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.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Loudest Drunk Always the Latest to Arrive at the Party

Can't believe I completely omitted these guys from the Riff War, but it's never too late to enjoy some truly awful, antisocial rawk.

I know there was something else I wanted to mention briefly but I've got a wicked case of medicine-head at the moment, having spent most of the week at the mercy of a clogged olfactory system. Allow me to eat my breakfast and I'll check back in...

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.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010