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In Defence of M.I.A - A 21st Century Icon

Posted: 13/02/2012 01:15

In all the furore surrounding M.I.A's 'scandalous' middle finger salute to a record American audience of 114 million last week ('Selfish', cried the PTC! 'Teenage' exclaimed Madonna!), a video emerged on YouTube which was certainly less widely publicized than her Super Bowl antics, but which continued to clock up steady hits all the same.

Bad Girls, the promotional video for M.I.A's (née Mathangi 'Maya' Arulpragasm) latest single, was helmed by Romain Gavras - the French director behind 2010's Born Free. The latter was to inspire the ire of the conservative masses thanks to its brutal imagery and overtly political message (commentators speculating that the clip reflected Arulpragasm's indignation over the political situation in her ancestral Sri Lanka).

This time, the video is more web-friendly (shots of the rapper leading a synchronised dance routine - yay!) and has managed to evade being banned from YouTube in the US (Hooray!), but her political vision remains at the core of her work. And in today's climate of banal, bland and downright boring pop - a pop star displaying a true interest in politics, and daring to share that passion with her listeners, is a hundred times more revolutionary than any number of expletives or rude gestures she could have thrown at NBC's cameras.

Up-and-coming stars with great pipes are 10 to the dozen. For every Duffy there are a hundred more waiting in the wings to take her place. But artists with a genuine vision are harder to come by. All too often, musicians take 'the safe route', giving commercial success priority over communicating messages they consider to be important. And when singers do align themselves with a cause, their decision is usually borne from some hare-brained publicity drive to position themselves as the next Bono.

The only prerequisites for stardom circa 2012 seem to be boundless vapidity and an alarming willingness to attach one's face to anything at risk of turning a profit. So-called celebrities have been media trained to the point where the slightest ounce of vitality is pummelled into oblivion and replaced with a repertoire of regurgitated statements ('I love my fans!', 'I'm all about the music!').

M.I.A is bucking that trend. While Rihanna is warbling about finding love in hopeless places and Rebecca Black is penning odes to cereal-eating, Arulpragasm is spitting rhymes that address the death of liberty in the internet age, the place of the refugee in society, the role technology plays in our lives. And then there's the music itself - a melting pot of cultural references, the seeming redefinition of the out-dated term 'world music'.

M.I.A is a case study in contradictions, and has built a career on exploring the grey area - between the east and west, high and low taste, fear and stereotype. In an era where the only protests pop songs include are the kind where singers whinge about the lights coming on in a club at the end of the night, it's exhilarating to hear someone using the age-old album as a channel for dissecting societal ills, for provoking thought and raising questions. In that respect, Arulpragasm may just be a high top-sporting, potty-mouthed Joan Baez for our generation.

Yes, criticisms have been levelled at her work. Some dispute her integrity, others claim that she doesn't understand the intricacies of the politics she sheds a light on. Critics argue that her emotional involvement with the conflict in Sri Lanka renders her political commentary invalid.

You mightn't agree with the way she vocalises her message. You mightn't agree with the message itself. But at least she has one. She opens the field for debate, and for that, she should be applauded.

 

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