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Tuesday, March 08, 2005
So hey. Let's talk about MIA's "MIA" (or "POP"), shall we? For the purposes of this entry, I'm going to deal with the version that appears as a bonus track on Arular.

First off, here are the lyrics:

You can watch TV and watch the media
President Bush doing takeover
Kate Moss in ads for mascara
All my youth the young offender
The bill payers, the drug dealers
Girls who are magazine covers
The part-time jobbers at the call center
No career plans cause you won't go far
Put away change for Ibiza and
Check your credit on your new Nokia

You can be a follower but who's your leader?
Break the cycle or it will kill ya (X2)
You leader, you lead, uh, do what you do
What really good's gonna happen to you? (X2)

Your prime minister to your employer
Ego lovers need more power
Trendsetters make things better
Don't sell out to be product pushers
The gyro casher and baby makers
Try something new cause it ain't over
All poor people from all over
Lottery's got a rollover

You can be a follower but who's your leader?
Break the cycle or it will kill ya (X2)

Cherokee Indian, Iraqi and Indians
Girls and me girls when they come to the fellas and
Japanese, Moroccan, Caribbean, African
That's your life but who the fuck's your president?
You don't get my life cause I don't have a side and I
Spread dat boy 'im a mile wide and I
Got brown skin, I'm a west Londoner
Educated, but a refugee, still.
You wanna boy, you're old, you go
You wanna fight, you suck, you blow
(thanks go to Joe for extensive help on these, as well as Matthew for his contributions and for originally posting the song; I'm still not entirely clear on some of these words, but I'll try and avoid putting too much importance on those, alright?)

Let's just knock down one little critical garden gnome straight out of the gate: there is nothing, zero, nada here about the Tamil Tigers or terrorism or Sri Lanka, unless of course you want to count the single word "Indians," which, you know, I don't. The closest she gets is "educated, but a refugee still," and I don't know how you can read that as anything but a reference to the particularly British political issue of refugee status.

That said, let's delve into the music. It has basically the same structure as "Galang," a hook proceeding to 2 verse/chorus pairs followed by a longish bridge that ends the song, except in this case it transitions back into the hook and ends with a minute-long instrumental section. The hook itself is formed by cut-up bits of MIA's voice (cue Prefuse comparisons), quite possibly played on a sampler to form a riff later doubled by the bass, consisting of one measure staying on the tonic followed by half a measure dropping a whole step to a diminished (?) seventh and another half-measure that goes minor third up, back down to dim 7, then up to minor second, which ends the riff and sends us down a half-step to the tonic, which means it's in some minor mode I'm not qualified to name.

For our purposes, it's mainly important to note the way the vocals follow that progression, which is basically four beats of middle, two beats of lower and two beats of higher before coming back to the middle, if that makes sense. It's also important to note on which side of that golden ratio'd divide individual lines fall, as in the verses they're all pretty carefully divided up into halves, and when there's carryover, it's from the high to the middle rather than middle to low, as at that point there's almost always a clean vocal break. That middle-lower-upper thing isn't merely a musical conceit but a lyrical one as well, with both working in tandem. The halves and the halve-nots.

One of the things that strikes me about MIA's stuff is the almost infinite mutability of her vocals, which wouldn't be notable if she were straight-up rapping, but there's at least a semblance of singing at most times there. But still, her vocals sound great over this backing, but sounded great over the PFT backing too, and I can easily hear then over any number of different beats. Whether this is a positive thing or not is up to you, but I think it's a testament to the strength of her vocals. The strongest parallel I see between her stuff and dancehall lies here, as a sort of inversion of the riddim concept: same vocals changed by different backing music, adaptable without changes to a whole different sound.

Another thing that strikes me about MIA is how much room her productions leave for her voice, and the degree to which the tracks hang on the voice. (Which must make for some interesting challenges in performance, but that's for another time.) This is not what I hear in baile funk, which fills in many more beats. Even when, as in the verses of "MIA," the backing is mainly just a bass drum, there are simply more beats in baile funk per measure. Partially this is due to the way MIA structures things; as mentioned, the riff here spreads itself over two bars, and so the little accent noises that traditionally come at the end of a pattern and carry over into the next repetition here have an extra four beats in the middle, which allows them to dissipate. But it's also due to the particular sounds she uses, which are much tighter. There's no reverb, there's a much shorter sustain and release time, and there are legitimate bare spaces at times.

