I haven’t yet heard the new Arcade Fire album. I watched them on The Daily Show last night and thought they sounded pretty good, so I suspect I’ll catch up with it eventually, maybe even sooner than later. But without getting off on a self-involved tangent here, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider my reluctance to embrace this band. After all, I’ve mostly enjoyed their other records, this one is attracting lots of positive reaction, and I like what I’ve heard from it. And yet, I hesitate. Why? The obvious answer is that I’m merely reacting against the obnoxious level of hype around the band. There may be something to that, but this is hardly a phenomenon unique to Arcade Fire. Perhaps it’s more a question of sensibility. To put it another way, I don’t feel a connection.
This is not, of course, an entirely rational response, but it is a real one, and it’s crucial to the way most serious music listeners, as well as many casual fans, relate to pop artists—that is, in ways that go well beyond music per se. I’m not talking about anything as deadly dull as an artist’s “philosophy” or even worldview. What I have in mind is something more analogous to Andrew Sarris’s notion of “interior meaning,” a fully formed artistic sensibility that both encompasses and transcends form and technique, as well as thought and feeling.
Which brings us to the case of M.I.A. In the three years since the release of her second album, Kala, she’s become a pop-cultural lightning rod, celebrated as a hero by many fans for her backstory as much as her music and condemned as an empty-headed purveyor of radical chic by others. The latter camp has had no shortage of fuel, much of it provided by M.I.A. herself in a series of public pronouncements culminating in a condescending (albeit skillfully conceived and written) New York Times Magazine profile by Lynn Hirschberg, who, it must be said, has made something of a career out of this sort of thing. But anyone reading this obviously has access to Google, so I’m not going to rehash any of that here. What’s interesting is how all this drama relates to M.I.A.’s music. On the surface, M.I.A. signifies rebellion, third-worldism, even revolution, yet her dabblings in business and fashion, not to mention her much-chronicled life of luxury, locate her in a more nebulous space. And her public statements suggest that she’s not particularly well-informed.
I’ll try to explain. Once upon a time, things were simple. There was Society and there were those outside of Society, and you knew exactly which side of that line you and everyone else was on. This is not to say that elements of the counterculture weren’t quite regularly co-opted by Society, etc. etc., but merely that this used to be an operational distinction in popular culture. Now its last vestiges are disappearing. Nearly all of the true zeitgeist figures in the current poposphere—Barack Obama, Lady Gaga, Lebron James, Don Draper—are to a large extent blank screens onto which we can (and do) project our own fantasies of who they “really” are. Theirs is a studied opacity. They are both the culture and the counterculture.
M.I.A. fits this mold, although she bears less resemblance to any of the figures mentioned above than to Kanye West, another tabloid-ready superstar given to erratic behavior who, like M.I.A., has made great records despite a lack of conventional musical ability, in the sense of vocal or instrumental prowess. Both Kanye and M.I.A. are less artists in the traditional sense than musical and cultural curators, guides to certain sensibilities. (This is particularly true of M.I.A.—as a producer, Kanye is at least directly responsible for the sound of his records.) This is why questions about authenticity rankle so much. She’s identified herself with a certain political posture, and if she can’t deliver the goods, then…well what? My own views on the issue were succinctly articulated by Robert Christgau in his review of Maya: “The notion that M.I.A. isn't politically meaningful because her motives are mixed and her ideas are screwed up is clueless about how pop music works—namely, all kinds of screwy ways.” Yes, exactly. Pop (music or otherwise) is a medium of grand gestures and unintended consequences.
As for the album…well, you know, it’s all right, neither a Kala-level masterpiece nor the Self Portrait-style disaster that Pitchfork would have you believe. I’m not going to knock her for going all pop-star narcissist on us; she’s entitled to work that vein for at least one album, and it’s not like she didn’t warn us with the title. Following a minute-long intro (that’s why I don’t have an iPhone!), Maya kicks into gear with the industrial grind of “Steppin’ Up,” which strikes a familiar outsider pose, mocking the torpor of mainstream club culture (“Bass lines and ass/Anything fast”), and the savvy pop of “XXXO,” which casts a jaundiced eye on what passes for affection in the age of portable electronic devices. The canny wordplay of “Lovalot” conflates references to suicide bombers with mentions of Obama and Hu Jintao. And of course there’s the scintillating “Born Free” (think Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR with A Thousand Leaves-era Kim Gordon singing), the lead single that raised hopes of a Difficult Third Album in the In Utero/Wowee Zowee mode, even as the song’s “banned” (whatever the hell that means in 2010) video, a risible gloss on Peter Watkins’s 1971 counterculture classic Punishment Park, came off as just the sort of attention-getting stunt that M.I.A.’s grown too fond of. You take the bad with the good; unfortunately, it’s the best track on Maya by a considerable margin. To get there you’ve got to slog through the insipid reggae-pop of “It Takes a Muscle” and the formless muck of “It Iz What It Iz.” The shallow electro-rock of “Meds and Feds” sounds like the work of labelmates Sleigh Bells, which is OK because I can tolerate Sleigh Bells for exactly one song. And while “Teqkilla” is not quite as annoying as its title, “Tell Me Why” has some of the laziest lyrics in the M.I.A. catalog (“Things change but it feels the same”).
The so-called “deluxe” edition comes with four extra songs (are they part of the album are not?), of which only the first, “Internet Connection,” qualifies as a throwaway. Indeed, the perky punk-funk of “Illygirl” and the laid-back Afro-pop of “Believer” would have been better-than-average on the album proper. And the final track, “Caps Lock,” strikes a plaintive note found nowhere else on Maya. “My left side is my right side,” she sings, and no further explanation is necessary. She’s a rebel so she rebels. It’s a good bet that M.I.A. won't be following in the footsteps of Peter Garrett or Bono anytime soon, but that’s not to say there’s no content to her music, even if it’s merely a willingness to say “no” to society’s “yes.” And at least for now, that’ll have to do.