- By Charles HomansCharles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.
In the much-discussed cover story of this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Lynn Hirschberg profiles M.I.A., née Maya Arulpragasam, the British-by-way-of-Sri-Lanka musician whose third album comes out later this summer. It’s an interesting piece (even if its subject doesn’t think so), not least because it’s the first celebrity profile I’ve read that begins with a thorough parsing of Sri Lankan dissident politics. The subject comes up because a frequent touchstone in M.I.A.’s music is her father’s resume: He was as a founder of the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), a militant group with ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization that helped lay the groundwork for the modern Tamil statehood movement before being superseded by the more violent Tamil Tigers.
Although her father never actually had anything to do with the Tigers, M.I.A. championed the organization’s cause (albeit sort of vaguely) throughout its guerrilla war with government forces in northern Sri Lanka, a war with few good guys. (By happenstance, M.I.A.’s own ascent to popularity over the course of her first two records happened mostly between the breakdown of peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers in 2006 and the rebels’ defeat in 2009.) Her support is a matter of considerable annoyance to activists concerned with bringing about some sort of lasting peace on the island. "It’s very unfair when you condemn one side of this conflict," Ahilan Kadirgamar of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum tells Hirschberg. "The Tigers were killing people, and the government was killing people. It was a brutal war, and M.I.A. had a role in putting the Tigers on the map. She doesn’t seem to know the complexity of what these groups do."
Hirschberg mines this vein unsparingly — you know the knives are out when a writer pulls the old take-a-radical-artist-to-a-fancy-restaurant trick:
Unity holds no allure for Maya – she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. "I kind of want to be an outsider," she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. "I don’t want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist."
A whole genre of art is, by association, coming in for a drubbing here: the venerable agitprop tradition in which M.I.A. has positioned herself. In music, the legacy runs back through Public Enemy, who championed Louis Farrakhan, and the Clash, who called their classic 1980 album Sandinista!; elsewhere, you’ve got Warhol’s Mao paintings, of course, and pretty much everything Jean Luc Godard has ever said. It’s different from the standard political peregrinations of artists and celebrities in that the art is inextricable from the politics, and from their audaciousness — the Clash record would have sold somewhat worse if it had been called Social Democrat!
This is the line in the sand between the postmodern chilliness of M.I.A.’s radical politics and, say, the heartfelt socialism of Woody Guthrie — the aesthetic of conflict, rather than any particular policy ambition, is the point. To Hirschberg, it suggests an unflattering comparison:
Like a trained politician, [M.I.A.] stays on message. It’s hard to know if she believes everything she says or if she knows that a loud noise will always attract a crowd.
I think this is a more damning indictment of politics than it is of M.I.A. — whose music is, all things considered, pretty great, if not quite up to the precedents of London Calling or It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Stitching an aesthetic out of politics is at the end of the day pretty harmless; assembling a politics out of aesthetics, not so much.