Over the last year, I’ve probably been listening with more pleasure to M.I.A. than to any other musical artist. I first heard her first single, Galang (iTunes), last summer, when I got it off an mp3 blog (I don’t remember which). I had no idea what it was, or who she was, but I immediately fell for it: there was something about the upbeat yet aggressive girl-group-y vocals, the strange lyrics, plus the spare, underproduced beats… and then there was that chorus, that finally came in, right at the end of the song, like a gleeful, swooping affirmation.
Gradually, I learned more about M.I.A., and heard more of her songs, as they dribbled out over the Net. She’s a Tamil Sri Lankan, now a Londoner, having come to the UK with her mother when she was 11, as a political refugee (her father is apparently involved with the Tamil Tigers, which has been mounting a bloody rebellion against the Sinhalese Sri Lankan government for years). Though a musical newcomer, she is apparently well-connected, and not raw from the streets (as almost nobody ever is, despite the frequent hype): art school, visual arts recognition, former housemate of the lead guitarist for Elastica, etc.
M.I.A.’s album Arular (iTunes) is finally out, after months of delays, rumors, net hype and net sniping (of which more below), and it’s simply great. The music is pretty much just primitive/dirty/analog synthesizer riffs, plus a bunch of samples (Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, for one!), with vocals rapped, chanted, sung, and everything in between, no voice besides M.I.A.’s (though it is often multitracked). The beats are derived from hiphop and UK garage, and especially from such up-to-the-minute genres as Grime and BaileFunk. But M.I.A. doesn’t really sound like any of her sources: and it’s as important as it is difficult to explain precisely why.
There’s a certain sense in M.I.A.’s music that all her sources (various genres, or, more precisely, various funky beats) have been promiscuously mixed, and passed through a blender, and this is what came out. But such a metaphor implies a certain blandness, or homogenization, and nothing could be further from the truth. Everything in Arular is sharply etched and singular. The beats crackle and jump, and the energy level is high. There’s a lot of space to this music, it’s the diametrical opposite of a wall of sound. And M.I.A.’s vocals reverberate through the space, suggesting a kind of ongoing expansion, as if this were music streaming outward from some primordial Big Bang. M.I.A.’s rhythmic sources, particularly Grime and BaileFunk, are heavy, grounded, and immersive (even though BaileFunk is quite minimal, often little more than a bass line accompanying a rap); but M.I.A. reconfigures their beats as being light and expansive/centrifugal. That is to say, M.I.A.’s music is POP — which Grime, BaileFunk, and the heavier sorts of HipHop certainly are not. And its Pop quality is precisely what I love about it. Arular is irresistably cheerful and breezy, without being syrupy; direct and simple without being simple-minded; girl-centered but not girly; extroverted, and more interested in making bodies move than in expressing emotions or psychological states. M.I.A.’s lyrics are loopy and scattershot: boasts, taunts, political slogans, military and video-game metaphors, made-up slang and fake advertising jingles, all mixed up promiscuously. Altogether joyous and affirmative music.
(I should add as a footnote, though, that my definition of Pop isn’t everybody’s — despite the fact that the only reasonable definition of Pop should include that it appeals to everybody. If the world shared my sense of what’s Pop, Basement Jaxx would be the most popular and best-selling band in the world. To judge by the response on Metafilter, M.I.A. is way too esoteric for the “average” listener, though she is scorned by the purists for being way too pop).
(I should also add a note about the anti-M.I.A. backlash: extreme distaste for her and her music has been expressed in the blogosphere by music critics I generally respect, like Simon Reynolds (whose blog has a pretty comprehensive set of links to the controversy) and woebot (can’t verify the link right now, but I think it’s this). The line seems to be that M.I.A. is a vapid middle class rip off artist, stealing the beats from authentic music-from-below like Grime and BaileFunk, making them safely bland and non-abrasive and mainstream, turning harsh, abrasive sounds into pop in other words. Like white people stealing black people’s music, even though M.I.A. is herself a woman of color. She’s also accused of being either irresponsible or a poseur because of the political sloganeering in her lyrics. I’m sorry, but I really can’t see anything in these criticisms but a moralistic, holier-than-thou, knee-jerk-anti-pop purism. I love the sounds of Grime and BaileFunk, even though obviously I can’t relate to these musics and their communities in any other way than as a distant and privileged outsider; and I don’t know what sort of relationship M.I.A. has to them. (She’s a Londoner, but not part of the Grime scene). But in this case, I don’t see that M.I.A.’s “appropriation” has anything in common with Elvis or the Stones doing r’n’b, let alone with something like Beck’s smarmy simulation/putdown of black music on Midnite Vultures. She’s transformed the beats by making them Pop, in a way that is irreducible either to slavish imitation or to one-up-manship or to making-bland-and-safe. And that’s really all I can say.).