Hey now. When we were prepping for an interview with M.I.A. around the time of Arular’s release and her people dicked us over at the last minute (the questions were ready—M.I.A., alas, was not), we joked that maybe the singer thought we weren’t as fashionably anti-establishment as Pitchfork. But then the Pitchfork incident happened two years later, just prior to the release of the brilliant Kala, and it almost felt as if we had dodged a bullet. Flash forward a year: Standing inside McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn and watching M.I.A. perform live, I found myself coming back to that Pitchfork interview and feeling as if M.I.A.’s performance was being presented to this particular crowd as a public-relations makeover, at least in the sense that she and Diplo, decked out in a full-body Elmo costume, were still cool with each other—even though I don’t recall the two ever sharing the stage at the same time.
The most impressive one-two musical punch for an emerging artist since Björk followed Debut with Post, M.I.A.’s Arular and Kala are each aggressive arrays of world beats and politically-conscious musings. M.I.A.’s lyrics are at once playful and vitriolic, and her daring is crafting songs that hinge on challenging cultural juxtapositions and whose incredible beats are as assaultive and authoritative as a third-world leader’s fiercest agitprop—and easy to dismiss for some because of their fashionable sheen. Sadly, the singer doesn’t have much of a live presence, at least in the sense that you frequently forget she’s even on stage, though there’s something almost charming—and consistent with her musical and political ethos—about how she tries to redress this throughout her show, calling for our attention by standing atop a speaker or bringing what seemed like half the McCarren hipsters in the crowd onto the stage, in effect transforming her show into an uprising. Amid all the thrashing bodies, you had to look hard to even see M.I.A., but this much was clear: she isn’t afraid of the army she summons.
Consider the video backdrop that plays throughout the People vs. Money tour a colossal distraction or the show’s saving grace. M.I.A., whose set of inflatable palm trees is self-conscious in its attempt to appear as un-self-conscious as possible, ironically addresses her relationship to her fans throughout craftily edited video collages. The Politics of Super Mario Bros. and the Bullet is one way of describing her suggestive, postmodern philosophical mode as her video artwork consists of high-energy expressions of violence conveyed in the eight-bit language of the original Nintendo, which most of us were playing way before we even knew who Mao was and where in the world Sri Lanka is. Still don’t? That’s okay, look at the screen! Those are the ducks from Duck Hunt!
Unlike her opening act, Rye Rye, whose powerfully shrill voice was insanely in sync with Diplo’s muscular techno during a string of floor-bouncing tracks performed shortly after Holy F*ck’s hot opening set, M.I.A. lacks for a certain improvisational flair. But even if she’s Waldo in a hole-riddled purple dress and hot-white wig on stage, it’s exactly her calculating lyrical sense and manipulation of image that keeps her interesting on record (and in video form). M.I.A., who owns property in this country but doesn’t have rights to live here, makes music that’s wily, which is why she’s frequently accused of being insincere, and though her intentions are sometimes vague, you can’t accuse her of being flighty, appropriately closing her show with a performance of the brilliant “Paper Planes,” a song about immigration whose provocative sound addresses the nexus of violence and capitalism. Next up for the singer? Getting married to Benjamin Brewer, son of Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr., fulfilling the prophecy of her Pitchfork interview by finding a husband before her visa expires at the end of this month. Let’s hope she’s doing it for the love and, you know, the people, and not the money.