M.I.A.: An Appreciation

I've been big on M.I.A. since she came out the gates with "Galang," a twisted little play on street slang that is far deeper than its sing-song hook and neon colored video would lead you to believe. Is it a track about the call to emigrate to a wealthier area that isn't necessarily safer? A remembrance of the violence during the Sri Lankan Civil War that began shortly after her family moved there? A song detailing everything you need to do to survive on the streets of London? A combination of all three and more? I'm leaning toward that last interpretation.

M.I.A. has been involved in a few surprise crossover hits in America, but you cannot accuse her of dumbing down her thoughts and subject matter for more appeal. She is an artist defined by her life experience and how she chooses to explore it. Her first album, Arular, was filled with catchy beats and rhymes about her experience related to her father (a rebel leader who adopted the name Arular in the conflict leading up to the Sri Lankan Civil War).

Her second album, Kala, was inspired by her mother (named Kala) and the unfortunate situation regarding her international travels. A bunch of top US producers wanted to work on her follow up album, but she was denied a US Visa due to her family connections to the Tamil Tigers. Instead, the tracks were recorded all over the world. It shows in the best way possible. Regional musical influences flow together as the story of a displaced person searching for a real home.

This is the album that led to her biggest single to date, "Paper Planes." The song was used in the advertising campaign for Pineapple Express, bringing M.I.A. into the mainstream for the first time. That trailer was ubiquitous. You could not escape it. Sales and radio play followed quickly. The exposure led to a number of great things, including a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year in 2009. She was also sampled on another huge breakout song, "Swagger Like Us" featuring Kanye West, T.I., Jay-Z, and Lil' Wayne.

The catchy hook belies the crossover appeal of the track. "All I wanna do is [shotgun blasts] and [shotgun reloaded, cash register transaction] and take your money." Yet this is the part of the song that people recognize. It's undeniably catchy. It just points to a much darker song than unintentionally relevant fluff for a stoner comedy.

In M.I.A.'s own words,

So in the song I say "All I wanna do is [sound of gun shooting and reloading, cash register opening] and take your money." I did it in sound effects. It's up to you how you want to interpret. America is so obsessed with money, I’m sure they’ll get it.

Which is all well and good. M.I.A. has a reputation for not tolerating poorly planned questions very well. She'll throw out a dig that usually goes right past the interview and sticks in your head. When asked properly about the song, she hints at one very cool interpretation.

You can either apply it on a street level and go, oh, you’re talking about somebody robbing you and saying I’m going to take your money. But, really, it could be a much bigger idea: someone's selling you guns and making money. Selling weapons and the companies that manufacture guns – that's probably the biggest moneymaker in the world.

Which brings us to 2012. M.I.A. is due for another big press cycle because she is a surprise nominee for Video of the Year at the VMAs. It's not a surprise to me. Here's what I wrote about the insane video for "Bad Girls" back on 3 February, "Finally, M.I.A.s new single "Bad Girls" is out. It's great."

The surprise is how little the video plays into the awards discussion. It's only nominated twice, getting in for Best Direction and Video of the Year. Somehow, a female rapper with a video/song combo inspired by the Arab Spring (and, specifically, how a Saudi women began driving in protest because the laws ban women from driving) did not get nominated for Female Video, Hip-Hop Video, or Video with a Message. Likewise, a video filled with insane car stunts, memorable choreography, and gorgeous filmmaking was not nominated for Cinematography, Art Direction, Choreography, Editing, or Visual Effects.

Just take a gander at this video and try to see figure out how that happened.

My best guess is that the producers/nominators fear handing out a sack of awards to a music video they barely played on MTV (if at all). As such, prestige videos are now relegated to one or two nominations in favor of more attention grabbing guests and nominees. If they invite M.I.A. to perform, I'll be shocked. Not when they can have Rihanna act out the video where she lifts the veil on her abusive relationship with Chris Brown (again) or when they can have Nicki Minaj in a bikini dancing like a maniac.

Worse still is the decision to put all non-"Professional Categories" up for a public vote. So Romain Garvis actually has a chance at winning for the direction of "Bad Girls," but M.I.A. has to give up victory to Katy Perry, Rihanna, Drake AND Rihanna, or Gotye. It's not that the other nominees are obviously worse. It's just disappointing that such a daring video from an artist who deserves more recognition will be shoved off to the side to appeal to the Top 40 market at the only awards show for this medium.

But will this get M.I.A. down at all? Probably not. She's probably somewhere laughing about being nominated at all. Remember her Superbowl halftime performance with Madonna? Sure you do. She performed live for one of the largest TV audiences of the year and threw up the bird at the camera just for fun. How about when she performed on her due date, against the advisement of her doctors, at the 2009 Grammy Awards?

M.I.A. takes her music seriously but is willing to have fun at the same time. That's a rare balance that will only grow stronger as she experiments with future releases. I know I'm looking forward to it.

What about you? Thoughts on M.I.A.? I've been playing that "Bad Girls" video a few times a week since February just to wrap my head around everything happening. Car stunts! Slow dancing in the streets! Revolution! Sound off with your own thoughts below. Love to hear from you.

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