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M.I.A.: Behind the Backlash to the Backlash

M.I.A. onstage in Munich, Germany, last November.

It's funny: At this point, some of our conversations about popular art are less about the art product itself than they are about career choices, press management, image supervision, or social-media high jinks. Maybe that's unfortunate, or even "depressing" — the kind of thing that remains worrisome even if you suspect someone was complaining about it as early as the nineteenth century. (Why is everyone gossiping about Arthur Conan Doyle's séances when we should be talking about the text, man?) Or else it could be exciting: Maybe the line between someone's artistic output and their status as a character who cavorts across our computer screens is a pointless distinction to make, and we should enjoy the world as it is. I have no good answer on that one.

Maybe M.I.A. does. It's difficult to look back at her 2010 without framing it as, fundamentally, a media story — one that hinges as much on the artist's image, press, and online reputation as the music she released. First, in May, came a much-discussed New York Times Magazine profile that went out of its way to leave her looking politically childish. Not two months later came /\/\/\Y/\, her third LP, for which expectations were awfully high — and expectations were not met. Critics dutifully (and sadly) reported to readers that this one was a disappointment. In the midst of all this came a live performance that was, by all reports, kind of a disaster, and for a moment it seemed as if some kind of catastrophe had taken place: An incredibly vital artist had gone from critics' darling to pariah in the space of a summer.

I've spent a while thinking over why /\/\/\Y/\ was such a turnoff to listeners. On some level, it's no mystery, and there are a lot of straightforward, conventional answers to that question. M.I.A.'s first two records sounded graceful, earthy, and organic, but /\/\/\Y/\ is intentionally unpleasant: It's meant to sound like a blown-out digital mess, a grotty clatter of corroded samples and needling buzz — a flat smog of data. This is because it's an album about information and the Internet, among other things. Its cover is a collage of YouTube progress bars; listening to it can feel more like reading through a YouTube comments section.

That's a small challenge, though; I think there's something more important going on. It strikes me now that on M.I.A.'s first two albums, she really didn't sound like an individual person. American audiences embraced her as the avatar for some kind of universal Global South — for every city, from Colombo to Monrovia to Rio to Kingston to Baltimore to immigrant London, where people made shoestring-budget party music and lived, occasionally, in the shadow of violence. This was a role she courted and handled exceptionally well, as far as art goes. But /\/\/\Y/\ was an album about things like America, pop, money, and the Internet — topics her Western listeners already hear and know a lot about. And maybe, in spots, an album about being a mother. In other words, an album that left people seeing M.I.A. not as an avatar but as an individual. (The album's title, after all, is her name!) Combine that with a year of press suggesting that M.I.A. as an individual might be somewhat contradictory, incoherent, or juvenile — someone whose commentary on things like America and the Internet weren't turning out all that different from those of any number of stylish, surly college kids — and things were bound to get difficult.

Maybe M.I.A. does. It's difficult to look back at her 2010 without framing it as, fundamentally, a media story — one that hinges as much on the artist's image, press, and online reputation as the music she released. First, in May, came a much-discussed New York Times Magazine profile that went out of its way to leave her looking politically childish. Not two months later came /\/\/\Y/\, her third LP, for which expectations were awfully high — and expectations were not met. Critics dutifully (and sadly) reported to readers that this one was a disappointment. In the midst of all this came a live performance that was, by all reports, kind of a disaster, and for a moment it seemed as if some kind of catastrophe had taken place: An incredibly vital artist had gone from critics' darling to pariah in the space of a summer.

And now, at the start of a new year, M.I.A. is doing an awfully good job of charming people again, media-wise. New material helps. This week, there's a remix EP for the song "Internet Connection" (originally a bonus track on /\/\/\Y/\) — including one take, from the Finnish producer Huoratron, that seems to nail the power-drills-and-liquor sound that parts of the LP were shooting for. More importantly, there's a mixtape called Vicki Leekx, released to the Internet (of course) on New Year's Eve. Look at the response to this one, and you can practically hear the sigh of relief from folks who want this artist back on a particular track. The tape isn't a huge development: It's still clattering and tinny, and it still occasionally leaves M.I.A. the person sounding like she's flailing for targets. One track attacks a "fame whore" who can't sing, wants to model for American Apparel, and needs to spend time thinking about how her shoes cost enough to feed a village — exactly the kind of lyric that could come from anyone.

Still: The tape has precisely the sense of fun and focus and shoestring energy that was missing from the album — it's a party mix, not a challenge. And it seems to realize something the LP didn't, which is that the whiff of politicized excitement that often comes off M.I.A. songs isn't generally about the words coming out of her mouth, or her stances as an individual — it's about the beats, which are still connecting and calling out to that whole global notion she's always been so savvy with. Some of her most resonant political lines aren't conspiracy theories about governments controlling the Internet, but simple statements of identity and affiliation: On her debut, it was "salt and pepper my mango"; on this mix, it's a line about tenement dwellers who sprinkle cinnamon in their coffee. I'd never noticed before how often M.I.A. talks about food as a point of identity — which makes it ironic that the main barb in that unflattering Times Magazine article involved truffle-flavored French fries.

So after stumbling, allegedly, in the court of online opinion, M.I.A. seems to be picking herself up — with the help of the producers and remixers who worked on these new releases. (Vicki Leekx features the regulars: Diplo, Blaqstarr, Switch, Rusko, Danja, M.I.A. herself.) I suspect she's even wound up in a better position, because no matter what she releases next, people will be thinking very, very hard about it before passing judgment. And if we're lucky, she'll find richer, more vital, or just more flattering topics than Facebook and American Apparel, because there is already a vast literature here that M.I.A., smart as she may be, is not necessarily adding much to.

Photo: Stefan M. Prager/Redferns