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.”