The Crazy Design Future of M.I.A.'s New Video

Finally, hip-hop for a 3D-printed, post-Snowden world.

In late 2012, international megastar Rihanna performed “Diamonds” on Saturday Night Live. An odd visual aesthetic accompanied her vocals: It assembled ’90s screen savers, Myst-level computer animations, and deep-sea kitsch. The morning after Rihanna’s performance, rapper Azealia Banks rush-uploaded a music video for her song “Atlantis.” Curiously, it deployed many of the same visual allusions: brash, anachronistic graphics; waves and mermaids.

Both musicians—as webart fans and adept Tumblr users immediately noticed—were eating from the same feed. Their music videos both alluded to seapunk, an art movement created and distributed online. Seapunk’s best-known acolyte, Jerome LOL, even tweeted about the Rihanna performance.

Two decades into the Internet and the web-culture/Big Culture divide is leakier than ever. Rick Astley’s performance at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is half-a-decade ago, now; Obama’s Reddit AMA is old news. But it’s still a funny thing to see a signed musician borrow wholesale from an Internet subculture.  

Which is what M.I.A. did yesterday. The self-directed video for her new song, “Double Bubble Trouble,” seems to play on a bunch of ideas already floating around parts of the Weird Design Internet. M.I.A.—a former London visual artist, already famous for her bricolage-pop—has seemed to apply her musical artistic style to a set of pre-existing ideas about the future. 

M.I.A.

The video opens as an infomercial for the 3D-printed gun. “What if you could make weapons like these—in your own home, using what’s called a three-dimensional printer?,” asks a male announcer-type. “This sounds like science fiction, but to some, it’s not so far-fetched.”

3D-printed guns—sometimes in bright, creamsicle colors—appear throughout the rest of the video. As do all sorts of design objects, like this drone-spotting guide by the artist and designer Ruben Pater. And the cheap and programmable microprocessors called Arduinos. And the choreographed quadcopter-style drones. And a menagerie of global fauna, sometimes remixed to emit neon rainbows: elephants and jaguars and parrots and Boston terriers. And grillz.

Part of M.I.A.’s appeal, part of her artistic identity, has been pop for “the other,” pop that looks and sounds like the millions of people whom current geopolitics ignores or exploits—and pop that, crucially, can represent them.

If there’s a set of common assumptions beneath the diverse set of design references M.I.A.’s making in “Double Bubble Trouble,” it’s that the future won’t look like a city square of (mostly white) Americans hanging around shiny ziggurats while tapping on their glassy phones. The future, instead, is compiled from parts of the present. It’s an extension of the present, really, and as such, it’s full of failed public housing, improvised weapons, and streets turned into canals.

That means a lot of things. It means the future will be fun. You can get drunk in this half-broken, bricolage future; you can dance in your apartment with friends. You can program quadcopters and shoot video from them. But you can also get shot there, and you can shoot other people. The future’s just the present plus more time, so the full range of human actions—horror and triumph, justice and injustice—will be possible there.

Meanwhile, half a world away, programmers order luxury food to be delivered to them on their phones.

“1984 Is Now,” says text near the video’s epileptic end; “Yes We Scan” revolves around M.I.A.’s body in image-macro-font. No wonder the video was controversial before it came out: M.I.A.’s record label, Universal Music Group, uploaded it on Monday, then pulled it, then uploaded it again as fans complained. On Twitter, the artist herself suggested that the massive label sat on the video for days before releasing it.

But here it is. We have it now. And we have the post-Snowden, post-drone rap you were looking for. 

Presented by

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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