muster if they had a whole day to think.

And yes, for someone who's attempting to be a paradigm-shifting world-class gadfly, resorting to something a vindictive 12-year-old suburbanite would do shreds your credibility.

Jenny said...

You should see the av club comments to the news report about MIA's feud- most don't really care or hypocritically defend Joe Strummer while bashing her. Although one person did come out to defend her and call em out on their hypocritical bullshit as in why is a white male singer being lauded for his political relevancy while a female Sri Lankan is hated for the same. As for me, I don't really care-I think Strummer can was still politically dedicated even though his dad was a diplomat, he just had a different way of expressing his politics. Hell, Louis proyect was a banker for Goldman Sachs and fucking loves Sex and the city! Why not take away his leftist credentials then? MIA, however, needs work in subtlety and less outlandishness.

Oh and how is RATM anarcho conservative?

Jenny said...

P.S. No offense,but you're starting to sound like those "haters" you addressed last year on the subject of the Wu Tang Clan's authenticity.

Seb said...

Towards whom am I sounding like a hater, M.I.A. or RATM? 'Cuz I'll feel nigh defeated if I've wasted this much breath on Maya Arulpragasam and the only counterargument it merits is, "Y'all hatin'!"

Regarding Rage, again, I'm not saying anything against their music. Shit, I spent as much time in high school reverse-engineering Morello's guitar trickery as anyone, I got Evil Empire for my '96 birthday, and I think De la Rocha's "We Want It All" is THE most slept-on single of the Aughts. But their politics sucked - the kind of reductively "Marxist" hissy-fit that offers no genuine alternative to (and even justifies the systemic violence of) capitalism. The kind of shit Bakunin would have talked before his first cup of coffee & sorted himself out for the day. Believe me, I ain't hating; I want to agree with them, but their ideas were reductive adolescent opposition & their practice was hypocritical.

You wanna see real hating? Fuck Animal Collective.

pollywog said...

If i want current revolutionary role models willing to put their arse on the line, i might look at Pete Bethune from Sea Shepherd.

If i want pretty ethnic chicks rapsinging about 'important' stuff without risking anything, i won't be looking at Pete Bethune but i might try MIA.

Jenny said...

Pollywog: take your dick outta yer ear, it's poking holes in your brain.

Seb: I meant in the sense you're complaining about their politics and authenticity. Forgive me for misinterpreting, however. I dunno, I agree RATM's politics are fairly naive, but they mean well. and I don't even like their music that much. But as I said, I'm the same way toward MIA. I think if she wasn't so damn busy buying stuff and declaring herself a terrorist, she could probably do more research on the Tamils' plight, thus she'd be more articulate and make a more thoughtful video instead of the ginger haired genocide music video which was in rather poor taste.

And if you're interested, here's a marxist interpretation of the Tigers:

pollywog said...

go fuck yaself jenny...its the only way you'll see any action

MIA's a minor league popstar not worthy of anything more than token attention

i'm already wasting more words on her than is warranted...she makes the odd good tune is about all that needs to be said

her politics are a gimmick to sucker geeks like you into promoting her...don't ya think ?

Seb said...

Okay, stop it right now. We're not goddamned children. Any further slip into sub-schoolyard ad hominem attacks and y'all are getting booted off the premises.

Anonymous said...

maybe all this contraversy is just people getting embarrassed that they spent so much time thinking about what pop music means... society doesn't really encourage people to communicate about the stuff that mia pretends to be getting them to think about.

Jenny said...

Sorry, Seb.

pollywog said...

she started it :)

Richard said...

My problem with RATM was that, weak politics aside, their music didn't rock. At all. I tried to like them, if only because their political heart was in the right place, if ill-thought, but never happened.

(Animal Collective, on the other hand, taste aside, I think you have consistently characterized all wrong.)

As for MIA, I dunno, I have a hard time caring either way. I liked Kala, after trying and failing to see what the big deal was with Arular... did you see Nitsuh Abebe's recent piece on her in Pitchfork? Pretty good, I thought.

Seb said...

RATM, bless their simple minds, rocked pretty hard if you were an 11-year-old with the embarrassing conviction that The Uplift Mofo Party Plan was as good as music got. Obviously, tastes change with age...

I stand by every criticism I've made of Animal Collective (and the elaborations I made during our back-and-forth about 'em last year). There are things about them I find more repellent than their music, which is bong resin made Crayola-cuddly. But often folks won't be disillusioned about their aesthetic preferences; quoth Steve Albini: "It's baffling - there are people out there who buy Rush records, knowing full well that Rush is going to come out their speakers." Fine by me.

I did read Abebe's piece on Pitchfork RE: the NYT/M.I.A. fracas, and it was indeed pretty good. Though the whole cloak metaphor was thoroughly ground into glue. And as much as I'd like "to not act like she's speaking for anything beyond her own messy self," such dubious hair-splitting lets people apologise for incredibly dubious politics/artists/aesthetics. Let's replace "M.I.A." with "Burzum" and "militarized underclass" with "white-supremacist pagan theocracy" and see how quick people are to "swallow the music and spit out the cloak" - and whether or not embracing the medium while rejecting the message seems acceptable in the first place.

Besides, Maya Aruplragasam herself insists that her listeners don't make such distinctions. Pity for her fans that are busily crafting the narrative (as ventriloquised by Simon Reynolds):

"of course pop stars talk drivel about politics, of course they're all about empty gestures and sensationalism and pointless provocation. That's what makes it pop, what makes it good pop actually. It's pop music, what did you expect?"