Scratched Into Our Souls

M.I.A. – “Tell Me Why” | July 6, 2010

Three years ago, the Sri Lankan visual artist and musician Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, fondly known as M.I.A., released a magnificent album, the commodified world-music meets American dance-hall sonic adventure Kala. A year later, a well-placed spot for “Paper Planes” in the theatrical trailer to the stoner-action movie Pineapple Express managed to accomplish what thousands of bloggers couldn’t, turning M.I.A. into a bona-fide pop star. This morning, advance copies of her newest offering, /\/\ /\ Y /\ finally hit the back alleys of the internet.

I’m not going to lie, I was holding my breath quite a bit. Kala and Arular remain two of my favorite albums of the last decade, and I was worried that newfound fame and fortune would turn into label pressure that would result in a sub-par bid for accessibility and hit singles a-la “Paper Planes.” Those concerns seem rather silly now that I’ve heard /\/\ /\ Y /\ in its entirety. If anything, M.I.A. doesn’t do what anybody wants from her. /\/\ /\ Y /\ isn’t exactly what mainstream audiences are going to expect from her, but the songs remain immensely catchy underneath their disorienting sonic-blitzkrieg. Similarly, this record sounds nothing like her first two albums, and she seems to want to challenge her original fans with a release that’s heavily indebted to various forms of electronic music, noise-pop, dubstep (and its offshoots), and any other genres she can manage to appropriate over the span of sixteen songs.

That leads to a bunch of itching questions. Who exactly is the intended audience for an album like this? Will music this far removed from mainstream pop sensibilities yet still littered with hooks stand a chance on the charts? Will the purists and older fans condemn her for her new sound, subsequently writing this album off as lacking the heart of Kala and Arular? Only time will tell.

Until then, decide for yourself what you think of the song “Tell Me Why,” which features a bright and bouncy vocal choir that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on her first two albums. M.I.A. works an interesting trick by selling you exoticism and acting as an ambassador of the world, when we very well know that the exoticism is commodified and just a perceived exoticism. With a sprightly bass-line underpinning one of the best hooks on the album, you’ll likely forgive her for all of her radical politics and the marketing-stunt-posing-as-a-music-video that she released for first single “Born Free.”

Like Kanye West, M.I.A. makes herself difficult to love. But, just like Kanye West, she pushes herself artistically with every album, and the results are often surprising, brilliant, and hard not to admire.

Listen: M.I.A. – “Tell Me Why”


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    About Me: Chris Robinson

    A budding writer and avid music fan from Los Angeles, California, I am a recent graduate of Music History from UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music. I've written for the UCLA Daily Bruin, graduated valedictorian from high school, and enjoy many different types of music, from The Beatles to Beethoven, and everything in between. I wrote my senior thesis on lyrical misinterpretations in popular music, focusing on Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

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    All music posted on this blog is for sampling purposes only. If you like what you hear, support the artists. Go out and buy their music, attend their shows, and buy merchandise.

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