M.I.A. in the N.Y.T.

I’m wondering what readers think of the long profile of M.I.A. in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The author of the piece, Lynn Hirschberg, seems to have gotten pretty much unprecedented access to the Sri Lankan/British/American star, who recently had a child.

For Hirschberg, the high point in terms of subversive M.I.A. performances was the Grammys in 2009, when M.I.A. appeared on stage with four male rap stars, nine months pregnant. Apparently her contractions started while on stage! But Hirschberg also has some pointed comments on some of M.I.A.’s recent work, including the strange (I thought, awful) video to “Born Free.” Here is Hirschberg’s account of it:

Unlike, say, her performance at the Grammys, which was a perfect fusion of spectacle (a nine-months-pregnant woman rapping in a see-through dress) with content (Maya’s fervor was linked to the music), the video for “Born Free” feels exploitative and hollow. Seemingly designed to be banned on YouTube, which it was instantly, the video is set in Los Angeles where a vague but apparently American militia forcibly search out red-headed men and one particularly beautiful red-headed child. The gingers, as Maya called them, using British slang, are taken to the desert, where they are beaten and killed. The first to die is the child, who is shot in the head. While “Born Free” is heard in the background throughout, the song is lost in the carnage. As a meditation on prejudice and senseless persecution, the video is, at best, politically naïve. (link)

I’m not so much interested in M.I.A’s particular politics, which I’ve disagreed with in the past. Yes, she has a very emotional, oversimplified account of recent events in Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers in particular — let’s not have that fight again.

I’m more wondering what kind of image of the artist and performer we get from this article. Does M.I.A. really know what she’s doing? She’s had an album that was a big Indie hit (“Arular”), and one major commercial success, with “Paper Planes,” (off “Kala”); and there were several other solid, highly creative tracks off that second album. Given how important her producers are in her creative process, is it even fair to say that she’s at the helm of her own ship? Do you think she’s due for another success with her upcoming third album, or is her current direction a musical misfire, born of too much self-indulgence?

Finally, what did readers think of the second single off the as-yet unreleased new album, XXXO?

48 thoughts on “M.I.A. in the N.Y.T.

  1. Life is to short to have to like everything about a person in order to enjoy anything they make. MIA might be really annoying in real life, but I enjoy the hell out of her music. If I had to like the people behind the music then I wouldnt be able to enjoy bands like Lynyrd Skynard, Guns N Roses and The Who. Led Zepplin copied a lot of their music without giving credit to the people who they copied it from, but I still like the way they play.

  2. Life is to short to have to like everything about a person in order to enjoy anything they make. MIA might be really annoying in real life, but I enjoy the hell out of her music. If I had to like the people behind the music then I wouldnt be able to enjoy bands like Lynyrd Skynard, Guns N Roses and The Who. Led Zepplin copied a lot of their music without giving credit to the people who they copied it from, but I still like the way they play.

    Agreed. COMPLETELY.

    That said, sister-friend’s unabashed hatred for Lady Gaga is getting on my nerves. I know M.I.A. likes to be an underground hero, but come on – ridiculous outfits aside, Lady Gaga isn’t pretending to be anything she isn’t (although her “commentary” on fame is senior year performance art piece, at best), which is more than I can say about M.I.A.

    THAT said, I am an unabashed fan of both musicians, and really like “XXXO”.

  3. reading that article made me think that, in particular, her combination of money and attention (fame) has not only the potential to corrupt but also make irredeemably insipid any person foolish enough to think themselves ideologically pure bar nothing. MIA is a tourist among the poor and vulnerable of the world and companion to the elite with the gall to represent herself as vulnerable Tamil refugee eternally besieged by an international Singhalese cabal of provocateurs led by, of all people, dentists and financial planners in Santa Barbara.

    She wanted fame, money and the respect of culture/art critics–all without sacrificing the unique character of her painted signature on other people’s work–and has achieved it. I feel like congratulating her for that but little else.

