by carl wilson

Keepin' What Real?


I'm trapped in the land of a thousand dances right now and can't stop the worksongs, but wanted to note this series of events: Simon Reynolds semi-slams M.I.A. in the Village Voice as being "from nowhere." I write him to point out my pre-buttal to his argument, but he says the migrant case doesn't wash with him because her refugee days were years ago and then - horrors - she went to art school (does it matter if it was on scholarship?) and has met musicians people have heard of (Elastica, Peaches). Then I spot Simon arguing exactly the opposite of his own case, seems to me, in a Dissensus thread cited by Jace Clayton in this 100-proof post about the use and abuse of the "real," especially in racial terms, the "voice from the ghetto" etc etc. Says Simon: And so it starts, all the bollocks about 'who's real grime' " - but isn't that exactly the same species of accusation he just made about M.I.A.? (Not about whether she's "real grime," as nobody's arguing she is, but whether she is from a "real scene," as Simon and others in this instance seem to feel is mandatory.) We am puzzled.

I still suspect that the reaction M.I.A. gets is partially because the Sri Lankan situation is unfamiliar - or, let's say, illegible alien - to most western listeners and commentators and we don't particularly have a category in our heads for Sri Lankan refugees in the west, either - well, there's "suspect terrorist" (the one she's playing footsie with so provocatively) but most liberals won't rush to that conclusion but don't know where else to rush. If she were Palestinian, would anybody say, C'mon, she left Palestine 15 years ago and then she got an education, so how can that be really pivotal to her work? No, she'd still be given respect when she spoke from that place. Because we get that it's for serious.

Okay, back atcha on the morrow.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 21 at 8:36 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)



"Missy/Tim stuff is also tied to Brit dance culture" - yes, but it makes a whole lot more sense that someone living in London got that influence directly rather than imitating Americans imitating a London sound. Everything we know about M.I.A.'s taste says she's listening to the pirates etc. Of course (didn't I already say this) there's also an American influence via Diplo's collaboration. And no doubt she listens to Missy too, just like everybody else does. (As if the grime MCs don't imitate Americans!!!)

Of course she's an outsider, that's the whole point here. But "outsider" does not mean "not authentically British" - I know this isn't what you meant to say, Dave, but it's involuntarily implicit, and that's the kind of judgment I'm trying to question. It's not just rockist, it's chauvinist. This suspicion of the immigrant, operating differently in different milieus and classes, is by no means new but it's the condition vast numbers are living under, and it entangles with the lives and the images of the more familiar underclass in complicated ways. Romanticizing grime realness and using it as a stick to beat the upwardly mobile refugee, the immigrant striver, sure feels like a disheartening game.

Posted by Zoilus on February 23, 2005 8:30 PM



Damn this discourse is exploding three ways from Sunday. And me with lumpen-prole freelance journalism to do! Here's a try, anyways.

First, Missy/Tim stuff is also tied to Brit dance culture - I'm thinking of Jess Harvell's contention that 'Miss E...So Addictive' is their 'rave' album, whether they admit it or not. "Galang" and, say, "Pass That Dutch" (not on Miss E, I know) might sound worlds apart to you, but to me they're at least cousins. And you have to ask yourself, how much more cuckoo-bananas could Missy be? (The answer is none. None more cuckoo-bananas.)

I have problems with Jordan's Zizek quote, but one part I find interesting: "the so-called 'symbolic class'... is also uprooted and perceives itself as universal." The people who are engaging in dialogue about these things (us, I guess) are also uprooted in a cultural sense by migration patterns and air travel and so forth, so it becomes hard to draw a distinction with someone like M.I.A. Is she a slum-dweller who spent some time rubbing shoulders with the info-class? Is she a first-worlder with a ghetto background? What about the grime/dancehall/hiphop artists we compare her to, which are they? As Jordan says, class analysis is a bit too neat, and probably not that useful when talking about a city like London where rich and poor are literally next door to each other.

I dig your theory and agree that her music is indeed scavenged, and not appropriated as subordinate to the central aesthetic or mode of working (as Peter Gabriel/Paul Simon types are wont to do, adding world music spices to their primarily Western pop-rock sound). But that doesn't make Arular any less a construct made by an outsider, it just makes it a more honest and interesting one. Does her scavenger-ness make her any less valid as an artist or pop music maker? Absolutely not. At the same time, her scavenger-ness shouldn't be confused (not that she seems to want to be - like you said, she never called her self a grime MC) with the fruits of the communities she borrows from.

(oh and yes, speaking of community, I am in the T-dot.)

