Thursday, October 4, 2007

MIA Rant

Well, I haven't posted for awhile and I'm waaaaay behind, but I just finished this e-mail response to my friend's enthusiasm for MIA and it seemed appropriate. So here goes:

MIA...hmmm...i think there are many conflicting components to her act. She has genuinely experienced poverty and fringe political elements, but her popularity has largely do to with savvy positioning amongst (past and present) hip urban artists like Peaches, Diplo and Elastica. I suppose one could argue that her "authenticity" is no more important than that of a rapper, but I think her particular breed of pop music is built upon the indie audience's perception of her being a cultural savant. Theoretically, her experiences in different countries have been directly reflected in her music, which use a variety of cultural "field" samples and styles. This is appealing to an indie crowd that has always felt inadequate about their own cultural heritage (hence the influx of country, gypsy and blue-collar bar rock into the indie-rock style lexicon of the last 5 years.) So by that reasoning, her image would also be a reflection of her varied cultural experiences. However, in her video, she chooses to only be crawling around like a savage in the jungle and riding elephants. And apparently her stage show is some faux-rebellion pastiche where back-up dancers wear fatigues and pump their fists over megaphones and sirens. The reality is that she has also spent a lot of time in London art galleries and other haute-couture locales. But those experiences do not help to sell the image of an exotic asian girl who somehow managed to make cool and primitive beats that retain an urban sensibility.

I think MIA has an honest interest in bringing worldly sounds into her songs, but the presentation is just too calculated for me. And given the similar development of incorporating traditional south asian music into beats by bhangra, trip-hop and hip-hop producers like Talvin Singh and Timbaland , I don't think what she's doing is THAT original. She's just hitting in a moment of zeitgeist when south asian culture is becoming more mainstream and America is finally ready for a pop star of that particular ethnicity. In contrast, Missy Elliot (especially in the late 90s) was taking disparate cultural elements and blending them, but in a genre and for an audience that was not predispositioned to "open-mindedness" and "respect for other cultures." She was taking a risk. MIA takes no risks, at least artistically.


Michael said...

Interesting. I've never heard of this person, MIA. Your considerations are not to be taken lightly, though. What happens on those outer edges of the assimilationist wedge of american pop culture? In what ways do indigenous cultures co-opt master discourses for their own? And what is the relationship between the marketability of outsider (non-white, non-american) cultures and the recognition/legitimization of that cultures?

Sally said...

I'd be surprised to find MIA fans who are into her because they think she's a poor revolutionary. Doesn't everyone know that she grew up in London and had a fair amount of access? I like MIA's music because it's fun to hear a woman of color asserting some degree of edgy originality. I'm not going to wholeheartedly defend her because I think her political expression is weak, if not commercial, but I'd be surprised if her fans put more credence in her grittiness than in her fun, rhythmic innovations.