  4. Led Zepplin copied a lot of their music without giving credit to the people who they copied it from, but I still like the way they play.

    Yeah but Jimmy Page could play. The most interesting part of the article was how far her persona has taken her, in lieu of any traditional talent or musical training. That being said, I like MIA, who Diplo astutely calls a postmodern artist. I don’t listen to her for her skills, or because of her political knowledge. It just sounds good.

  5. The mighty Zep were influenced by the blues, and they give credit by playing the blues and continuing the timeline.

    i love her music, if it be the producers who put the majority of the work into it, well so be it, its class. however you cannot say she is not talented, you just have to see her live.

  6. I was not impressed by “Born Free”‘s video. It felt hackneyed and tired- even South Park was did their “Ginger-vitis” years ahead of this. The song itself is mediocre.

    I know artists are supposed to explore and mature, but MIA’s in decline if this is any indication of her future work. She’s also keen on seeding the industry with miniMayas like Santogold and Rye-Rye…not too charming.

    Having said that, I DO like her. She can be sharp-funny in her interviews w/o coming off like an ass.

    Lady Gaga isn’t pretending to be anything she isn’t (although her “commentary” on fame is senior year performance art piece, at best), which is more than I can say about M.I.A.

    Lady CaCa is a complete biter. You’re either quite young or oblivious to pop history if you think she’s unique in any way. David Bowie, Grace Jones, and Madonna (just a few of many!) are obvious influences. On top that, she can’t dance. She looks like a pasty, bucktoothed Bipasha when she tries.

  7. Thanks for the post, missed the great article. Though I have been a fan of MIA since Arular, I am wondering about the motivation/background of Lynn Hirschberg. I smelled a strong ethnocentric slant. She seemed to really hone in on MIA’s ambiguity about her past. As a south asian we at times relish the story over the hard straight facts. She is an entertainer, not a historian.And I sensed an almost disdain in Ms. Hirschberg’s tone.

    Not sure I am being oversensitive regarding my sista?

  8. She seemed to really hone in on MIA’s ambiguity about her past. As a south asian we at times relish the story over the hard straight facts. She is an entertainer, not a historian.And I sensed an almost disdain in Ms. Hirschberg’s tone.

    There may be some disdain, but the issues Hirschberg raises are real. Why does Maya say she hasn’t seen her father in many years when Diplo says he saw them together in London 1 or 2 years ago? Earlier, she described her father as a Tamil freedom fighter/terrorist, but here she says he now works for the government (which, apparently, isn’t true either).

    At least that latter inconsistency suggests she may have earlier been trying to exploit his radical past to make her own image seem more radical on the first album. It’s a lot sexier to say that your father is a wanted terrorist with a codename (‘Arular’), than it is to say that he was a separatist in his youth, but now works with a sustainability NGO & writes books about Tamil history and globalization. (For the record, Arular was apparently an associate of Prabhakaran’s in the late 1970s)

    Here is Wikipedia on Arul Pragasam, who also goes by the name A.R. Arudpragasam:

    Arul Pragasam left his group EROS and the conflict in the late 80s. In 1997, he set up an Institute of Sustainability Development at Trincomalee on the Eastern Province’s coast. The same year, he wrote a seminal book on Tamil history.[4] Arulpragasam now heads the Britain-based Global Sustainability Initiative, which has overseen inventions such as a redesigned bullock cart, a motorised wheelbarrow and a car that consumes less petrol. Arulpragasam has explained “GSI’s mission is to develop a program with a global perspective.”

    And yes, I know Wikipedia isn’t 100% reliable. But if you Google around, it checks out. Here he is, for instance, at Jaffna University in 2004, upon the release of his book “Monetary Exploitation.”

    http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=12261

    Yes, she’s an artist, not a historian. But since she’s made her family background part of her public image, it’s completely fair to ask whether that image is accurate.

