Grammy night was, for millions of TV viewers, their first exposure to the explosive, frenetic, Day-Glo energy that is M.I.A. Some may have heard her mega-hit Paper Planes—nominated that night for Record of the Year—but this was their first glimpse of the woman herself: nine months pregnant, her dress a mash-up of a bug-themed bikini and a mesh body stocking, performing MC-style on T.I.’s Swagga Like Us, alongside Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Jay-Z. Moving across the stage in a waddle-strut, she displayed a bravado and irreverent sense of humour not everyone in the audience shared (as expressed by shrill fashion post-mortems), but still they had to marvel.
The father of M.I.A.’s child, her fiancé, Benjamin Brewer—a musician and the eldest son of Canadian billionaire music-mogul Edgar Bronfman Jr.—brought a stopwatch to the awards show, which happened to be her official due date, in the event her contractions should start. “Sunday night I came home from the Grammys still in the mood to party,” she later wrote on her MySpace page. “I coulda easily gone out but I went home instead. Lucky I did! Coz my early stage labor kicked in around 2 a.m.” (Her son was finally born last Wednesday.) M.I.A. lost the Record of the Year to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on Grammy night. But she walked away 100 per cent more famous, leaving some fans dazzled and other long-time adherents wondering: is she an iconoclast or a pop star?
Until very recently, among her small but intensely devoted fan base, M.I.A. could do no wrong. Since her 2005 debut album, Arular, the 31-year-old, whose real name is Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, has been a critical pet, her otherworldly sound bolstered by a personal history of epic proportions. The daughter of a prominent Tamil revolutionary, M.I.A. was born in Britain, but returned to war-torn Sri Lanka as a baby, where she spent her early childhood with her family, dodging bullets and bombs fired by Sinhalese government forces in their relentless pursuit of her father and his group. As the civil war intensified, she fled with her mother and siblings to India, and eventually, at the age of 11, arrived in Britain as a refugee, where she grew up in a poor immigrant community in a London suburb. In school, she studied fine art. Her early work, which attracted patrons like Jude Law, juxtaposed Tamil street art with imagery from British consumer culture. When she fell into music, which she appears to have picked up by osmosis from being around musicians, her sound echoed the eclectic, gritty sensibility of her art and quickly attracted a following. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she’s beautiful, and a master of self-branding.
“She’s really an example of a perfect collision of style and place and time and politics,” says Sarah Liss, a Toronto-based music columnist for CBC Arts Online. M.I.A.’s musical style is inherently patchwork at a moment when mash-ups and aural collages are at the forefront of music. A self-described “walking mix tape,” she counts among her influences Jamaican dancehall, hip-hop, Bollywood bhangra, electro, and garage rock. Moreover, she’s managed to inject her music, Trojan-Horse style, with political messages about civil war and global inequity such that it doesn’t interfere with listeners’ fun. “Nobody wants to be dancing to political songs,” she told Nirali magazine. “Every bit of music out there that’s making it into the mainstream is really about nothing. I wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing. And it kind of worked.”
Proof came in the form of Hollywood goofball Seth Rogan, who approached her about using Paper Planes, a deceptively upbeat song that pokes fun at society’s fear of immigrants, for the trailer of his 2008 stoner movie Pineapple Express. It wasn’t long before the track, which samples the Clash song Straight to Hell, began racing up the charts, and selling hundreds of thousands of copies on iTunes. And yet, ironically, with the arrival of the video, MTV censors played straight into her thesis, concerned that amidst the imagery of working immigrants, cash registers, and gunshot sounds, M.I.A. was trying to incite violence. More dramatic still, she was accused by the Sri Lankan rapper De Lon, part of that country’s Sinhalese majority, of using Tamil Tiger imagery in her videos to support the organization—classified as terrorist by Canada and others (a concern that was reiterated last week in the New York Times).
Commercially, the intrigue has only added to her cachet. Paper Planes has been remixed dozens of times, sampled by 50 Cent and others, and performed live by Rihanna. For a time, the L.A. Dodgers used Paper Planes as its victory song. Most notably, a remixed version of the song appears in the film Slumdog Millionaire; her work on the soundtrack landed her an Oscar nomination. Amid the hype, at last fall’s New York Fashion Week, she introduced her own clothing line—hoodies and bomber jackets with African, Mexican and Muslim motifs— which one fashion blog described as a “fashion must.”
