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.

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