The Rambler :: blog

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Music Analysis and M.I.A. 

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I popped a link to Clap Clap's major post on MIA up on my 'Topics of the Day' a week or so ago, but I've only just got around to reading the full post. At the risk of prolonging a debate that is rapidly running out (before the record's even released, natch), I'd like to say 'Wow'. Reading the ongoing debates (mostly at Dissensus, but also here, all over here and finally here) sparked by that Simon Reynolds piece a while back I've been unable to fully settle on which side I fall. Thanks to Eppy, my mind is made up. I mean, I like MIA's sound in any case - even though 'Galang' gets a bit tired after too many repeated listenings (and the original is permanently scarred for me anyway thanks to cry.con.my.console's Super Mario Bros. mashup) – so ultimately I'm with the ayes. But having watched the 'Galang' video a couple of times the other day I did feel a bit queasy at the seemingly super-naïve slogan overload. Fists born of mushroom clouds, tanks, camouflage, and CND badges??? I mean, come on, that’s just crap, isn't it? So while I'm deeply sceptical of authenticity debates of any sort (more of which in another post, probably), I thought this was just taking pop semiotics to new levels of crass superficiality. Logos, flags, screen-printed T-shirts, slogans - all of these are powerful slices of modern culture with a proud pop history, but aligning yourself with bombs and peace symbols at the same time just looks cynical and insulting.

Which is precisely the point on which I think Eppy's analysis is strongest, I think.
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. ... 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.

In his post, Eppy thoroughly analyses a MIA track (not 'Galang', as it happens, but the eponymous 'MIA'), giving musical and lyrical support to his assertions.

I think where I might emphasise most what Eppy says is in his observation of the space MIA's tracks allow for her voice. The songs, ultimately, and at a couple of authorial removes, are MIA herself (another authorial remove: the name MIA itself is, of course, pseudonymous). 'The personal is political' may be an old '70s slogan, but as current protest movements are only too fond of reminding us, America (and Britain, and Poland, and Australia) is embroiled in 'another Vietnam', so maybe it has some currency still. Eppy just shows how deftly MIA breathes new, complicating life into that particular slogan.

So yeah, I didn't really mean to add damp fuel to a dying fire. Really, I'm just bigging up Eppy's post as an example of why music analysis is great, and why it's a proud and noble pursuit. He's not trying to prove anything here (music's not like maths, it doesn't sit in space as a bunch of equations waiting to be proven, it's something to be admired, criticized, discussed, manipulated, canonised and junked). But what he does is to argue one of those admiring/critical discussion points with reference to the actual material itself. There's only so far batting ideas back and forth will get you - at some point someone's got to get down dirty and cut open the cadaver to reveal the blood and flesh and bones. We still get to argue the toss about what they're all for, what they do, but at least we can all see that we're talking about the same thing.

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