RIP Ari Up

Where to begin. It’s been a few days and I’m still sad, still a bit shocked, still listening to The Slits a lot, but the latter is nothing new. I always listen to The Slits a lot because they continue to be a reliable source for joy and inspiration. And they’re always just a lot of fun.

Ari Up

I’m sorry I didn’t see Ari Up live more, I took her constant stream of New York shows for granted. I did see a reincarnation of The Slits open for Sonic Youth’s live presentation of Daydream Nation a few years ago. I was delighted by Ari’s undying punk spirit, spitting in the eye of confused, misogynist hipster who were horrified to see a woman in her 40s unapologetically jumping around the stage in a flippy little skirt while singing odes to shoplifting. Ari Up exuded boundless love for her audience and herself, at the same time as flipping off all the bullshit surrounding us and within us.

A friend recently asked why I single out Vampire Weekend for criticism for cultural appropriation when the entire history of pop music is of the same. It would be an injustice to the question if I tried to fold a real response into this post, but a short answer is: compare Vampire Weekend and The Slits. The difference (besides one being boring and the other revolutionary) is a matter of sincerity and respect. With the encouragement and mentorship of Don Letts, the Slits began incorporating reggae into their punk rock, creating a mind blowing new sound with all kinds of interesting and complicated implications. While one could critique The Slits and Ari Up on grounds of cultural appropriation, their orientation towards the music that influenced them was more one of sincere engagement and exchange than opportunism, gimmicks, and entitlement.

You can hear the difference in the music. The music still moves me so much. The funny thing is, when I first started listening to The Slits as a high school Riot Grrrl, I liked their earlier, dirtier, straight-forward Punk Rawk more than the reggae stuff. At that point I really connected to loud messy guitars and cared less about rhythm than the energy with which one hit the drums. I loved the first half of In The Beginning and tended to skip the second. Everything reasonable I read about punk history was like “Cut, Cut, Omg Cut is the classic of classics” but when I first heard it, it was like the premiere performance of Rites of Spring. My brain just couldn’t make sense of it–how was this punk rock? That delightful puzzle is what has kept me listening for more than a decade, new gifts unearthed each time I hear these songs.

Apart from the Slits contribution to The Punk Rock, where would pop music be without them? The lineage runs directly into so many vital artists–Bjork, M.I.A., Madonna…

Almost everything I love about Ari Up can be heard on The Slits cover of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, a song that by all means should be a gimmicky train wreck. Instead it’s transcendent.

“New Town” is one of my favorite songs on Cut. Budgie (better known for Siouxie and the Banshees) is drumming here, and while he was only briefly a Slit, I wanna give him his due because I fucking love his work on this:

“New Town” is a great example of Ari Up’s imaginative and emotionally resonant lyrics.

Since we’re on it, here’s another of my favorite Slits songs, “Shoplifting”. This is a beloved Peel Sessions version, more up my high school alley. Ari was just a young teenager herself:

Here’s the song as performed by a recent incarnation of the group less than a year ago:

“Ten quid for the lot? We pay fuck all!”

A good in-depth look at The Slits can be found in Zoe Street Howe’s Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits.

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M.I.A. Again

This quote from a recent Time Out London interview is getting a lot of internet mileage:

…Oprah seemed really pissed off with me. Also she made this huge speech at the ball praising Lady Gaga and about how she [Lady Gaga] is helping Americans to be the best of themselves. There’s millions of other Americans who represent that for me. Is [it] about numbers? About how much you’re selling? Is it truly about the journey? Because [Lady Gaga’s] journey isn’t that difficult: to go from the fucking Upper East Side to a fucking performing arts school and on to a stage at the museum of fucking wherever. That journey’s about four miles.’

Most of the internet thinks this is notable because

1. M.I.A. supposedly dissed Oprah

2. Gaga/M.I.A catfight continues!

3. More evidence that M.I.A. is OOC and needs “a time out

This is a predictable shame.  There was other way more interesting stuff in that interview.  Like:

‘I thought my [New York Times Magazine] cover was gonna be a part of… America’s campaign to soften the “them” and “us” thing. That’s what I thought I was being used as a tool for. That’s what I’m fucked off about: it felt like they were embracing the other and stabbing the other in the back at the same time.’

I read another interesting piece about M.I.A. last week, in Rolling Stone. It contains this quote:

My approach to politics is that I never said I’m smart, but why aren’t I allowed to write about my experience?…Why can’t I say, ‘Oh. my God, my school got shot by the government?’ I can’t say that, yet they can do it.

The piece then briefly recounts an incident from when M.I.A. was about eight years old, shortly before her family fled Sri Lanka for London, in which government troops surrounded and shot up her school, while class was in session.

Let’s backtrack to the quote people are talking about.

1. M.I.A. didn’t take a shot at Oprah.  She was obviously displeased at Oprah’s Gaga-boosting, but she hardly insulted the titan herself.  M.I.A.’s commentary regarding Oprah herself may have been gossipy, TMI, characteristically unfiltered, and unwise, but the whole “Ooooh, she went after Oprah!” meme is a little too shades of middle school.

2. The catfight meme is predictable and depressing.  Additionally, I don’t think Gaga’s notably privileged upbringing voids her artistry, if you think there’s anything otherwise worth admiring there.  That said, M.I.A. has a point.

I think US media and the internet mob are largely incapable of actually listening to what this woman is saying.

