Just a couple-few thoughts about the new M.I.A. song/vid.
1. It was released last Friday, November 27, which I guess makes it an oldie in web time. I do enjoy the classics.
2. This song completely rules. Not since "Galang" have I just wanted to drop everything I am doing/ will ever do/ have ever done to listen to an M.I.A. song on repeat for a thousand hours.
3. Everything in this video, even the bedraggled suffering, is physically beautiful. M.I.A. is credited as director, but let us pause to praise the credited (by IMVdb) art directors, Sugu Arulpragasam and
Tom Manaton. And whoever the director of photography was.
4. Excuse me while I watch it one more time. Perhaps you'd care to join me? Don't worry, I have PLENTY more to say below.
5. Though she is very out and proud about her Sri Lankan roots, Maya Arulpragasam has a purely British approach to her self-presentation as a pop star. This is the same iconographic tradition that insists on putting TV journalists on camera when they might otherwise be narrating. I think this weirdly archaic, yet also star-system-reaffirming aesthetic arises from an impulse toward authenticity—in the sense of a certificate of authenticity, like, hey, this person was actually there. Of course, in the heavily art directed, staged, and symmetrical context of a music video, the quest for authenticity is not only beside the point, but an actual lie, which is all the thornier when the subject is as serious as it is here. All of which is to say: Something feels wrong about M.I.A. looking cool as fuck, and stylishly dressed in the foreground while the strugglers struggle in a slog—or even in an elaborately planned human sculpture of an I-beg-your-pardon-but-is-that-a-slave-ship-or-just-a-boat—behind her. (In the Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber identified the potential for this to be an "Aldous Snow-style parody of clumsily political pop stars," but M.I.A. has never seemed interested in glib ironies. She likes meatier ones. And whatever else you can say about her, you certainly can't pretend she isn't shrewd about the meaning of her image.)
6. It kind of makes you wonder: What is up with that? Is this just Michael Jackson at the Brits in 1996? Is the discomfort of this juxtaposition the point? Is she unknowingly enacting the exact kind of moral and spiritual lassitude the song is criticizing, or is she doing it on purpose? I don't see how anyone can miss the intentionality of it, but where do you locate the messianic art narcissism within that intention? She is unquestionably not interacting with the refugees in the shots, though she is also clearly among them. Nor do they see or respond to her. The video seems to be demanding that we answer its question: How can she just stand there looking like a million dollars and lip-syncing while people who have literally nothing are literally dying in their literal effort to reach the world we all think of as our birthright?
7. Whatever the "point" of the shot of her on the fence, spotlit in gold while surrounded by shadowy refugees, it is a picture that enshrines the values of superstardom. Whatever her calculation here, that is some bold shit to be putting in your music video. So is the audacious image of her wrapped in the same thermal rescue blanket as the other refugees. And though a lot of the initial responses to the clip are calling it things like "heartbreaking," I get the sense that her meaning is a lot more along the lines of "now ain't the time for your tears." Maybe her styled, super-cool presentation is meant as a billboard to future refugees—as I am, so shall you be. You hear a lot about the power of representation in pop culture nowadays, and I don't anyone would dispute that a world in which there were more pop stars who looked like Maya Arulpragasam would be a more interesting place. So what is the significance of having all the refugee extras being men? (That's not internet shame trap rhetoric; it's another question the video demands that you answer. Assuming that choice was an accident or an oversight is an indication that your critical facility has been ruined by the internet.)
8. Songs that are even partially about the erosion of meaning through the mindless repetition of colloquial language are always going to be my kind of songs. Verse one is all abstractions and "issues." Verse two is inane aphorisms. Verse three is hardcore moral terrain. The arc of these three phrase clusters is the heart and soul of why I love pop music. She's asking profound questions about our relationship to society and the inner life, while making verbal sounds that make you want to sing along, even when you don't know (or care) what the words are. They work consciously and pre-consciously. When she says "your privilege," does she mean your actual privilege or does she mean the reliance on the phrase "your privilege." Pointing fingers at finger pointers and making them dance while she does it.
Borders (What's up with that?)
Politics (What's up with that?)
Police shots (What's up with that?)
Identities (What's up with that?)
Your privilege (What's up with that?)
Broke people (What's up with that?)
Boat people (What's up with that?)
The realness (What's up with that?)
The new world (What's up with that?)
Queen (What's up with that?)
Killing it (What's up with that?)
Slaying it (What's up with that?)
Your goals (What's up with that?)
Being bae (What's up with that?)
Making money (What's up with that?)
Breaking internet (What's up with that?)
Love wins (What's up with that?)
Living it (What's up with that?)
Being real (What's up with that?)
Egos (What's up with that?)
Your values (What's up with that?)
Your beliefs (What's up with that?)
Your families (What's up with that?)
Histories (What's up with that?)
Your future (What's up with that?)
My boys (What's up with that?)
My girls (What's up with that?)
Freedom (What's up with that?)
Your power (What's up with that?)
9. There has been a minor hue and muted cry about the "problematic" meaning of the staging of the videos tableaux, citing an objection to the way the refugees are framed as "window dressing" and extras. The perfect tweet on the subject: "I hope this is highlighting, not glamorizing & exploiting?" Alas, fretful listener, this is a song and video you have to make your own mind up about. It's almost not even worth mentioning how different the reaction would be if the central figure in the video were a white person, but I will mention it because something else would be different in that case, as well: The actual meaning. And in keeping with the critical semiotics of the song's lyrics, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which M.I.A. isn't tweaking the engorged triggers of social media outrage with this staging. Another tweeter called the clip "exploitative," evidence that the artist sees "brown/some black bodies" as "background... not a focal point." I can't help but believe that this very obvious, shallow reading of the film's visuals is one of the song's targets, too.
10. Pro-gun, as ever. "Guns blow doors to the system/ fuck 'em when we say we're not with them." The "refugee question" becomes a very different prospect when it's not a question. Is she saying you can't fault people for storming gates that remain closed to them? Or maybe these guns are metaphorical? Is the "them" in the "we're not with them" construction the guns or the refugees? Does "We're solid and we don't need to kick them" mean we are armed refugees and we don't need to kick the doors down because we can shoot them down? Or does it mean we, the world behind the locked doors, can withstand—and even benefit from—the influx of people who have nowhere else to go? Is she saying "beware" or "welcome"?
11. Fuck, I love this song.