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:
- The provocation fails to provoke. Congrats, you're boring.
- The provocation succeeds, at the expense of banalising the provocative.
- 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."
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:
...it’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.