M.I.A. ruins everything

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Does the West need the excuse of a new album or her LTTE connections to scorn the excesses of M.I.A.? Kuzhali Manickavel dissects why the singer is such an unsettling icon

What makes M.I.A. so interesting? Is it because M.I.A.’s real name is Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, a name we don’t usually associate with international songwriter-record producer-singer-rapper- fashion designer-visual artist-political activists? Is it because she has a new album out? No. The most interesting thing about M.I.A. is that she often has a ruinous effect on people who have no idea what she does. Is it absurd to be ruined by something you know nothing about? Of course not. What matters is that M.I.A. just ruins everything. These are some of the most compelling arguments regarding the ruinous power of M.I.A.

M.I.A. RUINS EVERYTHING BECAUSE SHE SHAMELESSLY SELLS EXOTICA SO WHITE PEOPLE WILL LIKE HER
There is a long-standing rule, which states that if a coloured person gets famous among white people, it’s because they are shamelessly selling exotica. White people can never be accused of this because they apparently have no shame. A number of factors make M.I.A.’s brand of exotica-selling flabbergastingly shameless. For one thing, she has a bizarre English accent, which apparently is a ‘put-on’ to anger and confuse non-white people, particularly Indians who are unsure whether they should claim her as one of their Legionof- Brown-People-Who-Do-Awesome- Things-In-Other-Countries-Which-Mea ns-They-Are-Indian-Even-If-They-Say- They-Aren’t. M.I.A. also dresses like the Eighties and Nineties collectively vomited all over her. But perhaps worst of all, M.I.A. is a woman and women in general ruin everything because they have uteruses and uteruses ruin everything.

It’s only fair to point out that this kind of M.I.A. ruination is not that exotic when you consider that pretty much everyone gets accused of selling exotica in this shamelessly shameless fashion. For instance, Indians who write in English apparently sell exotica even when they aren’t writing anything. Their very existence is an ongoing exercise in exotica-selling shamelessness. So in this case, it’s not just M.I.A.. Almost everyone is ruining everything by shamelessly selling exotica. Everyone except white people.

M.I.A. RUINS EVERYTHING BECAUSE SHE’S NOT EXOTIC ENOUGH DESPITE BEING SO EXOTIC
Many people will agree that there is nothing more disappointing than a black person who does not do anything ‘black’, especially on television. This is precisely how M.I.A. ruins everything for people who desperately want her to do something exotic. For these people, no one else has more potential to be the Discovery Channel with a supercatchy beat than M.I.A. They have no qualms about using the words ‘exotic princess’ to describe her appearance. They were thrilled when she said something in her foreign native languages at the beginning of her song ‘Ten Dollar’. When describing the way she dresses, they like to mention ‘African prints’ as often as possible.

It is interesting to note that like the previously-mentioned ruined people, these people are also not happy that M.I.A. talks like one of the chimney sweeps from Mary Poppins. I believe it would be in everyone’s best interests if M.I.A. started speaking Swedish, which is also exotic but in a non-threatening way.

M.I.A. RUINS EVERYTHING BECAUSE WE CAN’T TELL IF SHE’S A TERRORIST OR JUST PRETENDING TO BE ONE
It’s important to remember that many people outside our corner of the world can’t find Sri Lanka on a map and don’t know who a Tamil is. So learning that those kitschy tigers on M.I.A.’s art and in her videos are like the ones used by some terrorist organisation from way over there is a bit like looking at a conflict diamond. It’s shiny but more importantly, it’s dangerous, which is the best kind of shiny. In other words, it’s really haute.

Learning that the Tigers in M.I.A.’s videos are like those used by terrorists is a bit like looking at a conflict diamond

But after this initial hauteness fades, we find that rather than take the time to explore and understand the actual conflict or issue behind the ‘terrorist imagery’ that M.I.A. uses, it’s usually a lot easier to just react to the word ‘terrorist’. Which, like the word ‘racist’, is one of those things that many people don’t really understand but are scared of anyway. So you get two kinds of ruination here.

PC Ruination: M.I.A. is a terrorist and terrorism ruins everything.

Non-PC or ‘Edgy’ Ruination: M.I.A. is just pretending to be a terrorist and pretend terrorists ruin everything.

M.I.A. RUINS EVERYTHING BY LIVING IN BRENTWOOD WHEN SHE SHOULD BE LIVING IN A HOLE IN THE GROUND IN A THIRD WORLD COUNTRY
You know how some people buy ‘African’ wooden elephants from some store because they want to tell everyone they got these wooden elephants from Africa when they actually got them from some store? This is sort of what happens when you buy an artist’s product not because you’re interested in what they’re selling, but because you want to appropriate whatever street cred you think that artist has. The risk factor here is that when you believe that street cred has disappeared, the African wooden elephants will suddenly cease to be African and you will feel cheated. Who is to blame? The store? The elephants? Africa? There are no clear answers.

All we can say is that it’s a real bummer to buy M.I.A. paraphernalia as an investment in Third World street cred and then watch her do the most un- ThirdWorldly thing ever by moving to Brentwood, which is apparently where rich celebrity people like to live in the country of L.A. For some reason, M.I.A. would rather live there than in a hole in the ground, which is where all rich and famous Third World people are supposed to live. In this instance, M.I.A. ruins everything by being a Third World cheatercock who should be riding on crowded buses and hanging out with scruffy, native ‘rebel’ factions who like to street dance in their spare time while engaging in harmlessly anti-American behaviour. She should not be living in Brentwood.

There is an ancient proverb in my country that says street cred is like AmericanCallCenter accent. Once people get over the novelty of it, they will start making fun of it. That’s not really a proverb in my country but the point is that the move to Brentwood has spawned some fine M.I.A. parodies, my favourite so far being M.I.A.-Paper Planes Brentwood Redux featuring Lindy Jamil Gomez. But seriously, does M.I.A.’s music suddenly sound really bad now that she lives in Brentwood? Did it sound ‘edgier’ when everyone thought it came out of a hole in the ground in Sri Lanka? If I said I lived in a hole in the ground in a Third World country, would more people buy my book?

Manickavel is the author of Insects Are Just like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings

Photo: AFP

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