  9. “But since she’s made her family background part of her public image, it’s completely fair to ask whether that image is accurate”.

    but is it necessary?

  10. d00d said:

    Diplo’s the one with the real talent

    I totally disagree. This is what people were saying after her first record, but Kala was more a Switch effort than a Diplo one. (See for yourself.) MIA works with talented people, but that doesn’t mean she’s not talented herself.


    Regarding “XXXO”, I’m not feeling it. It sounds totally 2008; it’s way stale. Of course, I don’t like “Paper Planes” either, but that’s just a matter of taste (and a fair amount of ubiquity, as it’s been run into the ground). “XXXO” just doesn’t sound interesting.

  11. Amardeep, Don’t disagree about her making her family part of her narrative, but I think the west harps too much on this. If she feels like an outlaw, a sympathizer, etc. shouldn’t that be enough? He father was no doubt politically involved; so this helps her narrative. Now weather he is/was part of the LTTE or left his radical days behind him with EROS seems like chopped liver.

    When I lived in SF I remember the caucasian radio commentors making a big deal of the fact that Barry Bonds was not actually related to Willie Mays, though in fact he called him his uncle on several occasions (or was it godfather?); point being Bobby Bonds and Willie Mays played on the same team for awhile and Willie Mays probably was a real presence in Barry’s life.

    I guess my point is, though I am born in the US, I sort sometimes question this all too black white interpretation of one’s past and identity. Not sure if I am articulating this well, but south culture seems to accept grays. And sort of “as long as you feel like x” then you are “x”. Not chasing down the authenticity of one personal narrative.

  12. Regarding “XXXO”, I’m not feeling it. It sounds totally 2008; it’s way stale. Of course, I don’t like “Paper Planes” either, but that’s just a matter of taste

    Agreed on both. Her ‘ballad’ voice is childish, unrefined, and pretty much out of tune (hence the autotune overdose on Jimmy Aaja). But she can rock the mic like no ones biz when she gets aggressive and energized.

    south culture seems to accept grays. And sort of “as long as you feel like x” then you are “x”. Not chasing down the authenticity of one personal narrative.

    Well, bully for south culture. Accuracy does count for something, particularly these days when your cover can be blown with such electronic ease. But I can give her an artist pass. I wasn’t smitten by her political posturing in the first place.

  13. How old is she, 13? Twitting Hirschberg’s cell phone no. to the whole world was weak, hope she gets sued. As for her music, Janelle Monae actually does everything people praise MIA for, and she does it much better.

  14. Update! I guess Maya didn’t like the NY Times article either.

    http://gawker.com/5549291/mia-throws-hissy-fit-tweets-times-reporters-cell-phone-number

    Lady Gaga isn’t pretending to be anything she isn’t (although her “commentary” on fame is senior year performance art piece, at best), which is more than I can say about M.I.A.
    Lady CaCa is a complete biter. You’re either quite young or oblivious to pop history if you think she’s unique in any way. David Bowie, Grace Jones, and Madonna (just a few of many!) are obvious influences. On top that, she can’t dance. She looks like a pasty, bucktoothed Bipasha when she tries.

    I didn’t say Lady Gaga is original or unique – I said she isn’t pretending to be anything she isn’t. She’s open about the fact that she wants to be an entertainer and famous. Better than this working man’s hero bullshit.

    But as I said before – if your music makes me dance, I’ll buy your damn record.

  15. That is pretty juvenile, and it just lowers my opinion of MIA even further. If she didn’t like the article, she should start by correcting Hirschberg on anything she got wrong.

    And Elitist? south culture seems to accept grays. And sort of “as long as you feel like x” then you are “x”.

    I disagree. Things are either true or they’re not true. It’s not a cultural thing.