Posted by Dave M. on February 22, 2005 4:14 PM



Sorry, also: To be clearer, musically the displacement is in the scavenger aesthetic - the way the sounds are scavenged from all over and just wired together with whatever she can grab with no "world music" or fusion or "band" or "performance art" or other enveloping fabric that a "cosmopolite" would use.

(However she's also stealing from the cosmopolites she's met therefore the art in her art-pop. Of course "Pow" is pop along with x,y,z, but none of those stand for "art". M.I.A.'s tongue has a million forks. No wonder people think she's lying. But that charge means defining how fiction and artifice can "lie" - much more by pretending to be fact than not.)

Posted by Zoilus on February 22, 2005 2:08 AM



We're not going to agree on the Brit thing. MIA's beats ain't like a Missy album and that's because she's from Brit dance culture. There are other reasons it wouldn't be from Canada. (We have nothing that effectively brash, for one thing. M.I.A.'s tutor Peaches v.much included.) As for displacement - it's in the voice, it's in the lyrics, it's in the cuckoo-bananasness and the detached anger. I'm not saying there's Sri Lankan music in it - not because there isn't but because I don't know.

On getting paid - I'm arguing more with Luca's old argument and with stuff referred to in Jace Clayton's post than with you or Simon R. at that point. Sorry for the spin.

Hey, speaking of placement - where do you live, Dave? Your blog and publications make it seem like you're all over the map, but are you in the T.? (Important info for links-page list.)

Posted by Zoilus on February 22, 2005 2:02 AM



I agree with your "art-pop translator of Shanty House" characterization, but the Shanty House cultures being referred to can be pop and legit (whatever that means) roots music at the same time. Lethal B - "Pow!" is no less grimey because it appealed to people on a pop level, but M.I.A. is pop, and not part any of the things she draws on. I read Simon's objection as a kind of backwards apology for not liking her as pop, even though he likes the scenes she seems to draw on. I, on the other hand, like her art-pop translated Shanty House, and don't care where she gets her influences from (so long as she pays them when sampling, ahem...). To paraphrase Mr Body, authenticity is a red herring.

Your argument about displaced people makes sense in theory, but I don't hear it applying to Arular, or at least M.I.A.'s specific musical influences (as we might speculate on them), and I have to disagree with the idea that Arular sounds British in any noticeable way. Her biggest influence to these ears is Timbaland and Missy, and I don't think growing up in Canada or the U.S. would greatly alter her relationship to that sound. I would venture that there's very little material difference in the music someone like M.I.A. would hear (and therefore be influenced by) in London, and the sounds we hear in other Western cities.

And who said anything about not getting paid? You've lost me on that one. Everyone should get paid, in full!

Posted by Dave M. on February 22, 2005 12:57 AM



Well, again, would that be grounds for criticism if the reference point were Palestine?

I understand wariness around the "appropriation of grime, dancehall, baile funk" etc - but that seems like MIA being criticized for what people write in the press rather than for her representation of herself. It's not like she's ever claimed to be a grime MC! She's said that's the stuff that gets her going, not what she's doing. I'd call her a genre of one, maybe the first art-pop translator of Shanty House (to use Matt Woebot's formulation), which is of course a different position than being part of any particular scene. But if you are opposed to pop translations of roots musics then you're opposed to pop music, full stop.

As for whether her record could have been made anywhere but London - it sure sounds British and specifically Asian-immigrant British to me. I can't imagine Arular sounding like that if it were made by somebody who grew up in the States. Piracy Funds Terrorism is different of course because it's a collaboration with an American.

However to the degree that it's not London specific, that's part of my point about migrancy: Displaced people can wind up anywhere and that is part of the texture of the music they'll make - which is not the same as undifferentiated cosmopolitanism, proud rootlessness etc., but will share some features with it (which again makes people suspicious through no fault of the artists' own). Maya and her family could have become refugees in Canada about as easily as in England, and if she'd still become a musician here, some things would be different and some the same.

And if she also wants to get paid, why is that venal in her case and not in the grime artists?

Posted by Zoilus on February 21, 2005 11:33 PM



It's not her connection to Sri Lanka that is suspect, it's her connection to everything *else*. Grime, dancehall, baile funk, etc. are all rooted in the place of their origin. M.I.A. could have made the exact same record no matter where she ended up - New York, Toronto, London, wherever, whereas a record like "I Luv U" with its accents and references (and maybe even attitudes) could only have been made in London. That doesn't make Arular a bad record per se, but I can see why it doesn't float Simon's particular underground-transmissions boat.

Posted by Dave M. on February 21, 2005 10:19 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson