While M.I.A.’s music could be the kind of heady stuff that prompts people to organize around social change, this clearly hasn’t happened.
Last week, M.I.A. dropped a video for her new song, “Bad Girls.” It’s a good encapsulation of what the singer does best: embrace diverse acts of political and cultural rebellion and re-cast them as sexy and powerful. In the video, women dressed in burqas raise their fists skyward as they drive. M.I.A. herself strikes a nonchalant pose on the side of a car while it improbably skates, two-wheeled, across a desert highway. The camera pans along a line of men dressed in keffiyehs who stare coolly at the viewer. It’s a defiant video that recalls the thrilling energy of the Arab Spring.
A few days later, she flipped the middle finger to millions of viewers while performing during Madonna's halftime show at the Super Bowl. The response was predictable: the Parents Television Council howled that the gesture was indecent; others responded that it wasn’t that big a deal. M.I.A. apologized. In the process she neatly upstaged Madonna, who is herself one of the more famous progenitors of pop-fame-through-rumpus. It seemed a fitting passing of the torch.
Of course, controversy is nothing new to M.I.A. Her 2010 video, “Born Free,” was banned from YouTube because it showed police hunting redheads and shooting one, a child, point-blank. And in 2010, a mocking article in The New York Times suggested that M.I.A. was inauthentic because she had her baby in a hospital and ate truffle fries. The reporter seemed to be asking, what kind of revolutionary lives around the corner from Beverly Hills?.
M.I.A’s commercial success never bothered me; people should be able to make a living and change the world at the same time. What does bother me is a related question: Does M.I.A. live up to her reputation for doing something political with her music?
I want the answer to be yes. For about seven years now, M.I.A. has been creating music in opposition to state power, political corruption, and class inequalities. When she first broke onto the scene she received attention for her jangled, catchy sound—she’s always made people want to dance—as well as for the fact that she seemed to speak for people who didn’t have a lot of options or control. “Everyday thinkin’ bout how we get through/Everything I own is on IOU” she rapped on her debut album, Arular. And: “Quit bending all my fingo/ Quit beating me like your ringo/You wanna go?/You wanna win a war?/Like P.L.O. I don’t surrender. “
When she spoke out about the Sri Lankan government’s persecution of the Tamil minority, her overt activism was thrilling. But instead of drawing attention to the fact that the Tamil Tigers themselves exploited the community through child recruitment and targeted harassment of the Tamil Muslim population, M.I.A. idealized the militant group. Since then her music and videos have linked to other political movements, but likewise without getting into any of the political nuances.
Her latest video continues the pattern, tapping the emotion of the Middle Eastern protests that rocked the world last year. When watching it, you inexplicably feel as if you are watching the same activists, now celebrating in the desert. Bad asses, you think. The video has been embraced as a commentary on Saudi Arabia’s prohibition of female drivers. If it is a response to the law, visually it’s fantastic. “Live fast/die young/bad girls do it well,” M.I.A. chants. And…that’s mainly it. it’s unclear how the video is supposed to empower Saudi women or raise awareness about the law. Mostly, it just looks good.
In this way M.I.A. is both less and more effective than old-school political troubadours like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. M.I.A.’s music makes you feel electric, as if you can do anything, from dancing all night to building a full-scale revolution. Her energy and vague references to resistance make every listener feel included in an ambiguous protest movement. Unlike other musicians that describe marginalized populations, M.I.A. doesn’t make you feel choked up about the injustices of the world. She makes you identify with people fighting against those injustices and makes you want to raise a fist with them. This is a pretty tremendous feat.
But she also doesn’t ask you to do anything—except perhaps dance. Regardless of what you thought of the utility of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s love-in, they had a very clear message about our military activities. While M.I.A.’s music could be the kind of heady stuff that prompts people to organize around social change, this clearly hasn’t happened.
The conventional excuse is that there are limits to what one musician can do. But that’s not quite keeping with M.I.A.’s reputation as a seriously political artist. In the infamous Times interview, she complained, “The whole point of going to the Grammys was to say, ‘Hey, 50,000 people are gonna die next month, and here’s your opportunity to help.’ And no one did.” But she didn't make clear how people could help, and without a specific call to action, it’s unlikely that a performance with Jay Z and T.I. at an awards show was going to activate people around the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Her critics say that what M.I.A. does really well is associate herself with political movements so that she can burnish her image in their reflected glow. While I don’t think M.I.A. is just selling radical chic, it’s time for her to use her obvious political interests in a way that has some weight, rather than just firing off inflammatory statements like “Give war a chance.” (I’m not sure what that even means.) Provocation for the sake of provocation is fine, but M.I.A. is one of the few artists who could credibly do more. She’s earned our respect with the beats and with our sense that she speaks for the people. Now it’s time to connect the way she makes her fans feel—empowered—with a concrete objective. In the wake of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street protests, people are ready to be inspired and take meaningful action. They've seen it can work.
These are high expectations, I admit. But the thing is, M.I.A. cast herself in this role as the songstress of truth to power. She does not claim to be just creating spectacle and making money like her superstar peers Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Kanye West. M.I.A. deliberately aligns herself with political movements that are deadly serious, and by virtue of the connection she attains a certain gravitas herself. Without it, she’s just another artist making music for the cool kids to dance to.