Saturday, March 7, 2015

"Can See Can Do" and the Politics of M.I.A.

Sometimes, when I need to check myself, I put on M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes." Popularized by the trailer to the stoner film Pineapple Express, it was the first big hit for the British dance artist (and for her producer and then-beau, Diplo), peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earning a Record of the Year nomination at the 2009 Grammys (she performed at the ceremony, nine months pregnant). And I was baffled, and perhaps a little offended; "She can't even sing!" was my general response. I didn't get it. A year later, I launched this blog, as a reaction to, and toward, the people who "don't get it." Thus often goes the story of the evangelized.

Of course, whether M.I.A. can even sing is irrelevant, because it's not really the point. M.I.A.'s music isn't about tuneful warbling, it's about rebellion and radicalism, in the lyrics and in the beats. At it best, it stows social commentary away within benignly appealing thematic frameworks, transparently enough that even if you notice it you don't feel like you've been tricked. Even when the topic is directly political, as on her new song "Can See Can Do," released this morning on Soundcloud, she tends to hew more to the broadly applicable style of 60s protest songs than the expressive specificity of rap.

"Can See Can Do" is the first new material from M.I.A. since 2013's Matangi, a return to form after the difficult and poorly-received MAYA despite an overlong gestation period on label shelves, and an album I really responded to. You've probably heard at least something from Matangi even if you've never heard of it or of M.I.A., since she and her team really mined the hell out of that album for licensing revenue (songs from Matangi have appeared in ads for Nissan, Captain Morgan and KMart, film trailers for The Heat and Vampire Academy, and even musical interstitials on NPR).

"Can See Can Do" continues the album's style of bassy, mass-appeal electronic dance sound, with a heavy and relatively spare beat reminiscent of Matangi single "Double Bubble Trouble", some old-fashioned dubsteppy wubwubs and that beep beepy thing Diplo uses a lot that sounds kind of like the drunk dragonfly from The Rescuers. Political moral relativism is a general theme ("Some people see planes, some people see drones"), with a typically macro/micro chorus: "Wanna get past history/Wanna make a future with you."

"DEMOCRACY CONVERSATIONS ! TAMILS ARE STILL WAITING!" she says in the Soundcloud description (a Sri Lankan Tamil by heritage, she has long been vociferous on the ongoing issue of Tamil nationalism). "AND NO MY BEATS ARE NOT BETTER WITHOUT MY POLITICX." M.I.A. came up in the recent Pitchfork interview in which Björk shone a damning light on the marginalization of women producers ("When I met M.I.A., she was moaning about this, and I told her, “Just photograph yourself in front of the mixing desk in the studio, and people will go, ‘Oh, OK! A woman with a tool, like a man with a guitar.)’", and while production credits for "Can See Can Do" are not available, it's a nice reminder that there's a woman in charge here.

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