And I still don’t understand why the truffle fries fiasco was even a thing.  Even if she had ordered them herself rather than having them foisted on her by Lynn Hirschberg in an attempt to set up the singer as “hypocritical”, who the fuck cares?  Let the woman eat a fancy french fry.  Why is this a “contradiction”?  One can criticize economic stratification and still enjoy gourmet food.  Bono doesn’t get this kind of shit when he jets around wanking about third world debt relief in Armani.

Will the Real M.I.A. Please Stand Up?

Some Thoughts on M.I.A.’s new album, MAYA:

  • It’s really good.  MAYA is exciting like a mix tape (on cassette) back before you had the internet, if you’re old enough to even remember what that was like.  I used to get a lot of mix tapes when I did riot grrrl zines–new sounds from lo-fi, underground political bands.  This sounds similarly secretive, urgent, and difficult.  The pervasive punk influence appeals to a special place in my psyche, left largely undisturbed by pristine, protoolsed pop and rock.  Whether it holds up favorably to Kala remains to be seen.  It’s at least as good as Arular.  It’s an exciting, logical continuation of M.I.A.’s artistic growth.  The number of backlashy reviews disturbs me.
  • The sexist and racist meme of reducing M.I.A.’s role in her own songwriting and production dates way farther back than the Hirschberg hack job. I’m really tired of it. I’m shocked I haven’t come across a review of Xtina’s Bionic that credits Diplo for “Elastic Love” (one of the more critically approved tracks on the largely maligned album, written by M.I.A..) Why are so many invested in the notion that M.I.A. is the pretty, vacant, exotic face of a sophisticated musical operation masterminded by Smart White Men?
  • As to the negativity towards MAYA in particular: Maybe she’s being punished for not repeating Kala‘s winning formula of kaledoscopic hipster worldbeat.  People seemed to really dig that.  Maybe they were hoping Paul Simon would show up eventually and put things in order. Perhaps, despite some edgy lyrical content, Kala provided a kind of globalization lullaby anthology, we can all rock to the same stew of global sounds from places we don’t know anything about except, like, Bollywood! Or, Famine!  This album is less like that.  The musical inspiration leans more heavily towards machines and urgent, driving punk rock that gives a fuck.  As M.I.A. says on “Meds and Feds”:  “I just give a damn”.  Some people seem to hold that against her as, like most young punx, she doesn’t give a damn in the right way.
  • Journalists are justified in seeking out informed voices that may disagree with M.I.A.’s assessment that the Sri Lankan government is guilty of genocide.  Laypersons who scoff at M.I.A.’s assessment as ignorant of crazy or scandal mongering with no information other than their own emotional feedback (it’s nicer to think that things aren’t so bad, unless we somehow take pleasure in the tragedy): less so. Genocide is a  specific term, one we need to not throw around irresponsibly, and one might reasonably argue that some cases of murderous oppression of specific races or ethnicities don’t meet the criteria. Perhaps the broader “ethnic cleansing” could be more properly invoked, but when music critics and fans say “lol M.I.A. wingnut doesn’t know what she’s talking about in Sri Lanka” or whatevs, I rarely read or hear any such arguments. They seem to relish to notion that MIA is talking out of her ass much more than they are disturbed by whatever the fuck is happening in some exotic third world nation across the globe, I mean, global politics are complicated. Ignorant snark is fun.
  • Relatedly, I don’t take M.I.A.’s comments about google and Facebook being started by the CIA at literal face value, given her cheeky media side.  I could be wrong, maybe she means EXACTLY JUST THAT. Either way, the rest of her comments in interviews (and on MAYA) re: the Facebook/google issue, about our eagerness to participate in the destruction of our own rights and privacy, are quite apt and hardly the stuff of conspiracy theories that distract from the real, documented atrocities surrounding us.  She points directly at real evils, in interviews and on this album.  Why is she mocked for this?   Lady Gaga (and I like Lady Gaga) is at least as politically pretentious as M.I.A. (I would argue she is more pretentious,) makes far less sense, yet is rarely scolded for her ventures.  Perhaps because her politics are rarely more challenging than “live for your art, gay is okay, let’s go charity, fur = dead muppets” or whatevs.  Lady Gaga is wacky, but Socially Responsible so far as Liberals are concerned (the right wing obvs feels differently.)  M.I.A. is uppity!  She criticizes the kinds of Liberal fave  companies Gaga might prominently endorse in her videos!
  • Since when is it the job of pop artists to articulate clear political platforms, anyway? It may be their job (if they see themselves as political artists, at least) to make us think and feel things, and to question, and that’s exactly what M.I.A. is doing. This album appeals to me in its timely rage and confusion and noise much the way The Battle of Los Angeles or Fear of a Black Planet or London Calling did (does.) The album fits my fucking mood.
  • The Village Voice review claimed that MAYA contains “a few flares of outright hostility, like the record itself is actually mad at you. ” Huh. Interesting. I certainly hadn’t experienced it that way at all. MAYA makes me feel validated and less alone. Interesting that Rob Harvilla feels attacked.
  • I could listen to the drums on Born Free all day. That song really moves me. I loved the Letterman performance:

  • Will the real M.I.A. please stand up? Fuck it, Let’s all stand up.

    (This is a good take on M.I.A.’s infamous “Born Free” video, a video I kind of absolutely loved.  The same writer wrote a smart review of MAYA here.  Check it out.)