Voyou Désœuvré

The problem with MIA’s new video is not, as Anna Pickard claims, that it is “too shocking,” it is that it is not shocking enough. The video’s big “reveal,” that the state’s violence is directed at the redheaded, turns any possible shock into pure silliness. Now, I imagine someone will say that I’m missing the point here, that prejudice directed against redheads is really no more silly than prejudice directed against black people or Muslims, and that by showing us this, the film makes a serious point about the arbitrariness of racism. This is wrong: racism is indeed unfounded and constructed and arbitrary, but it is not silly. The mistake here lies in thinking that, because racism is based on a social construction rather than a biological reality, it is therefore unreal, a mere error or fiction with only a mental existence in the psyche of racists. But in fact there is little more real than social constructions, because they create, and exist through, a material reality of practices and distributions of people and things. By eliding this materiality, and suggesting that an alternative racial reality could be produced simply by an arbitrary switch of what signifiers are racialized, the MIA video flatters its liberal audience, reinforcing the belief that racism a matter of ignorance or error that can be avoided by the sufficiently enlightened.

Worse, perhaps, the video ends up letting the actual racism and violence of the US state off the hook. The first half of the video presents us with a mystery: who are these police, and why are they raiding this building? The moment when we see the bus full of red-haired young men functions as an explanation, an explanation which immediately places us in an alternative reality in which the US features a number of signs of oppression that suggest places out side the US: Northern Ireland (murals) or Palestine (kids in keffiyehs throwing rocks). The problem is, that this, it seems to me, strongly suggests that we should see the first half of the video as also part of this alternative reality; but police raids of this sort are of course no “alternative” at all to actually existing US reality.

I don’t think I’ve written much about MIA before, not just because I don’t like her records very much, but because I’m rather uncomfortable with the fact that I don’t like her records. Oh, I can come up with any number of plausible reasons why, but they all seem to have a borrowed kettle quality to them: I have too many reasons for not liking her, none of which are finally quite persuasive. I don’t like the superficiality of her gestures towards politics, but why is this a problem when I’m so happy to take as interesting the surface features of other artists, from Lady GaGa to tATu? Is it that I’m happy to let the girls talk about fripperies like gender and aesthetics, but politics is SRS BSNS that should be left to the men? Perhaps I judge MIA differently because she presents herself as serious about politics; but, again, why do I let my interpretation of her work be determined by  MIA’s interest in politics when I’m more than happy to ignore Britney’s lack of interest? This suggests, I think, a potential problem with popism’s otherwise admirable commitment to the death of the author, which is that it tends to work better when the interpretation of the record is wholly disconnected from the artist’s self-understanding. The problem is that this requires the artist to be ignorant: the female (usually; feminized, in pop, almost always) pop star is forced into the position of the subject not supposed to know.

Or another thing; I dislike the appropriations involved in MIA’s presentation of herself as speaking from a generic third-world position (this is most annoying in the uncredited “baile funk” tracks on Piracy Funds Terrorism, which may be Diplo’s fault rather than MIA’s, and the cringeworthy line about how she “puts people on the map who’ve never seen a map,” which is MIA’s fault); but, for all that I could make arguments about self-made native informants, she surely does have an experience as someone growing up in Sri Lanka and working in the western music industry that qualifies her to say something about the third world; why is it that I somehow want to deny this?

I find myself in the odd position of not being able to trust my judgment about MIA; but I’m pretty sure “Born Free” isn’t as good a record as “Jimmy.”


  1. v, 5:50 am, May 3, 2010

    I’m not entirely sure why you’d want to deny this either.

    I think the mistake here lies in expecting a pop music video to be anything other than trivialising, slippery, superficial signifiers misrepresenting the multi-dimensional materiality of the real- you’re just going to be eternally disappointed. Racism is seriously silly. Just because it is construct that is lived with and struggled over in everyday reality, doesn’t make it any less absolutely silly. Taking it, constructing it, pedantically, straightforwardly as SRS BSNS, too often plays right into the hands of the racists; that sentiment- seriousness- is what colours their drive toward scapegoating the Other, it gives a deep meaning to their lives. E.g., I know many racists love ‘American History X’.

    A pop music video is not going to make a dent in the material realities structural racism, no (well, maybe a tiny dent); but it is really erroneous to believe that racism is a ‘matter of ignorance and error’? If it is, what act could possibly hope to challenge or resist such an epistemological monolith, so pervasive, lived, SRS, REAL that it almost seems… well, biological?

