The Trouble with M.I.A.: No Sense of Humor


Over the weekend, as we drank beer and barbecued and generally took it easy, the battle between M.I.A. and the New York Times continued. To review: Last week, the paper’s designated celebrity character assassin, Lynn Hirschberg, published a fairly harsh takedown of the rapper. Then, an infuriated M.I.A. tweeted Hirschberg’s phone number, informed us that “NEWS IS AN OPINION.” Finally, Sunday, in a blog entry titled “War Crimes and French Fries,” she posted two audio clips from the interview and a new song attacking Hirschberg. After listening to the interview snippets and re-examining our general distaste for M.I.A.’s recent shenanigans, something occurred to us: It isn’t that she’s wrong. No, what bugs us about Maya Arulpragasam is her lack of self-awareness and seemingly non-existent sense of humor.

Let’s start with Hirschberg’s article. To anyone who’s ever written a profile, it’s clear that the author went into it with a vendetta. She wanted to write a hit piece, and that’s what she did. That isn’t to say that M.I.A. didn’t give her ammunition. The contradictions in the singer’s personality — she’s all about repping Sri Lanka and speaking out for the poor and oppressed all over the world, but she’s married to a millionaire, lives in Brentwood, and gushes about expensive jewelry — aren’t Hirschberg’s invention. And she shares her conflict between staying real and selling out with just about every other successful musician who wasn’t grown in Universal’s petri dish: When Michelle Jubelirer, the singer’s lawyer, tells Hirschberg, “Maya vacillates between wanting to be huge and maintaining her artistic integrity. That’s her dilemma,” it’s a quote that wouldn’t be out of place in a profile of anyone from Bob Dylan to Nirvana.

Were there other, more laudable aspects of M.I.A.’s life and career that the author could have focused on? Sure. And did Lynn Hirschberg cross an ethical line, manipulating facts to cast her subject in an excessively negative light? Debatable. The clips M.I.A. posted, at the very least, reveal a heavy editing hand and a serious truffle fry strategy. But instead of lecturing us on the blindingly obvious revelation that journalism isn’t objective, perhaps Arulpragasam should sit down with a nice copy of Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer . Anyone who expects all press to be good press hasn’t done her homework. (Alternatively, perhaps M.I.A. is being savvier than we give her credit for. After all, how many straight days has her name been in the national news?)

What’s really interesting, as far as we’re concerned, aren’t the actual facts the article digs up about M.I.A. It’s what it highlights about her personality. At one moment, late in the piece, she tells Hirschberg that “America also has no sense of humor,” going on to describe a British play about kids who want to be terrorists and why that wouldn’t fly in the US. (For the record, we can imagine it being an Off-Broadway hit, even if it wouldn’t fly in Fargo.) Earlier on, Arulpragasam says to Hirschberg, “All of what I’m wearing is American… If I was a terrorist, I wouldn’t be wearing American clothing.” The author observes, “This may have been a joke, but Maya rarely laughs. She speaks carefully, slowly, with a kind of deadpan delivery. Like a trained politician, she stays on message. It’s hard to know if she believes everything she says or if she knows that a loud noise will always attract a crowd.”

Say what you will about Hirschberg (she may well deserve scrutiny), but she has hit upon exactly what has recently been bothering us about M.I.A. We get that she has something to say. She’s entitled to her message, and at a time when very little popular music is overtly political, her take is often refreshing. The problem is, she never seems to reflect on herself. Her public persona is a constant onslaught of slogans and pronouncements and lectures. We would gladly forgive her for giving birth in a posh hospital room secured by her rich in-laws, rather than at home in a pool of water, if she would just, for a second, acknowledge that she does indeed have her failings. But, like many radicals (and pseudo-radicals; you decide which category to put her into), she can’t extend her critiques of the world to herself. She can’t see the humor in the extent to which she’s flipped out about a snarky Times profile when the major world problems she wants us to care about just keep escalating.

Here’s the thing: We don’t want to hate you, Maya. And we don’t expect you to be perfect. We just want you to be human.