Steven Patrick Morrissey once said that it is very easy to be controversial in pop music because nobody ever is. That is partially the logic of mass consumption, music made for millions is often judiciously wary of accidentally alienating them. And even artists whose idiosyncratic work manages to reach audiences never dreamed of are just as often nervous of giving up the identity of that work to the thick sludge of controversy, a word that devours its subject. But most people do believe in things, and one or both of these pressures often force them to stay silent or express themselves only in the language of very generic universalisms.
Some, however, do not. And conventional wisdom would say the singer, rapper, and visual artist Maya Arulpragasam does not, as well. Under the moniker M.I.A., she was an underground sensation and later a global pop star and still a top-billing festival act during her last tour. Underneath her hits and her deep cuts were the observations of a keen documentarian, who used the verbose vocabulary of 2000s rap to fit in portraits of angry revolutionaries and disappointed refugees.
It makes sense that she was also an actual documentarian, who carried a camera by her side for much of her life and, in fact, spent her college years at St. Martin’s studying to become a documentary filmmaker. Now, one of her friends from those years who did become a filmmaker, Steve Loveridge, has culled some of that handheld footage into Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., a movie that splices it with coverage of M.I.A. on TV as the figurehead of a pop sensation. The effect of Loveridge’s choices feel almost alarmingly cohesive and summon as much M.I.A. as the decade she herself evoked.
“I’ve always wanted to be a documentary filmmaker,” Maya says early in Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. Much of what she documents here is her early life, sandwiched between the London where she was born and Sri Lanka, where her father is a notable revolutionary for the Tamil cause — though she has been at pains, later in her career, to tell journalists that he was not a member of the Tamil Tigers, a group whose imagery she would use early in her career and whom some Sri Lankan politicians consider terrorists. Some people, largely the people he is fighting against, considered him a terrorist nonetheless, which from this distance feels like a bit of biographical baggage more curious than the standard-issue privilege of most talented people.
There is an element of poverty here as well — art as a route to making it out of these streets, though Loveridge does not include Maya’s old anecdote of losing her teeth to malnutrition. Instead, we get the one of her suddenly hearing the low-bass thump of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, reverberating through the cheap walls of a council flat in South London, where she can hear it and can kill the two birds of explaining her interest in rap music and politics with one savvy stone.
When Maya was first a teller of these tales and her audience were largely music journalists, they were greeted with excitement. When her audience became the millions of people humming her smash hit “Paper Planes,” journalists were more apprehensive and wanted to tell her story themselves and this might have marked the first of the many controversies of M.I.A. “I’ve interviewed a million musicians. No one’s struck me as being as dishonest as she is,” an anonymous journalist told the novelist Gary Shteyngart for his GQ cover story on the singer.
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. judiciously presents just one of these battles: between her and Lynn Hirschberg of The New York Times. It is notorious. In print, Hirschberg describes Maya’s clothing as a collection of “ethnic accents” and her discussion of politics as an ill-informed “tirade.” In its most remembered bit, she describes Maya eating a truffle-flavored french fry shortly after saying, “I kind of want to be an outsider.”
Ever the documentarian jones, Maya would later provide tapes of Hirschberg ordering the dish herself. But almost a decade later, Loveridge is judiciously downtempo on “trufflegate.” Footage of the Devil Wears Prada-image of Hirschberg, pretending to gush over the chance to meet the moment’s latest pop star appears and then we hear someone soon after reading from the bitter screed in the paper of record.
Loveridge spends more time litigating M.I.A.’s issues with YouTube, which took down a number of her music videos citing their violent imagery, a judgment that seems prudish today, especially considering something like Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” But it’s the debates with the Lynn Hirschbergs of the world that animate the question of what a singer like M.I.A. means today. Journalists have become more convinced of their imminent martyrdom now more than ever and it is probably best to not underline M.I.A. as an anti-free-press kind of celebrity in an age where Chance the Rapper is out there buying entire newspapers in order to make sure nobody ever speaks ill of his live shows again.
And yet. M.I.A. was, to borrow a phrase from the music journalist Alex Frank, “the very first hipster pop star.” The pioneering novelty of such a position forced her to withstand a barrage of what now feels like was Gen X authenticity nonsense or maybe a coded racism. By the time a white dude from Seattle was rapping about wearing vintage five years later, it was already ubiquitous enough to be a joke that also won a ton of Grammys.
Does Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. carry its subject’s enthusiastic endorsement? Can we see the movie as her statement about herself? At Sundance, she said absolutely not; in the last month, she stepped out of her announced retirement to go on a publicity tour to promote the film’s wide release. Loveridge’s presence in it feels like that of Maya’s ghostwriter, using the material of her life to create a reflection and statement that, at any rate, carries the feeling of contemplative memoir.
And what dominates these memories is guilt. The guilt of the art school golden child, who left a life close to the twin hearts of violence and poverty for the unreal heart of public entertainer (“In order for you to sell a lot of fucking records, you have to basically get rid of all the politics” is a bolded money quote from her interview with Frank for the short-lived Pitchfork Review, though it’s notable that in Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., Loveridge lets her family members do the work of providing this criticism).