Suddenly, in light of her new success, M.I.A. has two audiences—her original hard-core fans who admire her as an experimental artist and a fearless activist; and mainstream fans, ranging from tween girls to college-age stoners, who fetishize her for the same reason suburban white boys admire 50 Cent, who endured eight gunshot wounds and lived to rap about it. This second audience, perhaps less concerned with conflict in Sri Lanka, is thrilled by the safe glimpse she provides into a novel and vaguely threatening world—drug-running, civil war, and terrorism. “She managed to invoke violence and conflict and have that already seared into her bloodline in a way that’s fascinating,” says Liss. “She’s parlayed that into a sort of gangsta cred. She had this toughness, but it was also foreign and exotic.”
And so, while the New York Times contemplates the artist as a potential terrorist threat, some of her fans wonder if she’s still enough of an outsider. For the last several months, M.I.A. has been undergoing a sort of credibility audit. In the plus column are her unprecedented music stylings and her tumultuous and unequivocal autobiography. “I know what it’s like to live in a little village under attack by machines that are dropping bombs at 29 shells per second,” she told the music magazine Blender in 2005. “I know what it feels like to be shot at, when all you have is a loaf of bread to survive on.”
But some long-time observers are suspicious of her apparent acceptance—and even, God forbid, enjoyment—of mainstream success. The New York-based hipster blog Gawker, in particular, has been on her case. For one thing, its writers say, all the talk of getting shot at as a kid is starting to sound a little boastful (“All right, all right. We get it”). Then there’s the fact that she’s going to marry into the billionaire Bronfman clan. (Sarcastically, they laud her plan to “overthrow the system by marrying into it.”) Also, after getting their hands on her tour rider via The Smoking Gun, they’ve frowned on her “diva”-esque affinity for fine cheeses, organic foodstuffs and “those gold-foil-wrapped Ferrero Rocher chocolates.” All of these, says Gawker, are “things, we might add, you’d have trouble finding in the middle of a life-affirming war”—as though her credibility were somehow tied to eating subsistence grains in perpetuity. (For the record: Ferrero Rocher is pretty mediocre chocolate.)
But increasingly, producers of popular music are in the business of manufacturing “realness.” Any threat to an artist’s “authenticity” is a threat to her career (which is why it’s so crucial audiences believe Avril Lavigne writes her own songs, and Ashlee Simpson can sing live). The beauty of M.I.A. is that she embodies the kind of authenticity everyone else is working so hard to manufacture. She breaks the mould by virtue of being exactly what she is—a female Sri Lankan refugee who raps about global politics to her own invented sound.“I doubt you’re going to see an influx of M.I.A.s in dancehall or hip hop,” says Liss.
Every time M.I.A. is accused of selling out, she has a response at the ready: Yeah, so? “I want you to know,” she recently wrote on her MySpace blog, “that everyone has been asking me on the shows to talk about the sudden popularity im experiencing, the babies, the grammies the oscars etc and i want you to know that this has been part of the plan from day 1. this is the only oppotunity i have had to do something about the genocide in Sri Lanka and im seizing that oppotunity so for a lil while im gonna go from being M.I.A. TO I. Y. F. IN YA FACE!!!!!!!!!!!”
In truth, the more she sells out, the more “authentic” M.I.A. seems: it’s a reminder that she is utterly unconcerned with the guise of credibility. Critics scolded her when one of her songs appeared in a Honda ad, but asked about it, she told the website SuicideGirls.com: “I don’t know if there’s a backlash because I actually do come from Sri Lanka. I do come from a background where people need money. Do I not take the money because of credibility or do I turn around and go, ‘F–k this, I’m going to take the money and give it to like 20,000 f—king people that need it.”
Time and time again, we’ve seen how authenticity and mainstream success are incompatible. 50 Cent recently admitted to the New York Daily News that after his career blew up, he developed “Diddy Syndrome” (refering to relentless self-promoter P. Diddy). “That’s where this [velvet] jacket came from,” he said. “As soon as you develop the Diddy syndrome, you put a little more grease in your hair, and soon enough, you’re selling cologne.”
To counterbalance their mainstream success, artists like Bono and Madonna try to root themselves in something more real, like charity work. This is laudable, M.I.A. told an interviewer at AOL Canada, but why is it only ever the celebrities we hear from? “I can’t really step into celebrities’ connection to the needy because I feel like I represent the needy,” she said. “Fifteen, 20 years ago, I didn’t have no hair, I did have a bald head with scabs all over it, I had no food, and the first white person I saw, I did grab on to them going, ‘You have to take me with you, I’m so much better than this.’ ” “The needy” deserve a voice of their own, she says, and their voice is her voice—and now she gets to use it at the Grammys, nine months pregnant in a polka dot dress, and everyone’s all ears.