July 06, 2005

Terrorist Spice


I find music mystifying. I don’t mean this in the sense of, Why is Luke Haines so genius and awful alternately, or How did Prince misunderstand hip-hop so badly at the crucial moment? It’s more like one day I am riding my bike through the nature preserve listening to “Pull Up The People” so loud it fills my skull like helium and then it is inflating my head even further so a lot of the sky seems to be inside of it, and the birds and the passing cars (it’s not a very rigorous nature preserve, okay?) seem to be inside of it, and I am mystified, or maybe it’s just befuddled. I am befuddled that I could have a job, that I could “go to the office” and follow all sorts of rules and be pleasant to people I find loathsome or dull or both -- that I don’t just chuck it and wander around, reading and listening to music loud and working only when I can’t borrow any more money from friends, and quitting as soon as I’ve paid back my debts and filed a month’s rent. Though of course I remember living like that and it was awful, but mostly because it was lonely. And I can’t tell if I could or could not go back to this tomorrow, whether the heart is atavistic above all things or if I am more like the Wild Child of Aveyron; and then I can’t believe that this uncertainty has any stopping power whatsoever, much less enough force to keep me going in to the office and everything this entails, up to an including mostly not being in the midst of riding a bike around listening to M.I.A. on blast. I don’t want to make music any more than I want to make life. I want to be music.

[see beginning of post above]

Reading the journalistic and epi-journalistic dust that’s gathered around M.I.A. in the last year, from the fascinating review’n’correction in the Village Voice (starring no less than Simon Reynolds and Bob Christgau), down to the infinite thread at ILM, I’ve come to suspect that one good measure of a really interesting artist is if she can make smart folks, well, stupid. Take, for example, Jon Caramanica, who is such a smart cookie he could be a cake. At Slate, he felt compelled to point out that if you separate Maya’s lyrics from the music, they’re not that trenchant. The oddity of this claim is that it is true of every musician in history. If the words do all the meaning-work independently, you got yourself a speechwriter. Or, worse, a poet.

But such odd analyses aren’t at the heart of the matter. The heart isn’t so much the clarity of M.I.A.’s politics, but her right to politics as such. On ILM, the discussion about what Maya’s politics might be, whether she has a right to them, whether she has a right to represent them as she does, and how exactly this representation works or doesn’t, led to an intertwined debate about doings in Sri Lanka, the nature of the civil war, who was good and bad, and whether the Tamil Tigers/LTTE were rightly “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” (generally, these were presented as mutually exclusive choices, which seems to ignore a lot of history. Or maybe it’s just absurd. This cannot be debated as if it were an empirical question -- as if, if we somehow just had all the facts and weren’t taken in by cunning spin control, we could objectively identify who was a freedom fighter, who a terrorist. Dude, comma, if they're fighting for your freedom, they're freedom fighters. If they're terrorizing you, etc.... This logical oddity is mirrored by a discussion on the same thread about whether “Galang” had a more “harsh” and/or “raw” sound than popular songs X and Y, as if these qualities were descriptions of factual conditions, and could be agreed on by every person from every place in every era).

This sequence was mirrored in the Village Voice dialectic, where Simon decided he would talk mostly about the sound’s social formations (and perhaps get at politics that way), and then Bob chimed in with a heaping helping of due diligence about the history of the Sri Lankan struggles in relation to the sayings of M.I.A. (in lyrics and interviews). I loved both these pieces, though I wish Bob had mentioned Ceylon’s deep history in relation to the West: for example, how the United Provinces’ empire (in the form of the Dutch East India Trading Company; ah, the irony, Gerard!) that dominated the Indian Ocean rim in the 17th century designated Ceylon as the official cinnamon island and, to preserve its monopoly, obliterated various other locations where cinnamon might be grown (such as Cochin, India: occupied for no other reason). Ceylon was Ceylon, owned and operated by white Europeans and known around the globe, because it was a tea and spice island (and, finally, because it had some strategic importance to the Allies in WWII); it became Sri Lanka as part of the decolonizing movements of the last century. In short, for all Xgau’s generosity in inquiring after and rehearsing some useful portion of facts about Sri Lanka’s horrific internal conflict, it really ought to be seen as the latest chapter in a larger narrative.

But that’s for those who actually wish to delve into the political history; not a separate discussion (there are no “separate discussions,” okay?) but one with quite a different weight of interest than weighing responses to Piracy Funds Terrorism and Arular. I have no clear opinion about Tamil Tigers, except to say an explanation of why “suicide bombing” is more inherently terroristic than any other form of bombing must surely lie in the future, since it existeth neither in the past nor the present.