Guilt continues to shape the arc of her career. Around the time that she marries a wealthy heir to some of the Lehman fortune, words surface in the international sections of newspapers that some 100,000 Tamil people may or may not have been killed in a systematic genocide. Maya and M.I.A. the pop star has no problem calling it this, something happening simultaneously with peace talks between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government.
This is awkward for the Sri Lankan government, having spent much of their lives under the safe assumption that just about anything could take place in their country safe from coverage by MTV. She is called a terrorist sympathizer, a baited phrase aimed at middle America, still in the middle of a war on terror. This would matter less without the marriage and the Hirschberg profile, which scans her as too champagne socialist to rally stans for the cause, and bad reviews and bad sales start begin pouring in, as M.I.A. goes from voice of the young people to a hmm curiosity.
Loveridge’s footage stops at Super Bowl XLVI, the final moment that M.I.A. would occupy the thoughts of Taylor Swift fans. She is brought on stage by Madonna to perform their (and Nicki Minaj’s) collaboration “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” as a gesture by America’s Pop Star at offering M.I.A. a space to atone before a clapping public who will, hopefully, accept her apology and buy some of her records. M.I.A. makes a vocal, public, and also silent objection and flips off the hundred million people watching.
Or maybe Maya does. In Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., she doesn’t codify her $16.6 million-rejection of this bargain in the anti-consumerist politics of, say, Banksy’s shredding canvases. Recording her feelings shortly after the fact, she explains that it was looking at Madonna, legitimately one of M.I.A.’s icons and, instead of seeing her as the latest white woman serving her on a platter, she sees her as a woman whose style and ineffable cool are being just as viciously hijacked by blank-eyed NFL owners.
The end of Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is peppered with just those NFL officials, who enter suddenly and whose faces are blurred, an effect that gives the footage the feeling of one of those viral videos of police beatings. Soon, the public face of these stooges enters, a collection of clips showing Fox News talking heads who ask how red-white-and-blue Madonna could possibly have done this to us, her children. “We all love those songs from the ’80s and [Madonna] chooses M.I.A., who is not even an American, and to do this thing about world peace?,” former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino asks.
Arriving now, the quiet reflection of Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is that we failed Maya — if not quite M.I.A., the so-called terrorist — but failed her as a woman of color who was treated like a joke because she was “not even an American,” i.e. a woman of color in the racist doublespeak of Fox News. The most coherent articulation of this in Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. comes earlier, from a clip of Bill Maher, who mocks her cockney accent.
But if M.I.A. was the progenitor of wokeness as a stance that popular musicians could occasionally take, as she is sometimes remembered for today, have we really moved past these stumbling blocks? I’m thinking of here of someone like Cardi B, whose own Bronx accent has been greeted with the chirping condescension of the talk show crowd. I’m thinking also of the pop stars of color who haven’t retired, like Beyoncé, who refuses to be interviewed by The New York Times or anywhere else and has rejected everyday language altogether as a way to publicly engage. Is M.I.A. ultimately a cautionary tale against giving a Lynn Hirschberg or a Bill Maher anything to work with?
The comparison with Beyoncé suggests itself, also, because the main thing missing in Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is any mention of M.I.A.’s later dismissal of the Black Lives Matter movement in general and Beyoncé’s personification of it in particular in 2016, occasioned by Beyoncé’s own performance at the Super Bowl. At the time, the event was serious enough to have M.I.A.’s headlining performance at Afropunk London canceled and mute the reception of her final record, AIM.
Perhaps this is excised because Loveridge had over 400 hours to edit and saw the Super Bowl as the final moment M.I.A. was in the full light of public conciseness and was thus a natural ending point. Maybe the rest of her life is being saved for a future release; at some point in the past, Loveridge was making a film that was supposed to anticipate M.I.A.’s first post-Super Bowl album, 2013’s Matangi, and also feature interviews with Diplo and Kanye West (Diplo had produced some of M.I.A.’s first two records, including “Paper Planes.” West once produced and rapped on a T.I. song that was built on a sample of “Paper Planes.” Of the two, only Diplo appears at all, in the background of footage as Maya’s then-girlfriend).
Or, perhaps it is because, as Mallika Rao wrote in her review of the film for Vulture, the beef with Beyoncé and BLM is “the only controversy that doesn’t benefit from a new bent in public consciousness.” But thinking about the two of them is interesting: a trained American pop singer who first broke solo by accompanying rap’s vernacular and an untrained British rapper who broke it by actually rapping in it.
Even the handheld realism of Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. and the movie’s absence of almost any of M.I.A’s performances contrast with the formal elegance of Beyoncé’s own public autobiographical reflections, which are themselves all well-choreographed performances of songs you can buy when they come out. More to the point was that M.I.A.’s irony-drenched politic refused to adjust to the hyper sincerity and officious elegance that slowly followed 2008 and slowly made Beyoncé into the only pop star that matters.
M.I.A. was and maybe still is the performer simmering underground in the spirit of Bush-era America, one with little trouble identifying with terrorists and villains. The pop doors had opened for M.I.A. and she refused to bend to enter them. It would be melodramatic to suggest that she was punished for this or that there was some last straw pulled and there are worse prisons then the mansion of your millionaire husband. But maybe it’s not so easy to be controversial in pop music. Or at least to remain there.