  16. Elititist,

    i think Amardeep would agree that of all things to be offended by, a person using the /83 riots and subsequent war as color for her marketing profile is justifiable defined as provocation–I am not in SL, for the same reasons as her, yet I have not told my peers even 10% of what actually happened to cause this uprooting of lives and livelihoods from continent to continent. I don’t need to exaggerate any of those details to impress upon anyone exactly how precarious the political refugee’s life is. And this is true for most people who have left–not even counting those who were too poor to leave!

    in previous incarnations I jousted with Cicatrix, Joolz and many others about whether she was actually so dumb/myopic/heartless that she would consciously pimp tiger imagery and terrorist cachet to sell records–and yet I am 100% wrong now and they are very much correct.

  17. MIA has been a fraud to anyone in the know for years. The article only brought that to life. To the St Martin’s crowd she’s been a scenester fame whore from day one. MIA hates lady gaga because she has the fame she things she deserves.

  18. “As for her music, Janelle Monae actually does everything people praise MIA for, and she does it much better.”

    TRUTH!

  19. If everyone on this thread checks out Janelle Monae, then this thread will have been for a good cause.

    (Alas, MIA, trying to “out” a journalist isn’t cool. I hope she doesn’t go all Amanda Palmer, at least.)

  20. I really wanted to like her music, but her flow is too choppy for my taste (I know it’s supposed to be). And all her songs sound very similar to me, maybe because I can’t get past the flow issue. To her credit, at least she has a signature sound.

    I definitely got a condescending vibe from the NYT article. But MIA seems to be posturing and playing up her background just like any of the other multi-millionaire “thug” rappers out there. I can’t fault her for that.

  21. I am no fan of MIA — I just have never cared for her music — but whatever MIA’s faults, they don’t take away from the fact that Lynn Hirschberg is a troll and a hack of a journalist. She is basically TMZ ala NYTimes. Her article on MIA is mean-spirited, and you should take her words and characterizations with huge doses of salt, unless, of course, you are fan of Harvey Levin-style of journalism…

    I don’t think the question “Does M.I.A. really know what she’s doing” is relevant. What is relevant is whether Hirshberg knew that she was doing a hatchet job on MIA. And the answer to that is Damn straight she know.

    And we should know better than to denounce MIA for anything we gathered about her from this article.

  22. “The biggest Sinhalese community is in Santa Monica, people who are sworn enemies of the Tamils, which is me.” — MIA

    Not surprising she has behaved the way she has with such views.

  23. Why are we all on jumping on the hate bandwagon? I agree with Neha’s comments re Ms. Hirschberg’s malicious intentions. My comment regarding the rough treatment in the article was before her tweeting Ms. Hirschberg’s mobile (which I don’t condone) but her twitter outburst prove the degree to which MIA was humiliated in the article.

    How can you all not like Paper Planes? To me ( a 38 yr old male ABCD) song of the year hands down.

  24. “I don’t think the question “Does M.I.A. really know what she’s doing” is relevant”

    Why is that not relevant Neha? Because you say so. Lynn was given access through MIA via Maya’s PR flacks. No doubt Interscope thought they were going to get a puff piece. Lynn flipped the script. And now MIA looks like a posturing careerist.

  25. I’m delighted to see a South Asian entertainer make it in mainstream western culture. But MIA can’t sing (!), doesn’t come across as super bright, and isn’t even exceptionally attractive. Yet, she appears to have done it on her own, rather than, say, the Spice Girls, who were “manufactured” by others.

    What’s exactly is MIA’s appeal, and her secret to success? The article doesn’t enlighten us.

  26. “Yet, she appears to have done it on her own, rather than, say, the Spice Girls, who were “manufactured” by others”

    She was just as manufactured as the spice girls she just ‘appears’ not to have been Ashish…dig deeper you’ll find out.

  27. Lady CaCa is a complete biter.

    I disagree with the premise of this comment. Every artist draws on influences – especially pop artists. I feel the influence of Peaches on M.I.A. I mean, Shakespeare took most of his stories from someone else and there are entire traditions (like oral epics) that rely on stories taking precedence over authors.