If there's a particular antecedent for MIA's backing-tracks-as-backing-tracks, it's clearly Timbaland, who's similarly careful to leave spaces, and similarly varies things up at irregular intervals. But he operates on a bar-by-bar basis, and so his sounds are even tighter than MIA's, with less beats and even shorter trails on his samples. Timbaland's trick is often to have half the bar consist of very low sounds and half of very high sounds with little overlap; MIA's has overlap but more actual emptiness. Her beats are cheaper, and so they can't be fine-tuned the way his are, but she solves that dilemma by giving herself more room to work. Fundamentally, Timbaland's beats are more manic than MIA's. He sometimes has the hip-shake, but never that lovely, slinky, catlike sexual menace we see here, that seductive creep.

And so we are free to compare it to a whole raft of different musical genres with which it shares a kinship, beyond the perhaps too-obvious ones it's already been likened to. It's sort of folk music with beats instead of acoustic guitars, spare and plain, the music sitting as an anchor to focus on the words and the voice. It's synthesized James Brown funk, landing on the 8 and the 1 and letting the drummer work in the middle. It's Now! pop with a Jamaican accent. It's something that could have always been created and which could be created again, a music always being created: an individual sitting down with a music-maker and creating something that simply sounds good to her, that reflects what she wants to hear without necessarily being part of a particular genre or scene.

So what do we hear? We hear, first of all, that voice, with subbass swoops behind, followed by a beat settling in, a variant on the "Red Alert" riddim kinda, dotted-eighth-dotted-eighth on kick and an eighth on snare. The bass comes in over this, a trebly distortion or a saw wave-derived tone, largely following the kick. Buzzes fly over this. Halfway through the first verse, a sampled one-note guitar riff triggers from time to time, extended via a one-rep delay. When the chorus hits, the only thing that changes at first is the incursion of sixteenth-note synth-handclaps that are unconstant and lack any particular pattern, but which seem to hold things down nevertheless. Halfway through the chorus the subbass swoop comes back in, and when the chorus ends everything cuts out for a beat or two, leaving the vocals exposed there at the beginning of the second verse. There's a bit more going on here, the occasional hi-hat hit, but it's shorter than the first verse, and proceeds pretty quickly into the chorus, which is half of what it was before, and when that ends we're back into the minimal backing and vocal sample of the intro. When the vocals start for the bridge, the backing is just the bass and the kick for the first two reps, after which we get snare and hi-hats for another rep, then the sampled guitar, then a little bit with filtered vocals, then an instrumental break focusing heavily on the subbass swoop, and the whole thing ends with the chorus backing music over the intro vocal sample pattern, with an additional vocal sample working its way in: "London," which gets an exposed solo briefly just before the end.

What's most notable here is, I think, how well the song works despite there not being anything particularly distinctive about it in the abstract. Standard beat, standard structure. What makes this song great is all in the details: the way she varies the kick hits, the three (!) different kick noises she uses, the totally counterintuitive times she puts in that subbass swoop, that great little guitar riff that, along with the two or three different buzzes she also uses, the extremely sparse hat, and the less sparse snare and claps, constitute the entirety of the non-bass noises in the song, which, again, leaves a lot of room for her voice. The number of times you could listen to the chorus without being able to clap along with the actual claps. It's a constantly mutating song that still manages to hold down a consistent groove; it is "POP" as the former title had it. Consistently mutating songs aren't anything inventive at this point, but the particular execution here is mind-bending. (It's also that it's slower but not like CoFlo molasses-slow, just a bit slower than other distorto-mutato stuff.) But what's more mind-bending is what she does with this.

