In Defense of M.I.A. and Political Music
This may seem slightly trivial, but the New York Times’ hit piece on M.I.A, accusing her of hypocrisy, really annoyed the shit out of me. M.I.A., in case you haven’t heard, isn’t exactly taking it well either. Among other things she tweeted the author’s phone number, resulting in a gazillion people calling the author, and posted her own recording of one of the interviews, which seemed to show that Lynn Hirschberg, the author, had taken her out of context. The New York Times has even run a correction about part of it.
But the little details aside, what bothered me was Hirschberg’s attitude—which was that M.I.A’s political commitment was illegitimate, a fake, not-serious, because she also lives the lifestyle of a pop-star. At this point it seems like such a familiar narrative: M.I.A is inauthentic because she claims to speak for the dispossessed, yet enjoys olive bread, truffle fries, and dresses like, well, a popstar. She advances ideals, yet sometimes engages in self-promotion. She wants to speak in the public sphere and yet doesn’t have all the expertise she should, etc…. You could substitute Michael Moore, or Janeane Garofalo (dating myself there…) or any of a number of leftish pop figures and you’d have the exact same article.
Hirschman writes: “what Maya wants is nearly impossible to achieve: she wants to balance outrageous political statements with a luxe lifestyle; to be supersuccessful yet remain controversial; for style to merge with substance.”
Um, why the hell are these contradictory things? Here is a short list of people who were both artistically edgy, stylish, and politically committed (and therefore controversial) : Lord Byron, Frederico Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, Bob Dylan, Oscar Wilde, Billie Holliday, Paul Robeson, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, Chuck D, etc… I just thought of those off the top of my head, I’m sure anyone can think of 10 times as many. Many of them, starting with Byron himself, lived notoriously “luxe” lifestyles, and yet somehow still managed to say meaningful political things.
In my experience, it is only people who are themselves apolitical, who think that there has to be some contradiction between living with style, talent, and joie de vivre and living a politically committed life.
I think there are a couple of things going on here. First there is an implicit sexism, whereby female pop stars are supposed to be shallow bimbos, and are going to be punished if they step out of line (see Chicks, The Dixie). Apparently taking control of how you dress and present yourself—which M.I.A does very well—makes you not a Serious Person. If M.I.A. was singing about the stuff that Britney Spears or Taylor Swift sings about– which is to say, nothing at all– then no one would care. If she was simply a walking ad-campaign, all consumerism and plasticity like those popstars, Hirschberg would have no problem with her. But because she dares to try to express political thoughts, she makes herself a target.
Most laughably, Hirschman criticizes her because her lyrics do not properly express the complexity of the situation in Sri Lanka. Does Hirschman go around thinking: “Gee, this pop song could use more footnotes, perhaps a reference or two to a Foreign Affairs article”? If you don’t understand that the point of political music is to express an emotional truth, not every detail and nuance of a situation, than you don’t really get it. But then this whole article smacked of the type of journalist who Bob Dylan best described:
You walk into the room; With your pencil in your hand; You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man ?”; You try so hard; But you don’t understand; Just what you’ll say
When you get home; Because something is happening here; But you don’t know what it is; Do you, Mister Jones?
But its Hirschman’s attitude that really set me off: the implicit assumption that politically committed people are some sort of hypocrites if they are enjoying life, if they aren’t acting like self-effacing otherworldly saints. As if there is no way you can, for instance, enjoy expensive French fries and also care about third world oppression. Our society thus has two models for the politically committed—the hypocritical limousine liberal (Lindsay Bluth) or the humorless dour puritan (Lisa Simpson). Two sides, clearly, of the same coin, both deviations from the same self-indulgent trivial norm. One enjoys life at the expense of making their politics impure and shallow, the other gets pure politics at the expense of becoming an unpopular scold.
In so many ways it’s the classic conceit of the complacent bourgeoisie, projecting their own cynicism and selfishness onto others. These twin types both justify to the timid moderate their own timidness and lack of commitment, while allowing them to ignore what political people are saying. They pathologize the activist (a term that is, of course, itself deeply ideological, as it makes political commitment a lifestyle choice, instead of the duty of every citizen), while normalizing the apolitical.
Anyways… the fucking irony of all of this, is that I don’t even listen to M.I.A all that much (though I did see her live a couple of years ago) and yet somehow I’ve gotten myself into some insane rant about it….
But I’ll leave us with one of those pop stars who thought they had the right to speak their mind about political matters, singing to George W. Bush:
All you sad and lost apostles
Hum my name and flair their nostrils
Choking on the bones you toss to them
I’m not one to sit and spin
‘Cos living well is the best revenge