    Without going as far as the death of the author type stuff, the idea of the ‘authentic’ author/singer/performer is just as extreme. It’s what they do with what they get and how they repackage it that can be the type of originality they have. And in this day and age, just bothering to even try is 10 points in my book – and I think both lady gaga and M.i.A. do, in the context of pop art.

    On an aside, what influence do people think M.I.A.’s British Asianness has had on her work? The comment above about cashing in on pain and misery made me pause, so thanks for that. The flipside, to it, for me, is that it raises the profile of the conflict / atrocities in the Western media slightly. You can debate the ultimate usefulness of, but when such things happen in utter silence, it tends to be horrifying and at minimum, I think the world as a whole is slightly more aware of Sri Lanka conflict as an effect of M.I.A.

    I personally loved the new video. I think some of the ‘misfires’ are real misfires (not providing enough context in the video) but some of them have to do with lack of care for the understanding of an American audience or, to be frank, the choice of some people in that audience to lay all the blame on the video/producers/musician rather than other factors that may make it seem discomfiting, odd, or incomphrensible. I’ve literally run into people who have said that they don’t see any connection between the video and Sri Lanka, which says much more about the audience member than the art.

  28. http://neetrecordings.com/blog/

    she promised that the ‘truf’ would come out via what would appear to be a copy of Lynn’s or her own recording. It is, however, only addressing the weakest dig, albeit indirect, about the truffle-flavored fries and the the curious section where she desires war and is tired of peace. That particular quote is transcribed on the neetrecordings blog but doesn’t include the part where she talks about war and peace.

    This is where the Moe Tkacik’s of the world say it’s ok because she is an artist. She doesn’t need to be correct for Moe to dig her aesthetic.

    Dr.,

    I know it’s hard to get over the idea that ‘raising awareness” of an issue doesn’t actually translate into measurable positive outcomes for the subject population. How on earth would you measure MIA’s effect on ‘world awareness’ of the actual Sri Lanka? The answer to this problem, and most problems, is not just ‘do something’ or ‘say something.’ MIA’s political commentary could be supplied by any old tamil nationalist halfway through a bottle of Johnny Walker and in the comfort of their own home. Were it red-eyed Uncle Shanmugalingasamaiyyarpillay spewing ignorant falsehoods about what is actually a tragedy, to the measurable detriment of those experiencing this tragedy, on on TV/Web etc, would you feel half as ready to defend the act of dissemination (of crap) itself?

    shallow human beings are shallow.

  29. But you must agree that ‘raising awareness’ is the first step toward trying to solve an issue. For the most part she has been more vocal about the plight of the tamils caught in the war than issuing statements on what would ‘solve’ the problem. She even sent a ship with relief materials after the army massacred at least 40,000 unarmed civilians at the end of the war, which as expected was denied entry.

    And the two audio clips totally put the journalist’s perspective in question.

  30. ” after the army massacred at least 40,000 unarmed civilians “

    Is ’40 000 unarmed civilians’ the new catch phrase the Tamil propaganda machine is using these days?

  31. If Tamils did not want a war, they should have never supported the LTTE. The Tamil diaspora were itching for a war, funding the LTTE and bellyaching for The Final Battle for Freedom… and they got just that…. and lost…. So why the whining and crying now? Isn’t it a bit late? Why didn’t these people speak for peace and negotiation? Why didn’t they push the LTTE to get back to the negotiating table? Why didn’t they ask the LTTE to lay down their arms? Why didn’t they pressure the LTTE to let all the people it was keeping hostage go free? And as we all know Tamils weren’t the only people to die in the Sri Lankan war.

