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Better From Afar

I worshipped M.I.A.--until I remembered the night I met her.

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"I just changed my mind," I told my boyfriend last Thursday night. "I want a baby." We were standing in the balcony of Metro, and singer/rapper M.I.A. (nee Maya Arulpragasam) had just finished a whirlwind set with her boyfriend, Diplo, who provided the beats, and her friend Cherry, a hard-bodied beauty who sang backup and danced. M.I.A.'s a firecracker live, demanding that audiences be explicit about what they want--"Don't just say 'yay'!" she yelled.

Articulating urgency is what she does best; her music's a mix of hip-hop, dancehall, club, and what white people like to call world music, with splashy lyrics about racial tension, violence, rising up, and partying. The last topic sometimes overwhelms the politics: on "Pull Up the People" she sings "I've got the bombs to make you blow / I got the beats to make you bang" like she's 12 and taunting a frustrated boy. But all her songs are great polyrhythmic numbers heavy on the bass, with tiny accents that wiggle away before you can fully grasp them: wobbly thrift-store keyboard, bubbling steel drums, slick hand claps. M.I.A. drags out her syllables or snaps them off, ending almost every phrase with a hiccuping lilt that somehow never gets annoying.

A screen behind her showed her own neon stencil animation: a tiger running, bombs plummeting, helicopters swarming over bright pink asterisk explosions. Her hair was a rat's nest and she wore a short-sleeved sequined pantsuit printed with blue and yellow diamonds, triangles, and polka dots, giant gold earrings, and laceless Converse low-tops. She danced like a slut--hiking up a leg, stretching out an arm, and humping the air--and she was cute as hell.

I'd heard a few things about her before seeing her: she's a Sri Lankan refugee whose father was a high-ranking member of a militant group associated with the Tamil Tigers; she currently lives in London; her singles were played out at parties and clubs before her first album, Arular (XL), was even released. Hype's an instant turnoff for me, so when DJs would play "Galang," "Bucky Done Gun," or "Sunshowers," as they all did last summer, I'd leave the room or start a conversation. That's what I get for being too cool: I missed out on plenty of valuable fan-girl time. Thursday night I thought, I'd like to have a kid so it can turn out to be as awesome as her.

My boyfriend laughed when I told him this, which I found encouraging. "We'll just raise it all crazy and fuck it up in just the right ways," I continued, "teach it about politics and art--"

"You're forgetting that we'd have to be living under extreme oppression," he said. The conversation pretty much ended there.

Later that night I actually tried out some of M.I.A.'s dance moves in front of the mirror. I played her CD over and over until I imagined I heard bits of her songs in all the cars pumping their sound systems in Humboldt Park. I devoured information on her, becoming increasingly impressed as I learned that she escaped civil war in Sri Lanka when she was nine, only to be placed with her family (minus her father, who stayed in Sri Lanka and with whom she no longer communicates) in a notoriously racist and dangerous South London housing project. After her neighbors stole her radio she found solace in the hip-hop coming from the radio of the teenage boy next door. But a bit of information in M.I.A.'s interview in the free magazine Arthur (another thing I'd purposely ignored because of its hipster popularity) stopped me cold. Last week wasn't the first time I'd seen her.

The Arthur interviewer, Piotr Orlov, mentioned in passing that Arulpragasam was inspired to write music by Peaches and Elastica front woman Justine Frischmann while videotaping a concert tour. When Arulpragasam graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, she put out a book of stencil art that caught Frischmann's eye. Frischmann's band was attempting a comeback, and she asked Arulpragasam, who had no musical ambitions at the time, to document Elastica's fall 2000 U.S. tour with Peaches.

Through a mutual friend I'd come to be loosely acquainted with Peaches. At her Park West show in September 2000 I dorkily tried to impress her by telling her "Connection," Elastica's big hit, was one of my signature tunes when I was a stripper in college. After the show Peaches led me up some stairs. She pushed a door open and there was all of Elastica, singing the main guitar line to "Connection." A petite, pretty woman with large earrings was pointing a video camera at me, and everyone started yelling at me to take my clothes off.

Half flattered, half mortified, I hemmed and hawed, complaining that there were too many people and I was embarrassed. The camerawoman got aggressive, grabbing my hand and leading me to the bathroom; Frischmann followed. Inside, Frischmann serenaded me with the camera in my face, goading me to strip. She took her shirt off, like "See? It's OK." I think I gave them a little something--I may have lifted up my skirt--but it wasn't the show they'd hoped for.

A wave of loserdom washed over me--I could tell I'd disappointed Elastica, which made me feel terribly uncool. Just before walking away in shame I remembered that when I was 19 I'd made a humiliating home video in which I sort of slinked around a living room in a spandex dress dancing to Elastica. In a gesture of extreme misguidedness, I offered to send it to the camerawoman to make up for not taking it off.

She wrote her address and name--Maya Arul, an abbreviation of her full name--on a napkin and made me promise to send her the tape. At home I rewatched it and, confronted with my clumsy teenage version of sexiness, a kind of haughty Lolita swagger, I threw the napkin away.

In all, my M.I.A. worship lasted only a few days. I still cringe at the memory of what she did to me, but I can't exactly hate her. When I started writing this column I did the same thing--watching carefully for someone to act like a jackass, then getting in their face and trying to persuade them to act even stupider. Dignity doesn't tend to make for good copy, or good video, I suppose. I still respect M.I.A. as an artist, but I've stopped wanting her to be my baby.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Matt Carmichael.

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