M.I.A.'s diluted politics

M.I.A. thrives on misinterpretation. Her debut album, Arular, was named after her Tamil Tiger dad and released in the midst of the War on Terror with a lead track taunting, "I've got the bombs to make you blow." Her antagonistic resolve arrived at a time when a good chunk of post–9/11 America was ready to imprison anyone brown-skinned, foreign, and outspoken. But despite her artistic development in the public eye since then, Maya Arulpragasam hasn't come any closer to a concrete rhetoric. Her juggling of buzzwords like "PLO" and "KGB" in her rhymes, and her use of Black Panther and Zapatista images in her videos, have the political potency of a Che Guevara T-shirt on an Urban Outfitters rack. The artist who was given her biggest boost from the Pineapple Express soundtrack has been carelessly simplifying major issues into party slogans, branding what some have scoffed at as "terrorist chic."

Take her new single, "Born Free," for instance. Its widely discussed video juxtaposes the ugliness and corruptibility of wartime invasions with victims you don't see every day. As soldiers gun down and launch explosives at young, unarmed prisoners, the point is about as subtle as your average Law & Order: SVU episode. The twist is that the innocents are all redheads, transported to camps to be shot, the idea being to show the destruction the U.S. military wreaks on civilians around the world. It's a generic enough concept that only shortly before the violent video premiered, South Park used a disgruntled race of "gingers" for a similar metaphor. It was a coincidence that unfortunately demonstrates how M.I.A.'s attempted shock angle sometimes scrapes the bottom of the metaphor barrel. And, removed from its video, the song is almost perversely blank.

"I've got something to say," she declares before the "Born Free" chorus over a Suicide-sampling beat, but she follows that teaser with an obvious truth: "I was b-b-b-born free."

The sentiment behind the song is indeed relevant at a time when controversial, racially motivated immigration laws are being passed, but its message isn't strong enough to justify M.I.A.'s reputation as an edgy critical vanguard. If she is trying to protest Arizona law (or anywhere that is keeping people from their birthright), she puts her canny cool on the line by never taking a clear position.

The verses diverge even further from the video's wartime subject, describing her car and money troubles, and stating that Ethiopians "ain't never gonna find utopia." Even sampling a beloved punk song isn't particularly groundbreaking here — M.I.A.'s previous and by far biggest hit, "Paper Planes," already blazed that trail with the Clash. And yes, musically, it's enticing to hear her sneer over the abrasive instrumentation. But her unfocused lyrics and scattershot political targets appear to get a free pass from critics who may be (understandably) desperate for any level of transgression in a strangely apolitical, subdued moment from indie artists.

Our musical landscape needs a subversive artist like M.I.A., with the anger and ambition to express our economically and ideologically troubled reality. If her lyrics could take people to the terror in Sri Lanka the way her Twitter feed does (sample post: "executing Tamils by shooting them in the head earns further 75 million from world bank?"), there'd be less suspicion about whether she's flaunting a gun fetish to shore up cred with the rap audience. Her first album's warning to "get yourself an education" is more valuable than any of her news reporting thus far. If M.I.A. ever put pencils on an album cover instead of rifles, she might actually have a real gamble on her hands.

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