, July 13th, 2010 11:20
In 'Born Free', M.I.A. sings "I don't wanna talk about money, cause I got it."
So fine, let's not talk about that. Everyone else does, and if you want to read a thoughtful breakdown of Maya's economic privileges, truffle fries and radical chic, check out Jessica Hopper's excellent review at the Chicago Reader. But over here, let's talk about "Whuffie", and what makes this record so damn irritating.
Whuffie is a ridiculously-named fictional currency invented by science fiction author Cory Doctorow. It's a currency based on reputation in a post-money, digitally networked, economy, and it's exchangable for all the perks and status money can buy, and then some. You do or make nice things for other people; your reputation and Whuffie soar. You're a mean, nonsharing asshole, and guess what happens. It sort of works like an honor code, and it's something that social media gurus like to talk about when they write papers about social networks and reputational transactions, or online influencers and nodes of cultural power.
But Whuffie doesn't exactly translate to online networks or even networks of celebrity. In Doctorow's conception of it, people who exchange this currency are networked through brain chips that can constantly update everyone's Whuffie, everywhere, in real time. That's a lot of data to crunch, but no one can hide. Whuffie kind of makes sense on a smaller level - if you have some friends who do nothing but retweet on Twitter, or you know some people on Facebook who never respond to anything you put up but expect a stream of likes and comments on their nonstop spamflow about their band just because, they're irritating. When you can see the whole set of relationships in a social network, it's easier to figure out who is contributing what, who reciprocates and engages with their connections, and who the cultural stars are.
Whuffie falls apart when networks get too big to monitor. We're all an audience without brain chips, so beyond our local networks, we don't have the whole picture, and it's easy to see networked collaborators at a certain influencing level as powerful, productive equals, rather than the slacking schmoozes they sometimes are. And powerful networks are fortresses against criticism. If creator X works with creators Y and Z, who are connected to creators P and Q, and everybody in this alphabet soup of connection but X is a hardcore creative force, X gets a pass that a nonconnected creator wouldn't because of a boost from the network's reputation. The slacker node also protects itself: critics are more hesitant to criticize X because that would imply criticism of the rest of the network, and could incur wrath or lack of access from productive nodes Y, Z, P, and Q. Smart manipulators can use this opacity to their advantage. MAYA is a record that sells itself on its links to its collaborators and ultimately it lets all of them down.
Everyone collaborates now, and for the most part, cross-pollination is great. Lady Gaga rules here; joining forces with Beyonce, both become more than the sum of their parts. Even reviews of an uneven album like Christina Aguilera's Bionic find something to love about it from stirring up the featured guests (Nicki Minaj on 'Woohoo' steals the show) and guest producers' magic touches (including Le Tigre, Polow Da Don, Peaches and M.I.A. herself, who joined forces with Switch to produce Aguilera's pingy 'Elastic Love',).
MAYA features at least six producers, 'Born Free' rides around on on a Suicide sample, and guest mixes are popping up all over the internet. All of this would be fine, but the songs at the centre of this campaigning just sound both calculated to get the most exposure by maximising connections to collaborators, and lazy for it. That's not a contradiction; On M.I.A.'s MySpace, there's a mix of the song 'Xxxo' with a guest appearance from Jay-Z, where he shuffles in, rattles off a verse, and pisses off, for no reason than to jack the number of plays in the counter up tenfold. Great for views, great for SEO, but a Beyonce/Gaga collaboration it ain't. Single 'Teqkilla' is a powerdrill assault with inane lyrics (M.I.A. shrieks "I got some stickky ikky weeeed/I got a shot of Teqkilla in meeee" between some puns about booze last seen on a witty poster in Camden Market ) the 'Lost my phone out wiv Nicki' remix', featuring Nicki Minaj, isn't much better; Minaj starts by shouting out 'Maya, your shit is on fire' but ends by saying, "yeah, I'm fucked up", like the song's a throwaway, and it shouldn't be taken all that seriously.
Minaj is a good example of how to play connectedness right - she's going supernova with her own album, after spending the last year grafting away at higher and higher-altitude guest spots. But Minaj has made a name for herself by putting in more than she takes out of her collaborations, and on MAYA, M.I.A. seems content to do the opposite and coast.
Then there's straight up cynical marketing. The subtle-as-an-acme-anvil video for 'Born Bree' was something that M.I.A. admits to doing based on Gaga's ubiquity in long-form YouTube event videos, and all her Gaga-bashing just reads as jealousy of not getting there first.
