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++ Needle Drops is now an occasional music column that a number of Neumu writers take turns writing. All columns prior to March 2004 were written by Philip Sherburne.


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Tuesday, April 5, 2005

++ Understanding M.I.A.

By Dave Renard

++ If the saying is true — opinions are like assholes because everyone's got one — then M.I.A.'s debut album, Arular, set off the rock-crit version of Internet porn. Opinions and arguments have been flying around the Web for nearly a year, ever since the 28-year-old Maya Arulpragasam released her singles "Galang" and "Sunshowers" to rapturous acclaim and set in motion a wide-ranging conversation among music lovers that has mirrored my own feelings about the album, moving from stage to stage toward some type of Kübler-Ross consensus.

Stage One: It's Good: Since M.I.A. purposely constructs her songs to be something like Trojan horses, many of them indistinguishable sonically from a roughed-up version of, say, Nina Sky's "Move Your Body," the initial response to tracks like "Galang" didn't go very far beyond "that beat's hot." And it was hot, with aggro drum programming and distorted blurts of bass backing catchy dancehall doggerel — "Blaze-a-blaze, galang-alang-alang-a/ purple haze, galang-alang-alang-a!"

So "Galang" was fire. But in more ways than one. "Every bit of music out there that's making it into the mainstream is really about nothing," M.I.A. told Nirali, a South Asian women's magazine. "I wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing. And it kind of worked."

Not for long ...

Stage Two: It's Great, and It's "Important": If you've read much at all about M.I.A., you've probably memorized Ms. Arulpragasam's backstory (sadly, I've even memorized how to spell her last name). As anticipation for Arular began to build, that backstory — born in Sri Lanka, father turned "freedom fighter" (more on that later), mother moved the family to London, where Maya found art school and Elastica — took on a life of its own. Woman rapper! Non-white woman rapper! Formerly third-world non-white (sexy) woman rapper! As they say in the news biz, the story had legs.

At the same time, one of the lyrics from "Sunshowers" started getting attention for being more than your average metaphor: "Like PLO I don't surrender." This is in a song that samples Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band? (Ghostface got there first, but whatevah.) As critics began to decode M.I.A.'s British-inflected patois, the bouncy single revealed itself to be much more explosive than "Galang," describing life under the wartime conditions of the Middle East: "Semi-9 and snipered him/ on that wall they posted him/ they cornered him/ and then just murdered him."

Here, then, was something unique — a gonzo connoisseur of global funk to rival Missy Elliott, but with lyrics a lot more incendiary than "muthafuckas better wake up." In its singsong rhymes and hip-hop boasts ("it's a bomb, yo/ so run, yo"), Arular reflects a world of suicide-bomber trading cards and everyday gunfire — a place most Westerners would rather not stare at for too long. Think N.W.A., back when gangsta rap had a purpose beyond nihilistic materialism. M.I.A. had the bombs to make you blow and the beats to make you bang, and critics went berserk.

Stage Three (and Four): It's a Fraud (No It's Not): Backlash was inevitable, if only because of the sheer volume of commentary. But it was helped along by the fact that M.I.A.'s politics — through either misinformation or wrongheadedness — were often placed on an overly simplistic anti-Bush, "power to the people" template, with too many admiring mentions of M.I.A.'s "freedom-fightin' dad," who was involved in the Tamil vs. Sinhalese ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

++ Neither side seems to be without fault in that war, which has ground up more than 60,000 lives over 20 years. But it's the paramilitary Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, who refined the modern method of suicide bombing that spread to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and who have forcibly conscripted child soldiers. (Arulpragasam's father apparently was not a member of the Tigers, but as a founder of the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students, he was almost certainly a supporter.)

In an excellent article in the Village Voice in February, Robert Christgau wrestled with the major issues of the debate and outlined what is probably now the reigning view: Tamil Tigers not good guys; Arular's politics not always coherent, sometimes naive; album still great. As a takedown of the misguided Simon Reynolds review of Arular that appeared in the Voice only a week earlier, Christgau's piece also short-circuited what could have been a significant momentum shift against the album.

Reynolds' central argument, that M.I.A.'s third-world identity is phony since she — gasp! — went to art school, is basically debunked by a terse lyric on the album's final, hidden track: "Educated but a refugee still." Good enough for me. I have a lot more time for Christgau's conclusions, but with a few added qualifiers. Yes, M.I.A. admirably exposes the ways that the world is not as black-and-white as Bush and Blair would have you believe. But her good intentions sometimes stumble over a penchant to provoke, leading to throwaways like giving props to the PLO.

Another element is Arulpragasam's visual art, whose day-glo tigers, M-16's, and grenades can look cheap and exploitative. One ugly, middle-finger salute of a drawing, showcased on M.I.A.'s Web site, pictured the World Trade Center towers in green as two circling planes formed the S-shape of a dollar sign. (The site, www.miauk.com, is currently under construction.) Even the name of her mixtape, Piracy Funds Terrorism, is off-putting.

But if the music has merits — and Arular has plenty — does the audience have to buy into the artist's every political position? Since I love Public Enemy and feel pretty strongly that Farrakhan is not a prophet that I think I oughta listen to, I guess the answer is no.

++ Stage Five: Acceptance (Talk Amongst Yourselves): The last and maybe most interesting question, then, is whether M.I.A. will actually break into the mainstream. Will the debate about the album remain in the relatively insular world of music freaks and geeks (yours truly included) as M.I.A. goes on to sell roughly as many records Stateside as that previous critics' darling Dizzee Rascal? Or will her path lead to the Lil Jon remix, the "Saturday Night Live" appearance, and the Grammy coronation?

I'm betting on the former — well, "SNL" could happen — but can you imagine the consternation of cultural commentators if the latter came about? If music critics, generally but not monolithically a left-leaning bunch, can get this worked up about an album, just wait until "Hannity and Colmes" convenes a panel: "Pop's latest superstar, or Satan's spawn? Stay tuned on Fox ..."
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