Culture

Backlash to the M.I.A. Backlash

M.I.A. sells a certain brand of cosmopolitan clamor, a would-be righteous antagonism, which is by some conceptions an ideal that should not be commodified and trivialized. Her music seems to want to put its "dangerousness" into quotation marks.

A few weeks ago the NYT Magazine published a piece by Lynn Hirschberg about M.I.A. that made M.I.A. (aka Maya) seem like a hypocritical phony. (New York magazine helpfully listed the 10 harshest parts here.) Maya likes to portray herself as a sort of musical terrorist for the globally oppressed and the Tamils of Sri Lanka in particular, but this sits uncomfortably with her engagement to corporate scion Ben Bronfman, heir to the Seagram's heir, and her life of luxury in the wealthy apartheid of Southern California. These apparent hypocrisies are amplified by the apparent inauthenticity of her Western fans, who are open to the accusation of dabbling in orientalist exoticism and radical chic. M.I.A. sells a certain brand of cosmopolitan clamor, a would-be righteous antagonism, which is by some conceptions an ideal that should not be commodified and trivialized. Her music seems to want to put its "dangerousness" into quotation marks.

That's not such a bad thing. I don't think Maya is really a revolutionary anymore than I think Jay-Z was really a big-time drug dealer -- it doesn't matter for my purposes as a listener. It seems plausible enough while the songs are playing to hold my attention in a particular escapist way. For what it's worth, I like listening to M.I.A. but feel a little embarrassed about it, like I am trying to prove something. I wish there was more pop music like hers so that listening to M.I.A. wouldn't stick out and seem like a statement of some kind. I sort of think of her as Fela lite. I don't pay much attention to her politics or her lyrics, largely because I can't decipher them and also because I don't care about the meaning of lyrics generally. I just want them to sound right in context. In the grand scheme of things, there's probably not much difference between the lyrics of "Paper Planes" and those of "In Da Club."

Momentum has been building in the blogosphere in support of the argument that Hirschberg's hit piece was not merely unfair but antifeminist. Women's behavior is so culturally prescribed that a readymade list of criticisms is always at hand for commentators to tear down any woman's particular accomplishments, as Amanda Marcotte points out here. At Tiger Beatdown, this essay by Sady makes the case that M.I.A. is more vulnerable to charges of being a phony because as a woman, her choices are inauthenticated in advance.

there are a few common-sense things to be pointed out here: That it’s not unusual for women to work throughout their pregnancies, that lots of women go to work on the day that they’re scheduled to go into labor, that labor itself is a long process (the profile even notes that M.I.A.’s son wasn’t born until three days after the performance) and so many women often continue to work throughout the early stages of labor, especially if they’re doing something important or time-sensitive that can’t be re-scheduled — like, say, performing at the Grammys. Or, for that matter, the fact that implying that a woman ought to neglect her job because she’s knocked up is the flip-side of the rationale that says it’s okay to not hire or promote women because they will have to neglect their jobs once they get knocked up. But never mind all that: I mean, the wheelchair was right there, but instead M.I.A. was up on stage, almost naked, singing her violent lyrics about murdering people, because she cares more about performing and being famous than she does about her poor little helpless baby boy. What a monster.

M.I.A., Sady also suggests, is a living embodiment of how capitalist co-optation works: "I read M.I.A. as a person in a difficult and contradictory position: Someone who’s come into a huge amount of privilege, after growing up without it, someone who’s benefiting from the very system she condemns, and is attempting to use her position of power to bring attention to the problem." The problem with Hirschberg's article is that she sides at a deeper level with capitalism, marginalizing and dismissing Maya's efforts to embody the contradictions, as it were, as simple hypocrisy. M.I.A. struggles obviously with being a sell-out; Hirschberg has been a sell-out all along and now enforces for capitalism and the Establishment against those in the gray area. The same old story: character assassination and ad hominem attacks on the messenger so that the message will be ignored or invalidated.

That's why complaints about authenticity tend to be a ruse, and why authenticity is a dubious criterion whenever it is invoked. Marcotte notes that:

The craving for this impossible standard of authenticity causes neurotic behavior, depression, and withdrawal. To make it worse, “authenticity” is not just a lie, but it’s also a black hole. It eats up everything around it, including those things that are real, like quality and effectiveness.
Also on the M.I.A. defense team is Andrew Potter, author of The Authenticity Hoax (which I am eager to read) and its associated blog; he mounts a similar defense of Maya on this basis. "In this age of authenticity, where an artist is only entitled to those forms of personal, artistic, and political expression that are properly underwritten by their background. If you don’t live it, you can’t say it, and a hypocrite is the absolute worst thing you can be." This is the "authenticity hoax" and Hirschberg falls for it and is thus out of touch. (Also for what it's worth, I've written my share of posts about authenticity; here's the most recent, about why reflexive authenticity is a trap.)

At one point it was important to claim that the personal is the political to secure recognition for certain forms and modes of struggle. Where one is coming from matters in terms of what one ends up claiming to be objective. But the personal-is-political approach got subverted itself by the dubious but persuasive argument that one can't be self-consciously calculating about living one's politics without invalidating them.The collapse of the separation of public and private has turned out to be disastrous for the public sphere, for the existence of a form of privileged discourse about ideas as opposed to grievances. Now ideas are grievances.

UPDATE: Potter has an updated piece about the M.I.A. article here.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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