Music

M.I.A.: ///Y/

That /\/\/\Y/\ lacks the focus and confidence of M.I.A.'s previous albums is disappointing; that it finds Maya Arulpragasam content to follow, rather than lead, is indefensible.


M.I.A.

/\/\/\Y/\

Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2010-07-13
UK Release Date: 2010-07-12
Amazon
iTunes

Through it all -- the spats with journalists, the pot shots taken at other artists, the bandied-about allegations of truffle fry ordering -- there's a reason why we continued to pay attention to M.I.A. It wasn't just because we love celebrities who harness the media's insatiable appetite for news to their own ends (though, admittedly, that may have had something to do with it). Rather, it was because M.I.A. has consistently shown an ability to back up her boasts with groundbreaking records. Her first two albums, 2005's Arular and 2007's Kala offered an exhilarating vision of what pop music might look like in a world without borders, inviting us to witness what happens when western aesthetics go global and eventually come home to roost. In just five short years, M.I.A. has managed to make a name for herself as one of pop music's most sonically adventurous heralds, capable of penning hits while keeping her eyes planted firmly on the horizon.

Sadly, the cumbersomely-titled /\/\/\Y/\ might mark the point at which Maya Arulpragasam's self-aggrandizing finally catches up with her ability to deliver. That /\/\/\Y/\ lacks the focus and confidence of M.I.A.'s previous albums is disappointing; that it finds Maya content to follow, rather than lead, is indefensible. While many of /\/\/\Y/\'s best songs feel like warmed-over retreads of M.I.A.'s previous work, its worst often feel like maneuvers cribbed from the playbooks of others.

To wit: the album's best track, "Lovealot", which employs a minimal, shuffling beat that, while stunning, would have felt right at home next to the rattling music boxes of Arular's "Amazon". Likewise, "Teqkilla" hews pretty close to the template sketched out by "Galang", punctuating a tambourine, tablas and handclaps with blasts of blocky 8-bit tones. And just as "Paper Planes" unabashedly sampled the Clash's "Straight to Hell", lead single "Born Free" borrows its hook from Suicide's "Ghost Rider", though this time around, relatively little is added, save for live drums that augment the low-end roar of the original (good thing the song came accompanied by a brilliant, if blunt, piece of agit-prop, in the form of Romain Gavras' genocidal music video, embedded below). Similarly, "It Takes a Muscle" borrows Spectral Display's bizarre reggae-as-synth-pop ballad "It Takes a Muscle to Fall in Love" whole cloth -- lyrics, melody, title and all. The only noticeable differences are the tempo and the vocalist. While it's easily one of /\/\/\Y/\'s more successful tracks, when compared to the original, "It Takes a Muscle" feels more like a karaoke act than an artful pastiche.

On the other side of the coin, we get songs like "XXXO", which finds M.I.A. positioning herself as a late entrant to the auto-tune arms race of 2009, dropping gratuitous references to Twitter and iPhones while doing her best to strike a club-friendly pop star pose (the chorus, ironically enough, is, "You want me to be somebody / Who I'm really not"). More damning, though, is "Meds and Feds", M.I.A.'s much ballyhooed collaboration with Derek Miller of 2010's it-band, Sleigh Bells. While it's hardly a bad song, objectively speaking, calling it a "collaboration" is a bit of a stretch--it really reads more like a sped-up remix of Sleigh Bells "Treats", a song that, at this point, is less than two months old. And while that blown-out-guitar-riff-meets-handclaps formula still works wonders, it's hard to ignore the fact that M.I.A. is peering over the shoulders of her own protégés here -- she did, after all, sign Sleigh Bells to her N.E.E.T label. It's almost as if she's inviting us to ask the question, who's riding whose coattails?

On the handful of songs on /\/\/\Y/\ that find her exploring new musical territory, Maya doesn't fare much better. It often feels like she's casting about, trying to figure out where she fits into the pop landscape. "Steppin' Up" attempts to pair industrial sounds with hip-hop swagger but quickly reveals that buzz saws and auto-tune don't quite mix. Meanwhile, album closer "Space" is appropriately spacey, though perhaps too much so. The song starts to drag by the end of its brief, three-minute runtime, Maya's repetitive, languid coos inducing fatigue rather than interest.

Even as it fails to break new ground for M.I.A. musically, /\/\/\Y/\ is still a major departure for Maya in another way. Whereas both Arular and Kala addressed topics usually associated with the developing world (poverty, civil war, cultural imperialism), /\/\/\Y/\ turns its focus toward the places that M.I.A. is now more commonly associated with, namely Los Angeles and the Internet. As exotic and distant as those previous signifiers sometimes felt, M.I.A.'s new concerns feel equally mundane, even predictable. There are plenty of meaningless boasts ("I run this fucking club"), hollow references to surveillance paranoia ("The Message" reminds us, less than subtly, that iPhones are connected to Google, which, in turn is, "connected to the government") and throwaway choruses ("I got sticky, sticky, sticky, sticky weed / And a shot of tequila in me"). In some ways, "Born Free" sums things up quite nicely: at the outset she declares, "I got something to say", though by the end, all we get is "I don't wanna talk about money / 'Cause I got it". Perhaps the next time around, M.I.A. should take the time to figure out what it is that she does want to say before heading into the studio.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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