  32. I hope you will come around to knowing how heartless you sound. Its like saying ‘If you even think that Tibet should be let alone, then China has every right to kill you’

    This war was against the people, The Sri lankan army (composing of only Sinhalese) was shelling unarmed civilians (all Tamils) even aiming schools and make-shift hospitals ( well documented in the international media). I don’t understand which country will do that to people that it theoretically considers its own. Will we be ok with the the Indian Army if it used shells and cluster bombs on one of the oldest tribal population just because there are maoists there and some of them are in support.

    Its a well known fact that the LTTE was not the cause, but the product of Sinhala chauvinism.

    Am curious to know what you might think of Israel’s attack in the Gaza civilian strip, bombing hospitals and the recent attack on the ‘Gaza Flotilla’ carrying aid material.

  33. Anarchitect, we had a lot of debate on this issue on this blog last year. I made my views known in the following post & the comments that followed it.

    http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/005773.html

    In effect, I said that, as the war was winding down, I disagreed with the protesters who were using words like “genocide” to describe the Sri Lankan army’s actions. I felt that the LTTE’s policy of using a large number of ‘human shields’ was a big problem. You cannot force thousands of civilians to remain in the middle of a conflict zone at gunpoint, and then complain when some of those civilians are killed by an army that is trying to get to you.

    There are also at least half a dozen other posts by my co-bloggers from the month of May 2009, which you should check out. Melvin and Nilanjana were both extremely concerned about the treatment of Tamils in their posts:

    http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/2009_05.html

  34. Amardeep, I think your comment about M.I.A. “does M.I.A. really know what she is doing” comes across as sexist. Would you ask this question about the influence of producers if M.I.A. was a man? I doubt it. However, because M.I.A. is a woman, and an outspoken woman you are making the sexist assumption that male producers have a heavy hand in her product. Yes, M.I.A. works with producers but her art is her own vision. M.I.A. she is a woman with her own point of view.

    Why is it, in pop culture, if a woman is outspoken, intelligent, has strong views, and yes is angry people attack her? This reminds me of the treatment Courtney Love recieves from the media. Whenever a woman is very outspoken and has strong views people want to attack the woman and tell her to return to being “quiet” and “pristine”. M.I.A. is not that kind of woman, I love the fact that she speaks her mind and I think the NY Times writer has an axe to grind against M.I.A. I can see why M.I.A. is very upset about the NY Times article.

    It seems to me, men we have more leverge in this misogynist world. M.I.A. is so amazing and different from most young female entertainers. M.I.A. does not use her sexuality to sell her records. M.I.A. is a breath of fresh air. I thought her video “born free” was brilliant.

  35. Ashish, M.I.A. she is not a singer she is a rapper. Also, how dare you compare M.I.A. to the Spice Girls! M.I.A. she is not some manufactured artist she is an independent woman with her own clear vision and view of herself and her art. I think the media uproar about M.I.A. is due to the fact in a misogynist culture society doesn’t like it when a woman is outspoken. M.I.A. challenges the patriarchial views that women should be submissive.

    Since when does a rapper need to know how to sing? A rapper raps that’s what they do. M.I.A. is just an incredible artist, because the rap music industry is so anti woman and M.I.A. a British South Asian woman breaksthrough in America to reach the mainstream. I think M.I.A. is the most fascinating person in rap music right now. M.I.A. isn’t perfect, I acknowledge this. However,

  36. I wanted to say I think it was wrong of M.I.A. to release the journalist phone number it makes her seem bitter. I think M.I.A. she should have used a more mature method to express her anger at the NY Times article.

  37. Orville you really need to pull your head out of your rectum before you hurt yourself. You take yourself wayyyyyyy tooooooo serious.

  38. i hope this is the version on the album.

    quoting myself to say that the itunes link provided on the NEET blog is the same version as the youtube.

    the mp3 on the NEET site however is not the same. that mp3′s title tag says “XXX0 Blaq – NHPMix Final-M3NT_03″. maybe it’s a remix? dunno. “Blaq” clearly refers to Blaqstarr, her producer, so maybe this is an “NHP Mix” as it sort of implies.