    Pop’s gestures towards politics will always be superficial- they’re gestures. With MIA, I can’t help but think- it’s miles fucking better than the alternative. I like her records, though. I thought it a rather striking pop gesture to begin her last record with an ominously evocative litany of subaltern states: ‘Somalia, Angola, Ghana, India, Sri Lanka…’ How’s the beginning of Gaga’s record start? WIth a litany of drunken stuttering: ‘I’ve had a little bit too much. All of the people start to rush. Start to rush babe. How does he twist the dance? Can’t find my drink or man. Where are my keys, I lost my phone.’ M.I.A. presents herself as serious about politics (which, to my mind, she definitely is)- but she’s still a pop star. Are these two pursuits mutually exclusive? I don’t think so. Your analysis forces her to render the totality of lived racial oppression in an 8 minute video. If she did that, she probably wouldn’t be as popular, and the potential extra-pop impact of her pop gestures would thereby be diminished, making for a much less interesting pop-scape. I don’t think you have too many reasons for not liking her, I think the second half of your post shows that you don’t really have any good ones. (If it’s simply that the music’s not your thing, fair enough.) Pop’s products will always be superficial; it’s simply a matter of degree.

  2. Seb, 6:58 pm, May 3, 2010

    If pop’s products are necessarily superficial, then M.I.A.’s going to have to choose between articulating a position or being some thimble-deep icon & Ms. Edgar Bronfman Jr. I’d wager she’s happier being the latter, given that all she can muster to follow up “I’ve got something to say” is the blandest, most uncontroversial, ideologically neutral bumper-sticker sentiment imaginable: “I was born free.” Like, wow.

    And it’s bloody pathetic that a laundry-list of nations, unlinked by any specific ailment, struggle, or condition other than NOT being developed nations, can be considered a “striking pop gesture.” Perhaps more striking would be reciting the chemical composition of a Big Mac, or maybe just screaming “PALESTINE! ISRAEL! PALESTINE! ISRAEL” over and over.

    Though gender certainly plays a role in how seriously a musicians political pronouncements are taken, fame is definitely a greater factor. Kathleen Hanna & Ani DiFranco get away with being explicitly ideological because they’re not trying to score a primo soundtrack placement, and though Ian MacKaye & Bono might express the same sentiment, only the former will get taken seriously.

    But honestly, speaking of silly – so M.I.A. is qualified to be a kind of other/underclass/third world mouthpiece for having spent some nominal time in a developing nation, while being socially conditioned by a cosmopolitan 1st world metropolis and marquee art school? Well, then why not other folks who have the same “qualifications”, like the lily-white lads in the Black Lips or Ian Williams from Battles?

    And can we all at least agree that the lock-stock appropriation of Suicide’s song betrays creative bankruptcy? At least Lady Gaga writes her own friggin’ tunes.

  3. Kim Dot Dammit, 7:46 pm, May 4, 2010

    I’m usually pretty quiet around these parts, and I don’t have any insights to add, but I just want to say that your critique of your own critique of MIA is one of the most fascinating things I’ve read on music, gender, race, and class and our responses as females to female artists. I personally really like MIA, but I am much more forgiving and generous than most when it comes to “getting a message across” on a mass platform despite its inherent limits. Pop can work for or against “the message.”

    Anyway, I just wanted to say this was a great post. It’s making me think I finally need to watch that collection of Pink videos a friend sent me and I’ve been reluctant to watch. I like your perspective of critiquing your own perspective.

  4. Catherine Ryan, 12:38 am, May 6, 2010

    Argh the form just ate my response. Here it is again in short.

    I also have reservations about MIA and find it hard to put my finger on exactly why this is. I think I am less generous towards her superficiality than I would be towards that of Tatu or Britney because I like the latter’s music much more on aesthetic grounds. With some exceptions (eg. ‘Jimmy’) I don’t really dig MIA musically / affectively. Accordingly, her political superficiality irks me. I am inclined to read lots of things into Tatu’s music, however, and disregard their shallowness, in part because I like their sound.

    But perhaps this is not the only reason. It also bugs me that I am not sure why I don’t like MIA. I also feel suspicious of myself.

  5. FredHale, 1:57 am, May 19, 2010

    I didn’t get much silliness from the video – I thought it was fairly powerful, actually. And my ginger friend found it genuinely discomfiting (he was pissed, I should add.) Agree about the cringe-worthy third-worldism of a lot of her posturing, but I’m still quite happy that a single about asylum seekers fantasising about mugging people got to number 1 (it did get to number one, didn’t it?).

    Have you listened to Arular at all, just out of interest?

    Agree that this was an excellent post.

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