As for artists’ political self-presentation, in most ways, the critiques of M.I.A. are bitterly familiar: political speech is discounted because the artist doesn’t have a right to it, generally because they are not members of the truly afflicted class for whom they claim to speak -- the class, that is, which must rest silent, since if someone achieves access to big media and moreover makes the best of such access, this by definition reveals one as not being a righteous member of the oppressed. If you’re articulate and on Warner Brothers, well, that proves you’re bourgeois and should shut up, please. Did you hear Joe Strummer’s dad was a diplomat?

And yet, the case of M.I.A. is not exactly like every other case. Her rhetoric is intensely similar to a plethora of post-Public Enemy acts; the Nineties and Oughts have been sick with language about refugees, rebellion, dropping bombs, pulling up the people, Hey la la la, Galang-a-lang-a-lang. So why is it so important to delegitimate M.I.A.?

The Fugees, for example, had political lyrics but no political content; by that point, the political charge in hip-hop had come out in the wash; it was just a pose, and we could all love it if we wanted to. The era of panic over dangerous rap guys was over; the ‘toon quality of gangsta and, more significantly, hip-hop’s narrative shift from black/white conflict to intraghetto (“black on black”) violence, laid the political threat of hip-hop lyrics in the ground. It seems absurd now, but once upon a time, RUN-DMC had to be politically delegitimated (because they were too scary; was it “Peter Piper” or “My Adidas”?) -- they came from Hollis, you know. A bourgeois suburb.

What makes M.I.A. especially compelling is the re-establishment of the link between inside and outside: between her musical claims and her potential as a social being. For once, the gutbucket rhetoric of righteous hip-hop violence (which has always had a third-world, post-colonial tradition) might have a real bloodline. Anybody can say “I got the bombs to make you blow, I got the beats to make you bang” (though nobody has, exactly, and it’s freakishly satisfying when she does), but nobody can threaten to mean it. Except her.

That’s not to say that M.I.A. is a freedom fighter, or terrorist, or that her dad is one or both of those things, or that it’s good or bad. It’s that the risk is present; it isn’t just porch-outlaw bullshit. She may not have the clarity of analysis one finds in, say, Rage Against The Machine...but we're let off Rage's hook viz the knowledge they got a million from The Man. Funny how the terms of political legitimacy come back to money over and over, huh? What's your 'hood's median income, c'mon and show me yr advance, why you gotta talk like that when we just want to dance?

To repeat: it's the money trail that giveth rhetoric content, or taketh away. When M.I.A. and Diplo called that mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism, it resonates like that indie lady’s harp. We’re invited to consider, and perhaps laugh at, a slogan of the British copyright-enforcement thugs FACT (by the way, when you see those little ads at the movie theater, wasting your valuable preview time, suggesting that you aren’t supporting the non-celeb laborers and craftspersons if you pirate films, please remember that if you want to support these folks, if you want to be down with common people such as yourselves, defending the corporate right to profit is not even vaguely a useful step. You might consider not crossing any more picket lines, and generally supporting the power of unions everywhere.)

But this very allusion suggests that the pirate in question is you...and then reveals that almost immediately as a confusion. When you listen to PFT, and hear, for example, that Susannah Hoffs’ vocals have been gaffled for an involuntary remix, you realize that the “piracy” in question is M.I.A./Diplo’s; that their piracy funds terrorism -- at least, if we're buying. They are directly threatening you with what might be done with your money, and they know you know the story.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe some slice of the $8.99 I sort-of-paid for Piracy Funds Terrorism went to Tamil Tigers; maybe some of the advance for Arular, a fund into which I indirectly paid; maybe some of that tsunami relief dough...that’s the threat. I dunno if it’s real, but it’s really possible, and that makes all the difference. And so one starts to see why there might be an interest in depoliticizing, delegitimating M.I.A.; because we’re as a public rather ill-equipped to deal with the alternative. Slim Thug or dead prez can say anything they want, and we’ll say they’re so for real because they’re not. And it better have a bumping beat because no one gives a fuck otherwise. Maya, on the other hand, must be discovered again and again to have vague politics exactly because she has politics in the first place; must be found to dissemble about political violence because, despite the t-shirts, the truth about political violence is exactly what music fans and critics wish only to avoid; must be determined to be a poseur, because she might not be.

Posted by jane at July 6, 2005 01:14 PM | TrackBack