“Hi, I’m Maya.”
That’s how M.I.A. — scourge of The New York Times, the U.S. Department of Immigration and oppressors the world over — introduces herself, and to be honest, it sort of catches me off guard. After all, she does not appear to be clutching a copy of “The Anarchist Cookbook,” or covered in blood and gunpowder, or espousing the virtues of violent secessionism. She does not scan the skyline for black helicopters, or check the planters on the New York City rooftop where we’ve met for listening devices, or even mention the C.I.A., not even in passing. She does not strike me as particularly dangerous, paranoid, or ill-informed. Basically, she is just very tiny, with dainty fingers and windswept black hair and the kind of eyes you could drown in. She is funny and swears a lot and, seems to be, for all intents and purposes, a very nice person.
Or, to put it another way, everything you probably think about M.I.A. is wrong. Your opinion of her no doubt has a whole lot to do with things you’ve read about her over the past month, or the seemingly incongruous way she lives her life, or even the causes she’s chosen to align herself with. The blame, it would seem, can be equally distributed. That’s not really the point. What is the point is that, when I met her earlier this week — on a sunny NYC roof deck with fake grass beneath our feet and a nude sunbather off in the distance — she struck me less as a firebrand, or a revolutionary, or even a figurehead for this haywire century and more as an honest-to-goodness person, a complicated one, somewhat unwittingly thrust under the spotlight but determined to make the most of her time there.
Of course, she could have just been on her best behavior, what with the lashing Lynn Hirschberg gave her in the Times still so fresh in her mind, but really, it was a revelation to me, and it should be for you too. Because for years, we’ve all been quick to deify M.I.A. (or, alternately, demonize her), hanging an unending stream of cultural signifiers — both good and bad — on her tiny shoulders, mainly based on the way she looks or her lineage or what she supposedly represents. I am just as guilty of this as the next guy: In 2007, I wrote that her song “Paper Planes” was “indicative of the shrinking world we inhabit [and] the culture-mashing power of the Internet.” This probably wasn’t fair to M.I.A., even though she didn’t exactly hide her multinational roots or her father’s ties to the Tamil Tiger military group at the time. The problem was, I took the easy route. I didn’t consider her a person first and foremost, choosing instead to assign a bunch of BS terms to her and her music.
And the reason I bring this up is because, after spending the first part of her career practically inviting this kind of press, M.I.A. seems to have transitioned with her new album, /\/\/\Y/\. Sure, there was the brutal video for “Born Free” and some of the stuff she said in Lynn Hirschberg’s New York Times piece was still rather, uh, eyebrow-raising, but in either of those instances, M.I.A. simply seemed to be trying to raise awareness of injustices around the world. For quite possibly the first time in her career, she appears to be less concerned with battling evils than she is with simply highlighting them. It’s what people in her position — and by that I mean globally famous — do in situations like this. Because, first and foremost, they are people just like you or me.
And that’s all a longwinded way of saying that /\/\/\Y/\ is not just M.I.A.’s most personal album; it’s her most human too. It’s her (rather dissonant) attempt to make sense of the world around her, or, as she put it on that NYC rooftop: “This is not some weird, crazy conspiracy theory. This is mainstream media. I wish I was talking about way more underground theories, but [I'm] not. This is just me digesting what I see in the mainstream.”
So, to make M.I.A. any less than human these days — or to take her at anything less than face value — is to do a disservice to her and her art. It’s taking the easy way out. I used to think that she was some multi-hyphenated vessel, some pop deity who delighted in pressing buttons and pushing the envelope. Now, after meeting her, after watching her answer questions about why folks seem to dislike her so (“It’s because I fight the ones that fight me. I stand up for myself,” she smiled. “Everyone should.”), I just see her as another human being, someone trying to figure out the world and her place in it. She is bound to make mistakes along the way. Shoot, she already has, but she’s learned from them. And she’s unafraid to make even more going forward.
And sure, there are still plenty of reasons you could hate her — she is opinionated, she is contradictory (you know, what with her millionaire boyfriend and home in tawny Brentwood, California, and all), she supposedly thrives on confrontation — but they’re all wholly human flaws, the same ones we all have. And you may not agree with everything she says, but it’s important that she says them, because someone’s got to.
Despite everything you’ve read about her, and in direct opposition to whatever you may think, M.I.A. is not a demon. She’s not dangerous. She seems just like the rest of us. Albeit a little shorter.
Questions? Concerns? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.
Do you have any strong opinions on M.I.A.? Let us know in the comments.