And good Lord, some of these lyrics are just awful, especially the 'political' ones. 'The Story To Be Told' complains about the pope, over jet whooshes, and muezzin vocals. Or how about 'Lovalot', with its playground chant refrain of "I fight the ones that fight me," rhymes of "Gandhi" with "Bob Marley", shoutouts to Hu Jintao and breaks that sound like the siren noise from Tag Team's 'Whoomp! There it is!'. 'Tell Me Why' is an autotune whine with snares on a military tattoo set against a backwash of Animal Collective-ist seagull synths, but it comes off as a slowed down remix of Jordin Sparks' 'Battlefield'. It's all airless, joyless, too dead in tone to even tell if it's sneering or attempting tribute. Maybe it's the flatness of M.I.A.'s voice, the petulant, "yeah, so?" of her tone that can't laugh at dumb lines that so, so need it. Album closer 'Space' is a stoner drift so limp that could have wafted out of a Bristol wine bar in 1998: "My lines are down you can't call me/ as I float around in space odyssey" breathed over a melody that doesn't go anywhere. Nothing wrong with stoners, but there's a world of difference between the full on, wild eyed, unashamed Phillip K. Dick-style conspiracy ranter on a mission to save the world and the Haagen-Daazs'n'box-set internet bore. I know which one's music I'd rather listen to.
The closest thing to full-on conspiracy here is opening track 'The Message', a twitchy sort of 'Dem Bones' with a typewritery click beat where "Head bone's connected to the headphones/ headphones connect to the iPhone/ iPhone's connected to the internet/connected to the Google/connected to the government". Oh really? Maybe in the US, but certainly not the UK government, as anyone with a concussion from facepalming at our MPs' technological cluelessness during hearings for the Digital Economy Bill will tell you.
M.I.A. has gone on record suggesting Google and Facebook are CIA conspiracies , but they're really more problematic for acting like landless states answerable to no one but themselves, as they tailor their search engines for China's censors and sell off your privacy to anyone willing to pay. Yet whoever's the big brother bogeyman of the great data clouds, M.I.A.'s not that bothered when it's time to sell stuff, and all platforms are go. When M.I.A. took over Pitchfork's Twitter feed for a few days, she spouted enough craziness to make Courtney Love look lucid. Courtney's not a bad comparison; being an obnoxious loudmouth (bless her) keeps people talking. During M.I.A.'s time on Pitchfork's Twitter, the pissed off unfollows were doubled by people complaining about unfollowing, and retweets of the tweets that were the most, 'Say what?' Even the Lynn Hirschberg 'Oh no she didn't' mobile-number-posting Twitter war was the kind of bratty gesture that can only be pulled off by people who really know how to work the system. It's a fine balance, being an uberconsumable rebel. Forget her record label, M.I.A. could start a digital agency.
Mostly, though, this album annoys because it feels like an entitled grab towards a kind of critical success by sharp marketing (or anti-marketing), association with connected collaborators and past reputation (and if you're feeling ungenerous, you could argue that some of that piggybacked on the Clash, Diplo, etc. etc.) I'm wary of going there, because that's also a fairly lame, and fairly common, attack on any female musician and producer who might have anything approaching ambition. It's the 'Kurt Cobain/Billy Corgan/whoever really wrote all of Courtney Love's songs' non-argument that says more about the person spouting it than the intended target.
But M.I.A. can do better than this. I just want to see some engagement. How about some more thoughtful lyrics? Political rants that sting and twitch more than a G20 roll-call would be a good start. How about some collaborations that produce weird, unmarketable blow-your-head-off beats instead of synergistic hangover cluster headaches? Connectedness is not necessarily connection, and in Doctorow's world, with its brainchipped bullshit detectors, confusing the two would be very bad form.
That said, one song on this album, 'It Takes a Muscle', shows how well M.I.A. can do understatement. It is a perfect waterslide sundowner of palm-tree swaying dancehall bliss. It's the kind of thing that if somebody was cleaning out Compass Point studios and found this on an anonymous master tape from 1979, and then put it up on an MP3 blog somewhere, it would go viral. It's gorgeous - for once M.I.A.'s voice goes all passionate and catches on its chorus honks of "it takes a muscle to fall in lo-oo-ove" like a rum-drunk swan. Dunno who produced it, no one shows up to shake their moneymaker halfway through, and there's no half-assed ranting about "meds&feds" or whatever. This song doesn't need any of that to be the kind of thing reputations are built on.