Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Does M.I.A.'s choice of mate undercut her message?

It's interesting to read a British take on The Clash. Here in America, they didn't break until London Calling, and their politics were just part of their identity, which was equally defined by their catholic musical tastes and cuddly singles like "Train in Vain" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go?". But in the land of the band's origin, some true punks thought the band was nearly an instant sell out. The Clash's crime? Signing with CBS Records, a major label.

This argument has cropped up from time to time with respect to other artists with a political message, such as Rage Against The Machine. I think it's a false premise. Maybe it's an entertainment version of capitalism being its own gravedigger, but if a band has a social or political message, there's nothing wrong about utilizing a corporation to help spread the message. As long as the affiliation does not compromise the message, then the band has made the right decision.

But can an artist compromise her message by her choice of life partner? I'm a big fan of M.I.A. I think that her records are dazzling. She works with many collaborators to create a real world music, mixing all sorts of cultures into thrilling pop.

M.I.A. got her start in the art world before she started making music. The visuals are as striking as the finished tracks themselves. Moreover, she has made political noises. She has especially pushed the fact that her father was a Tamil rebel in Sri Lanka (she was actually born in London, and her parents moved back to Sri Lanka when she was an infant). M.I.A. has used this to give her music some political context.

So this daughter of a Sri Lankan rebel just had a baby with her fiance, Benjamin Brewer. Brewer is a member of the band The Exit (yeah, I've never heard of them either). I can safely say that no matter how good or bad The Exit is, the band will get a record contract. That's because Brewer's daddy is Edgar Bronfman, the head of WMG, the gigantic entertainment conglomerate. The Bronfman family made its fortune with Seagram's, the whiskey/alcoholic beverage company.

Of course, everyone should wish the couple the best, particularly now that M.I.A. and Benjamin are parents. I hope they are truly in love and that their love grows over the years.

But once M.I.A. marries into one of the wealthiest families in the world, will this make it tougher to accept any political messages in her music? Will her calls for "third world democracy" lose credibility when she's now filthy rich (even after a pre-nup) and part of a clan who haven't done much to help the poor?

To put it another way, would The Clash have blown it if Joe Strummer was seen partying with Liz Taylor or denizens of Studio 54? I think the answer to that is yes. If you're a man or woman of the people, you've got to put up some boundaries to keep it real. Heck, no matter how asinine Bono is, he doesn't get caught in either celebrity culture or flaunting opulent wealth.

Now I may very well be overstating things. M.I.A.'s lyrical content does not even measure up to Public Enemy, a band that sometimes rapped more about being political than actually rapping about politics (and I say that as a big fan of PE). But even if her lyrics aren't always up to snuff in this category, her music actually is in the same vein of what The Clash was doing with Sandinista.

It's possible that once M.I.A. is a Bronfman by marriage that she may be able to use this status and wealth as a platform to act on issues that she's alluded to in her music and interviews. If so, then her current artistic stance will be bolstered. But if that doesn't happen, I might be a lot more skeptical of her future endeavors.

1 comment:

Chris Krakora said...

I suppose another comparison you can make is with John Lydon, who married German heiress Nora Forster, though she did have a bohemian background, not sure when he did it though. Though Lydon's artistic rep wasn't as political with a big P type compared to the Clash or MIA.

BTW because of your good music writing, you are a winner of the Premios Dardo Blog Award!