Pop provocateur moves crowd, but not to action

Review: M.I.A. proved that politics and dance parties don't mix well at Sunday's Cornell show.

Say what you will of M.I.A.’s taste in French fries, child-rearing practices or Sri Lankan political parties – the pop provocateur keeps a crowd entertained.

“If they think I’m f------ bad, I’m gonna be f------ bad,” she spouts, inexplicably, from the stage of Cornell University’s Barton Hall. “And my bad’s not just putting out some f------ s--- hit or something.”

Photo: Mackenzie Reiss
M.I.A. fans surge to the front of the concert hall during Sunday night's show.

We may never know who “they” are or how they spurred this momentary meltdown – perhaps M.I.A. is still haunted by the demons of her humiliating Hard Festival show, or the damning New York Times profile that narrowly preceded it – but whatever the cause, the girl had a point. Her latest album, /\/\/\Y/\, was a critical and commercial flop when it dropped last July. By her own admission, she’s completely tone-deaf. And God knows she doesn’t have the slightest clue when it comes to issues of politics, despite her now-infamous views on poverty, violence and censorship.

But where there’s a crowd, a smoke machine and some precarious things to climb on, M.I.A. can put on a show like few you’ve ever seen.

In fact, the British-born Maya Arulpragasm has mastered virtually every gimmick in the pop star playbook. Her set began enigmatically enough: a cloud of blue smoke, a silhouette on stage, a team of double-jointed background dancers who popped, locked and mimed with mind-bending abandon. M.I.A. is quite a dancer herself, and she snaked from stage right to left on “Illygirl” and “World Town,” throwing off an army-print cape and a pair of sunshine yellow sunglasses while her DJ laid sirens and booming tribal beats in the background.

Later in the set, apparently frustrated by the crowd’s complacence – aside from some brief raving on the club-banger “XR2,” the kids acted exactly like Ivy Leaguers on a school night – M.I.A. spontaneously ran to stage left and climbed a towering bank of speakers. (“Uh, we did not know she was going to do that,” a member of Cornell’s Concert Commission said afterward. “Yeah, that was – that was definitely not planned.”)

That rebelliousness is also definitely why people love – and hate, and love to hate – the obnoxiously subtext-laden star. When Maya emerged from South London in 2005, the indie press championed her as some sort of eclectic, multicultural collagist, a post-nationalist curator with an ear for global beats. But since releasing her second LP Kala in 2007, M.I.A.’s most memorable moments have taken place outside the music – on her Twitter feed, for instance, where she instructs followers on the finer points of politics. (“JUST LETTING YOU KNOW INTELLIGENCE AND TRUTH MIGHT NOT BE FRIENDS,” she warned last November.)

These days, she doesn’t perform so much as proselytize, her set so full of gratuitous gun samples and pseudo-activist rants as to become something much more sinister and ironic than a well-priced college concert.

Take the somewhat uncomfortable moment, roughly two-thirds through the set, when M.I.A. invited students to join her on-stage for an unsmiling rendition of “Born Free.”

The students were smiling, of course – and taking photos, texting their friends and gyrating drunkenly around the stage. M.I.A. had climbed back on the speakers, intoning the lyrics to a song whose music video was banished from many mainstream outlets, including Youtube. That nine-minute epic – incendiary, even by her standards – shows American soldiers rounding up redheaded kids and killing them in a field.

As she pulled audience members onto the stage, a machine gun clattered in the background.

It’s possible that these particular audience members had never seen the video for “Born Free” or read about M.I.A.’s radical politics. Maybe they somehow missed the message when M.I.A. passed an empty bottle of tequila into the crowd and ordered students “to keep s--- moving – keep information moving!” (Worth noting: this particular antic proceeded the deliberately misspelled “Teqkilla,” which is the closest M.I.A. gets to mindless club drivel).

But either way, it was disconcerting to watch the crowd of oblivious smartphone-brandishers rush M.I.A. for her picture, Myspace-style, and scream out lyrics like “some I murder, some I let go” as if they didn’t understand the words – or just didn’t care to. Even earlier in the set, M.I.A. rallied the crowd with shouts of “where my boys at, where my boys at?” before launching into “Boyz” – a chirpy number that owes a lot to India and had most of the Ivy Leaguers bumping. The song describes poverty, violence and alcoholism in a third-world slum.

But as oblivious as M.I.A.’s fans are to her crusades, the artist herself doesn’t exactly appear to have a handle on things. As much as she sings about poverty and mimes mowing her fans down with machine guns, M.I.A. is making bank off this show – and when she finishes her set and returns backstage, there will doubtlessly be a spread of artisanal cheeses awaiting her.

Nevertheless, as her DJ slowed the beat to “Paper Planes,” looping a lazy “swagger like us” ad infinitum in the background, M.I.A. made one final stab at conversion. 

“There’s better s--- to be doing with our time!”

(Photos: Mackenzie Reiss)

well done, team

Kick ass photos and review, ladies.

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