“I wasn’t trying to be like Bono,” ... “He’s not from Africa — I’m from there. I’m tired of pop stars who say, ‘Give peace a chance.’ I’d rather say, ‘Give war a chance.”
The above quote is from The New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story on the pop star and political agitator M.I.A. The article as well as the firestorm it has created got me thinking about our collective difficulty in distinguishing between the message and the messenger. M.I.A. is not the first, nor will she be the last, pop star to piss off people by mixing pop culture with a healthy does of political rhetoric. Like, most notably, John Lennon and Joe Strummer before her M.I.A. can’t help but have her reality as a reasonably well off pop star intrude upon her efforts to address real world problems via pop music. Why does the messenger impact our reception to the message? Can a culture that asks for authenticity from its artists be excused for dismissing the authentic voices it receives?
Take, for example, John Lennon’s call for a generation to abandon material concerns and live together in peace and harmony. Does it matter that it was recorded in an aristocratic English manner house? Mark David Chapman thought it did. Although I’m not suggesting that the opinions of a mentally disturbed assassin shed fair light upon the rest of us there is, in Mr. Chapman’s disillusionment, some truth to be found. I remember vividly John arguing on TV with pundits at the time who dismissed his forays into politics as naïve and misguided, who as John said, wished he’d go back to mop tops and I Wanna Hold Your Hand. This notion of “leave the politics to the big boys and just make your pretty little pop songs” was a pervasive one that although not nearly as virulent today, nonetheless, still persists. Why do we react with such hostility to notion that for someone from the privileged world of pop stars can’t speak authentically to the plight of third world people? It is as if we believe in the authenticity of the artistic voice so much that we will only connect with a message of 3rd world blight if one of those kids in the charity ads on television turns to the camera and starts an impromptu serenade about her reality.
The notion that an artist should only speak of their experiences and must retain a connection with those experiences or else risk being a sort of dilatant is a fabulously naïve assumption. The merely ability to make art is a sign of immense privilege. To have the luxury of both the time to reflect upon ones reality and the resources to create work that expresses that reality is something that very few people have. The arts arose, historically out of privilege. The rise of agriculture allowed for the creation of the leisure class that in turn created the resources for human beings to begin to truly express themselves as well as a marketplace to support them. All artists exist within this leisure class and to believe otherwise is merely to fall into the trap of the artist as self-mythologizer. Kurt Cobain wasn’t the teenage runaway he sang about. Joe Strummer grew up the sire of the post-colonial world that he raged against. These facts don’t make Territorial Pissing or White Man in Hammersmith Palais any less powerful or compelling, if anything they strengthen the hold these songs have on us by allowing these contradictions to inform our reading of these works we are gifted with a much more complex experience.
It is with this in mind that I believe a stronger and deeper reading of M.I.A.’s music can be accomplished. The contradictions of a child from a war torn country making music that expresses her frustration with first world assumptions while living in a Brentwood mansion is a much richer narrative than the one dimensional notion of a pop star amongst the rubble of Sri-Lanka’s civil war. Art not only thrives on ambiguity and contradiction it requires it. Without these contradictions you have no tension, this escape from a harsh reality allows for a mournful tone and from that comes a whole spectrum of emotion that without you would have not a work of art but a U.N. position paper. M.I.A.’s ability to draw on the contradictions of her reality, both past and present, makes for some damn compelling poetry of which I continue to be a fan.