“[W]hat she’s experiencing is an absolutely necessary struggle — an attempt by an artist who’s defined herself through opposition to engage with the system that she has entered, for better or worse, and to still remain recognizable to herself.” — Ann Powers on M.I.A.’s career following the release of /\/\ /\ Y /\, L.A. Times
As I forked over $9 — and a small part of my soul — for a tall can of Bud Lite at the M.I.A. concert Saturday night in Metro Detroit, a white girl wearing a diamond bindi whooshed past me. I sighed and shrugged to my friend; neither of us wanted to have a discussion about the problematic act of appropriating bindis, so instead we exchanged, “I just can’t”s and carried on, seeking solace in our criminally-overpriced beers. Oddly enough, that girl wearing a diamond bindi would go onto become a thesis for the entire concert and the current phase of the rapper’s career.
This isn’t a concert review — although it is worth it to mention that I walked out after five songs because M.I.A. seemed tragically uninterested in her own music. She wasn’t rapping her own words so much as she was shouting them into the mic; once in a while, she’d attempt to climb up on the giant speakers in an act of anti-establishment defiance, only to have a sit-down for a few verses. But, we’re not here to discuss proper concert procedure. We’re here to discuss how it seems that these days, M.I.A. is catering more to white girls wearing diamond bindis than to anyone with a sincere interest in rebellion-stirring hip-pop.
It’s odd when you consider that what worked aesthetically for the performer during Arular and Kala seems insincere and devoid of meaning now. Her rah-rah-revolution! cries have now devolved into nothing more than exotic-sounding white noise.
The show kicked off with an extended intro track — a sitar-drenched raga peppered with voice-overed Hindi recitations. Her set design included neon-lit Tamil script; a couple of her back-up dancers were dressed up in “Indian-inspired” garb. I get it. She’s expressing herself and her culture. I would be okay with this if not for the fact that she appeared rather pick-and-choose about how she decided to essay her Sri Lankan identity and South Asian influences.
What’s especially disheartening is that as she gets ready to launch her latest album, Matangi, M.I.A. seems to be channeling Madonna-levels of desperation in recapturing her glory days. The parallel between the raga-like intro that kickstarted M.I.A.’s set and Madonna’s cringe-inducing Sanskrit-language pop song from over a decade ago is unmistakable. It’s also an apt comparison when you consider that the duo paired up for the 2012 Super Bowl. Although it made for wonderful pop noise, it pulled the performer farther away from her perceived aesthetic of being a revolutionary South Asian out to set minds on fire and stir aforementioned rebellion.
After all, it’s her other-ness that initially placed her squarely into the cross-hairs of Pitchfork and similar tastemakers. To assimilate into Top 40 would be hammering out the other-ness that initially set her apart.
But it seems like where that other-ness before was in service to her body of work — one that wanted to tell the world about the Tamil Tigers, about the messed-up sex trade in South Asia, about Sri Lankan culture — at this point, it remains to reinforce a perception, a narrative, a brand. More troublingly, it remains to reinforce the selling of that brand voice to a largely-white audience that might otherwise be unconcerned with the political and cultural back story both featured in and shaped by the rapper’s early work.