What she does is different than what we're used to hearing above this sort of beat: she sings like it's a regular R&B track, a trick which of course enhances the mashup-ready feel of it all. It's neither rapping nor the kind of random shouting that you'd hear were this an electroclash song (which it could be with 35 more bpm and a more constant kick and, obviously, a different singer) but a confident, strongly delivered melodic line that doesn't rely much on anything around it but creates its own logic that the rest of the song somehow follows: like the vocals, it doesn't do too much, but it works wonders with what it's got.

This is all to say (kinda) that the music, vocals, and lyrics are all basically doing the same thing: reflecting a personal sensibility rather than any particular collective set of expectations. It is a private self that does not seek to express itself by performing the impossible task of filtering all outside influences, but instead accepts the world, all of it, as part of its makeup and then attempts to produce what would please this makeup most. And this pleasure also includes the pleasure of pleasing other people with what it is doing. Get it?

What strikes me most about the lyrics is the way that political figures are addressed as social or cultural figures--more actors in pop culture, in other words. Bush and Blair appear, but as figures far less distinct than everyone else here, as background noise, undeniably part of the fabric of our daily lives, but not as primary players, just basically the same as the person who gives you your food or the girl on the cover of a magazine: unreal, separate, but still actually, y'know, real. If this was a video that I directed, it would be MIA walking around the streets of London, fixing her gaze on different people and getting an accelerated glimpse into their lives, which would be revealed as a move projected through their forehead and shot from the size so you could see the beam. A projection and a narrative. Which is, of course, how the whole thing starts: "You can watch TV and watch the media." This is a representation.

But ultimately MIA does not remain the watcher. The reason I have this vision for the song is because she refuses to remain separate from what she's describing. She rolls her sleeves up and plunges into the fray, positioning herself not as an observer but a part of this: not different, but exactly the same, on a certain level, as everything she's presenting to you, which in turns is an attempt to implicate the listener of the song in what's being described, to take all watchers and make them walkers. But this applies to everyone in the song, from Bush to unemployed Londoners to Iraqis. It's an attempt to find a leveled space where everyone can speak as equals, a perfect plan, perfectly plain: pop.

She has been building the case for this since before Arular. She's insisted from the beginning on situating herself within mass culture. On Piracy Funds Terrorism, she managed to narrow the difference between herself, the Diplomats, and baile funk to almost nothing. It is a quite intentional rejection of the provincialization of subculutral scenes. "I'm a west Londoner...but a refugee still." Both and therefore neither. "I don't have a side." If it's all pop, it's not all music, and so everything is like everything else: Kate Moss is a political figure and Bush is a fashion model. Both are salespeople.

But how can she not have a side? Aren't there intentional slogans in there? Sure. But that doesn't necessarily mean she's the one spouting them if everything else in the song is observation. You can evoke globalization without passing judgment on it because it's a part of our lives when we live in cities just as much as magazine ads or the search for employment. The very unoriginality of the slogans points to the fact that they're not in the authorial voice but are more description of the cultural landscape. It all exists outside here, outside all of us--and it all reverts, ultimately, to playground taunts. Adolescence is love is sex is politics is war is culture is adolescence. Nyah nyah nyah nyah! Remind you of any critics you've read lately? (Me?)

This does not only apply to globalization. It also applies to the big MIA bugaboo, terrorism. Terrorism is a part of her life, but not in the same way (note I'm not making a value judgment here, just a statement of difference) as when American politicians say terrorism is a part of our lives, or even when victims of terrorism say terrorism is a part of their lives. Both of these are true statements. But we can all agree that MIA had, as the evangelicals say, a personal relationship with terrorism, from her father to the fact that significant areas of the country she grew up in are controlled by terrorists, to the degree that they basically feature terrorist-run civil governments. In Sri Lanka--and not a few other places--terrorism is politics, and politics, as we've demonstrated above, is culture. And culture is pop. It's more landscape description.

But the subject here is not terror, is it commercial. And, again, it can contain a critique of commercialism without necessarily endorsing that critique, in exactly the same way it can contain Kate Moss but not endorse her. (Cor, I'd like to endorse her, if you know what I mean! Uh, sorry.) Being the kind of person MIA is--an artist, a musician--concerns about commercialism are part of her daily discussions. The criticisms sitting side-by-side with the endorsements are there to serve as contrast, an intentional balancing act. Is it worse to "sell out" or be unemployed? Who's the offender, Kate Moss or the bill payers or the drug dealers? These contradictions absolutely define the modern world, and that's what this song is concerned with.

