The feminist aphorism that “the personal is political” has rarely be truer than in the case of Maya Arulpragasam — not specifically in relation to feminism, but more in regard to the way M.I.A.’s persona and her politics have always been essentially one and the same. This is, of course, largely a phenomenon of her own making. We’re talking about an artist, after all, whose four albums are all named after her or her family, and who from the very beginning has used her music as a vehicle for her views (as Sasha Frere-Jones observed in the New Yorker nearly a decade ago, “Any division of [M.I.A.’s] life into personal and political halves is absent”). Her personal mythology is entirely interwoven with her music, and that appears to be exactly the way she wants it.
The flip side of this, however, is that her music and her persona are so deeply connected that people’s opinion of the former has proven very much contingent on the latter. Clearly, MAYA wasn’t up to the standards she set with Arular and Kala, but for all that the album got deservedly lukewarm reviews, its generally lackluster nature wasn’t really the reason that M.I.A. suffered such a backlash in the press around its release. No, that was because of the profile written for the New York Times magazine by two-bit hatchet wielder bastion of journalistic integrity Lynn Hirschberg, and specifically M.I.A.’s alleged decision to order the truffle fries during their ill-fated conversation.
The entire episode was unedifying for all concerned. It would have reflected badly on Hirschberg’s journalistic reputation if most readers had done more than point and laugh at its silly, contrived details, because it went no distance toward making any sort of objective determination about whether M.I.A. is a big ol’ fake or not. This is disappointing, both because it was a shitty piece of writing, and because the question of how much M.I.A.’s actual life does reflect the politics she espouses is worth asking. For all that Hirschberg ostensibly addressed this issue, she didn’t go so far as to engage critically with it, and in the end the piece only reflected her preconceptions.
That didn’t change the damage it did, though. Ayesha A. Siddiqi touched on this fact in an excellent article for Noisey: “The reception of [M.I.A.’s] albums can be charted along her public perception, which took a hit in 2010. Her increasing success hadn’t changed the tone of her antiestablishment politics and the juxtaposition made scoffing at M.I.A. as fashionable as dancing to Galang had been.”
Clearly, any artist or other public figure who defines themselves by reference to their political views is inviting — no, demanding — that those views be subject to scrutiny. But compare and contrast the reception M.I.A.’s views have enjoyed to those of, say, Russell Brand. The latter was certainly questioned heavily after his recent interview with Jeremy Paxman, but as a whole, his views have been discussed and debated with a remarkable level of seriousness, considering that they amount to a gentleman who’s probably also not averse to the odd truffle fry inviting a full-scale socialist revolution.
There’s no doubt that her increasing prominence led to increased scrutiny of M.I.A.’s mix of pass-the-bong conspiracy theories and incendiary rhetoric, and there’s also no doubt that some of the stuff she’s said in the past has been naïve, at best. But even this hasn’t been the primary reason for the backlash against her and her music. Instead, it’s been a sort of unspoken conviction that her success and its attendant trappings — truffle fries, again — means that she’s surrendered her right to inhabit her persona. The rich and successful, apparently, aren’t allowed to speak about the global disenfranchised — a big house in Los Angeles negates your right to identify with the Other.
This, I think, rather speaks to the way that the West thinks about what Siddiqi calls the “global south” — as a sort of billions-strong collection of poor, huddled masses, gazing longingly at our freedoms and our bank accounts. Anyone who’s spent any time in the subcontinent knows that’s a gross simplification: Bombay is home to some of the richest people in the world, as well as some of the poorest, to some of the craziest mansions you’ll ever see, as well as some of the poorest slums. And even those slums aren’t the sloughs of misery we like to think of them as — they’re communities, with all the attendant complexities one might expect from a shitload of people crammed into a tiny space.
M.I.A.’s music and her persona have always done a fine job of evoking these complexities, and one of the best moments on her new album Matangi comes when she mocks simplistic Western views of both her and her background in a short track called “Boom Skit”: “Eat, pray, love/ Spend time in the ashram/ Or I’ll drone you/ Kony 2012/ Now scram!”
And, hey, Matangi! It’s taken this long to get to her new album, and it seems almost redundant to mention that it’s really pretty good — substantially better than Maya, and after a couple of listens, quite possibly on a level with Arular and Kala. It’s a pleasure to hear her rebound from the sort of lackluster record that every artist releases now and then. Matangi is a return to form, and hopefully it’ll be received as such.
Will it, though? It’s both M.I.A.’s triumph and her tragedy that this seems rather beside the point. She’s been so successful in merging the personal and political that these days it seems almost impossible to evaluate Matangi without evaluating its creator. So let’s leave it at this: throughout her career, her music has remained what it’s always been: a whirlwind of influences and sounds and ideas, one that oscillates between being thrilling and being maddening, but on balance is more the former than the latter. In this respect, Matangi is more of the same — a record as fascinating as its creator.