Then: 7 August 2005
The setting was Central Park, a hot afternoon in late summer. We had lined up at 11am to see M.I.A. DJ Rakha, a ridiculous Mr. Vegas, and Diplo had all performed and, as five o’clock came and went, the crowd was beginning to get antsy. Diplo came onstage and said, “I know you guys want M.I.A., but I’m going to be playing for an hour, so deal with it,” and, though his set was filled with agreeably mashed sounds, most of us were sitting on picnic rugs, wilting in the heat, and only slightly thrilled by the occasional celebrity sighting (Salman Rushdie, Natalie Portman).
The day had become heat-soaked, burned-out, exhausted. Shadows were lengthening across Summerstage by the time M.I.A. appeared, so it’s perhaps not unexpected that we viewed her through a kind of haze — the screams and dancing a mechanical reaction to Maya Arulpragasam’s exhortations. She went through the motions of a hip-hop star — jumping around the stage, doing the hand gestures, asking for re-ups. Her hypewoman (still with her today) strutted around like a proud hen, neck extended forward and up, her muscular body pumping to the music.
But, somehow, it all seemed a little forced. On the stage, cardboard cut-outs of a tiger and a helicopter referenced do-it-yourself, outsider fashion. I got the impression of a good Sri Lankan girl, emboldened by the decorations and her thick stage makeup. The performance was spirited, if not perfect, and though M.I.A. covered up the restarts with calls for more noise from the crowd, it was pretty clear the real reason for the disjointed flow: She was attempting to re-calibrate the terms on which we interact with party music. In this she wasn’t entirely successful — but you know what? We didn’t care. Her amateurism was charming, and her beats still struck with the strange and addictive quality of Arular‘s music.
Now: 28 September 2007
A lot has changed in two years. The excitement over Arular has come and gone and is now being replaced (escalated?) by an excellent sophomore effort. Kala broadens the scope of M.I.A.’s influences without sacrificing the accessibility and addictive hooks of the debut. The album’s positive critical reception has been bolstered here in Australia by a consistently strong presence on radio: first “Bird Flu”, then “Boyz”, now “Paper Planes”.
So it wasn’t a surprise that the relatively small venue that M.I.A. booked for her Sydney show sold out quickly. The Forum is bigger than it looks, due to three levels of balconies and covered wings that extend out into the walls while still offering a fairly good view of stage. But the effect from a performer’s perspective must be one of intimacy, and that gives shows at this new venue an added kick: You see artists visibly rising to the occasion. Even with that knowledge, M.I.A.’s show often seemed larger than this venue could contain; if she’s not quite ready for stadiums, she’s certainly heading in that direction.
Concerts in Australia are hampered by logistics: The expense of flying artists over means that ticket prices for international acts are invariably more than $50. So the crowd self-selects, fans’ passions escalating in proportion to the ticket prices. The packed Forum Theatre in Sydney reflected M.I.A.’s expanded fan base: guys in orange mesh wife-beaters; girls in glow-in-the-dark, fluoro dresses; guys dressed as if out of Dragonball Z; and big Samoan couples who, when they danced, shook the floorboards. And, oh, did they dance.
What M.I.A. brought to this eclectic mix was a fully formed stage persona (there’s no way she could have done that two years earlier). Bursting on stage to the recognizable beats of “Bamboo Banger”, she looked like a disco monster — an impression largely informed by her metallic hoodie, which grinned with huge cutout triangles of teeth. Throughout the course of the show, she threw off her hood to reveal a baseball cap with attached bat (she flapped it sillily during the intro to “Paper Planes”), a pair of ridiculous ’80s sunglasses, and her wavy hair, either down over or swept across her face. Her hypewoman may have been the same, but for cardboard cutouts M.I.A. has substituted flashing, epileptic videos and a strutting bravado. She fell backwards into the outstretched arms of the crowd until security got visibly nervous, and then she invited “ladies only” up onto the stage for an oddly carnival-esque rendition of “URAQT”.
Bass was boosted to fill the theatre, but — as you expect from this kind of music — little was changed in the songs themselves. As a result Afrikan Boy’s verse in “Hussel”, played straight from CD, fell predictably flat. But other little flourishes spiced up the performance: the seamless move from “Sunshowers” to “$20” (a bruising highlight); the call for crowd participation in a raucous rendition of “Happy Birthday” for Low B, the DJ; the exuberant reinterpretations of “Sweet Dreams” and, to the crowd’s delight, “We Are Your Friends”. Between all that, M.I.A. really didn’t have to mess with much to evince an elated response from the crowd. Her hits thrilled — simple as that — and the rest of her material was pulled off with a mostly polished professionalism.
With all the performance experience she’s gained over the past few years, M.I.A. has grown into an exhilarating and — maybe more importantly — an incredibly fun performer. There’s little sense any more of M.I.A. trying to convince people of a certain political message or of being true to outsider viewpoints. Instead, she’s bringing the many different sounds of outsider cultures together, transforming them into music that’s an undeniable pleasure. For once, it’s possible to not feel guilty about that.