M.I.A.: Straight to Hell and Back

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Kevin Winter/Getty Images


Bob Dylan once described his mid-1960s music as "the sound of the street with the sunrays, the sun shining down at a particular time... the sound of bells and distant railroad trains and arguments in apartment buildings and the clinking of silverware and knives and forks and beating with leather straps."

The music of Sri Lankan pop star Maya Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A.—a figure not without her own aspirations to the Dylanesque--often sounds like a sort of dystopic extremity of this: the sun blistering, the bells deafening, the trains too fast, the arguments breaching the threshold of physical violence. Her first two albums, Arular (2005) and Kala (2007) were vibrant, impelling assaults, numbing and glorious, sometimes both within the same three-minute track. Kala's breakthrough single, the ubiquitous "Paper Planes," was a Top Ten Billboard smash that prominently featured the sound of a gun discharging with the haunting guitar hook of the Clash's "Straight to Hell" as backdrop. It seemed fitting: after all, M.I.A. claimed herself as street prophet to the very war-torn postcolonial world that had inspired the late Joe Strummer to write "Straight to Hell," and was the rare contemporary artist whose interest in geopolitics matched Strummer's own. M.I.A. and the Clash were a match made in heaven.

And then it all went, fittingly, straight to hell. Increased visibility begat backlash: some questioned M.I.A.'s decision to perform at the 2009 Grammys while nine months pregnant; others found her involvement with the film Slumdog Millionaire to be opportunistic and politically inconsistent; whispers abounded that her engagement to music industry scion Ben Bronfman betrayed an establishment coziness unbecoming of an artist with a revolutionary stance. These tempests and others were stunningly crammed into the same teapot two months ago, when Lynn Hirschberg wrote a scathing profile of M.I.A. in the New York Times Magazine that painted its subject as vapid, materialistic, politically naïve and musically fraudulent. M.I.A. reacted by Tweeting Hirschberg's personal phone number and releasing an audio tape of Hirschberg ordering truffle fries, or something, and one of the stranger celebrity controversies in recent memory gained legs.

The significance of what soon came to be known as "truffle-gate" or "the truffle kerfluffle," depending on you knack for rhyming words with "truffle," lay not in whether the Times piece suddenly whiffed of journalistic entrapment (it did), or whether M.I.A.'s scattershot and vacuous self-presentation in the profile was redeemed by the bizarre smoking gun (it wasn't). Far more fascinating was how a truffle fry was made to raise the question of whether a self-styled political artist who connected herself so resolutely—and, crucially, autobiographically—to third-world struggle could be made commensurate with the first-world stardom her listeners had bestowed upon her.

The tone of Hirschberg's article suggested the answer was no, and M.I.A.'s attempt at vindication oddly suggested the same thing (it had all been Hirschberg's idea!), and suddenly the metonymic displacement of M.I.A.'s entire artistic project onto a side dish at the Beverly Wilshire was complete. Much like a politician, Maya Arulpragasam had been exposed in a textbook moment of "gotcha" journalism. And she'd responded the way a politician would, challenging the veracity of her exposure and redoubling her efforts at authenticity, the lingua franca of politicians and political pop stars alike.

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Interscope Records

The lead-up to Tuesday's release of M.I.A.'s third album, phonetically titled MAYA but spelled / \ / \ / \ Y / \ (why make things any easier for journalists?), felt like an echo-chamber of provocations: the artist asserting her "realness" to a public inclined toward doubt; the public pushing back; the artist pushing harder. It's an ungainly dance, and over the past months anxieties over whether the "real" M.I.A. is more Tamil Tiger or paper tiger have led to a dearth of consideration of her actual musical output--an odd state of affairs, since music is ostensibly the only reason we care about her in the first place.

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Jack Hamilton has written for Slate, NPR, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This fall, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  

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