Even when she seems to be sending a coherent message, something intrudes. The first half of the bridge, which seems to be trying to paint some sort of inclusive portrait of oppressed peoples, is sung to the tune of "Here Comes Santa Claus," which as any Jewish-American can tell you, is not a particularly inclusive thing for a large portion of the world's population. This is significant. It's very pessimistic about the chances for any kind of unity because of the basic cultural differences between us, while at the same time holding fast to that vision, to that possibility.

There's another very significant contradiction in the second verse, with the line: "Trendsetters make things better / Don't sell out to be product pushers." Now, the first half of that is very interesting, and is not a view often expressed outside of celebrity journalism. Generally, we are supposed to have naught but scorn for trendsetters, because they are vapid hipsters. But she's recognizing their positive effects, and she's not even including the word "can" to suggest that they could be doing better. But then this is followed by basically a negation of the first half, because how can you be a trendsetter without basically being a product pusher? That's what you do. (That's what we do, fellow critics!) We're supposed to dislike them because they sold out. But look where it falls, vocally: the first half in the middle, the second half, the supposed negation, oscillating between low and high. She knows the beginning is the sensible and probably correct view, but she can't stop herself from thinking the negation sometimes. We're not consistent in our worldviews, because we'd be miserable. To ask for cultural consistency is to basically insist on separitism.

"How can she not have a side?" you ask. "These are all sides!" Ah, well then. Let me tip my hand before we roll onto the conclusion: her side is herself. This is inevitably your side when you enter into mass culture. But this is not necessarily apolitical or even conservative: Rawls' theory of justice is basically predicated on everyone vigorously expressing their self-interest. Enlightenment liberalism is founded in part on individualism, and is distrustful of authority. As is this song.

At first blush, the song appears to be a kind of rallying cry for people to rise up. Except let's examine those cries. First we have the chorus, "You can be a follower but who's your leader?" And then we have, in the bridge, "That's your life but who the fuck's your President?" Both of these posit both a sort of vacuum of leadership but do not necessarily present seizing the reins as a valid solution to this. The first statement smacks of car ad slogans, but where those would say something along the lines of "Lead, don't follow," this just says, "Don't follow!" And if you don't have followers, well, what kind of movement do you have? If you don't have a leader, what then?

As for the second statement, it's one everyone sort of asks. While it's certainly an evocation of the undue influence American foreign policy has on the domestic politics of other countries, it's also the inversion of something Americans themselves say (inaccurately) when the candidate they didn't vote for is in office, as well as something people in parliamentary systems can say (accurately) in the same situation: "he's not my President/Prime Minister!" It's politics at a remove, something you can say when the head of government's proclamations don't have much effect on your daily lives. But just as politics is culture, so is some culture more immediate, more present in your life: you're a follower of certain trends or styles, but who exactly is leading them? Who's making those decisions? Everyone and no one, in a way. And the closer you are to a certain form of culture or politics, the less of a follower you are, and the more everyone becomes an equal participant.

So it's a portrait of the modern world and a call for an embrace of its charms tempered with a strong sense of self. It's asserting the will of the individual as a primary political and cultural motor. In other words, it's what I said above about the music: an individual sitting with the tools of creation and consuming (artistically, commercially, politically) what is most appealing to her. It's a clear-eyed portrait of complexity and contradiction and an assertion that it all fits, that it all belongs, that we can throw open the doors and let it all in, because it's already been admitted. Here it is, and you are a part of it, whether you want to be or not.

ADDENDUM: Carl's got a few nice things to say, which I thank him for. Just one note, though: I wasn't actually responding to Simon's thing. This piece was more or less what I've wanted to write for weeks now, and the fact that I hadn't gotten it out was one reason why I was going on about MIA so much. This was pretty much what I wanted to say right here. So yay.