M.I.A. challenges God, fans on Governor’s Island

M.I.A. (Louis Beche via flickr.)
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“Can I get more gunshots, please?” Maya Arulpragasam asked in the middle of a downpour early Sunday morning on Governor’s Island. Arulpragasam, who performs as M.I.A., was the headliner of the day-long Hard NYC festival of dance music, featuring acts like Sleigh Bells, Die Antwoord, Skream + Benga, Rye Rye, and Ninjasonik. But not even the sound effects were going her way.

She wasn’t properly miked, the levels were all off and her beats were drowned in noise. M.I.A. was clearly as pissed off about it as the audience: she spent one of her songs doing nothing but yelling at the sound team, and finally threw one of her mics into the audience in disgust.

It wasn’t the concert she probably wanted for this defining moment in her career. The stakes of the show were high. Hard NYC’s sister festival, Hard L.A., was planned for July 17 but was cancelled due to poor ticket sales. This made Hard NYC M.I.A.’s first major live appearance since receiving the twin blows of a poor Pitchfork review for her latest album, Maya, and a highly critical cover story in The New York Times Magazine. It was time for her to throw down, show us that she could still bring the fire and fury that made her famous in the first place.

The on-stage visuals were a clear product of M.I.A.’s megalomaniac, globe-trotting imagination: women in blacklight-responsive burqas came out brandishing neon-painted power drills, lasers shaped like roads projected outward from the sides, and wildly surreal images played out on a giant video screen that filled the entire stage. It was perfectly emblematic of this moment in her career: with her rise to fame, M.I.A. now has a platform as large as her ambitions, and she has used it (most notably on her new album, which is far more interesting than its detractors give it credit for) to promote a stranger, more noise-heavy sound.

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And her sense of herself as an icon has never been more acute. While Lynn Hirschberg’s article was perhaps snider than it needed to be, its portrait of M.I.A. as an artist who truly sees herself as a messianic embodiment of her influences was largely accurate. She has made herself into a tower of Babel uniting musical languages from all over the world. It could have been a turning point, the moment M.I.A. proved that her new material, despite the reviews, could galvanize a crowd like her old stuff, the moment that answered the question of whether or not her gamble on a stranger sound would pay off. But this question went unanswered: like the original tower of Babel, M.I.A. apparently angered God, and after performing for only about half an hour—mostly songs from her first two albums—a torrent of rain started coming down and the sky lit up, ending the show.

The revelation of the festival, as it happens, wasn’t that M.I.A. had failed or succeeded, but that it didn’t matter. She’s won: her influence has changed music and gained a remarkably wide audience for other artists who share her disdain for genre boundaries.

Artists like the trio Ninjasonik, who set the mood for the day with a set that was unabashedly about partying. They came down and ran around in the audience, varied their beats constantly, drew samples from everywhere (even from the faux-African chant that opens The Lion King), and spit joyous lyrics about getting laid and getting messed up on drugs. One highlight was the surprise appearance of a couple of members of the Australian punk group The Death Set. Together they performed a live mashup of The Death Set track “Negative Thinking” and Ninjasonik’s brilliantly stupid party jam “Tight Pants Wearin’ Ass Nigga.” This spirit of cross-genre collaboration was easily one of the best things about the festival: The Death Set performs a brand of electronic-heavy dance punk, yet they sounded right at home jamming with a hip hop act. Later on, the whole Ninjasonik/Death Set team hopped on the stage during Rye Rye’s set, to the audience’s enthusiastic cheers.

Indeed, both Rye Rye and Ninjasonik represented a style of hip hop that courts real variety in the styles it assimilates. In Rye Rye’s case, the debt owed to M.I.A. is more than just metaphorical: M.I.A. discovered Rye Rye—Ryeisha Berrain—in Baltimore and brought her to national attention. But M.I.A.’s influence could be felt in nearly all the other acts: a few years ago, it was M.I.A. alongside Diplo and Blaqstarr who helped popularize the lo-fi Baltimore Club sound, a sound that depends on simple drumkit beats and isolated noises. This sound jostled alongside the hi fi, high production sounds exemplified by British Dubstep overlords Skream and Benga in almost every one of the other acts at the festival. Brooklyn band Sleigh Bells delivered one of the most exciting performances of the day, layering brutally exaggerated bass beats through which a female voice—sounding not unlike M.I.A.—barely penetrated. It was a true celebration of diversity, and whether you think it works or not, whether you approve of it or not, M.I.A. has made this concept—diversity of aesthetic, diversity of culture—the foundation of her fame.

One phenomenon that the festival demonstrated was the unlikely triumph of rave culture. Throughout the festival, the specter of rave was constantly channeled, in forms that ranged from the four-to-the-floor beats, lasers and sirens that were present in a lot of the major acts to a totally unexpected hardcore DJ playing on the second stage early in the day. And as far as the audience went, there were way more brightly colored, beaded candy bracelets on the attendees than one would expect in 2010 (there was at least one circle of boys contentedly chewing on pacifiers in the corner). While this demonstrates rave’s improbable victory as a cultural phenomenon, that victory might be pyrrhic: it made itself obsolete precisely through its omnipresence in other genres. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The ubiquity of rave means that there’s a lot more diversity in the music that can reasonably be grouped together under the label “dance” or “party music.”

As with rave, so with M.I.A.: she no longer even needs to be good, since her influence will survive even her most embarrassing performance. But shows like this one do poke holes in her self-mythologization as a culturally indispensable force. Clearly still smarting from the technical problems, she tweeted on Sunday, “money doesnt buy u shit! i thought more money means better sound guys in america/\/\/\! i was wrong, the higher u go, they turn u lower!” A few minutes later, she added, “but the lesson is, its not technology! that still didn't stop us! its bigger then that!”

It’s far from certain whether M.I.A. is, in fact, “bigger then that,” but, undeterred, she’s on to Europe, to new sound guys, and—we hope—to sunnier skies.