Friday, June 11, 2010

M.I.A. is right, NYT is wrong


Lately it seems like the only thing following M.I.A. around more than controversy is bad journalism. To call Lynn Hirschberg's recent New York Times Magazine article on Mathangi (M.I.A.) Arulpragasam "weak" would be too generous. "Hatchet job" might be more apropos. It also reveals how, as more musicians are daring to question the role and limits of their art, the state of modern music journalism remains woefully wanting.

It went down like this: Hirschberg, an established journalist who has been a Times writer for years, published her piece on the iconoclastic artist on May 30th. With her third album dropping in July, and with the hubbub from M.I.A.'s "Born Free" video still fresh, it might seem the right time for an article of this nature to hit the stands.

M.I.A. wasn't pleased with the results. The day after it was published, she posted a message on her Twitter account: "CALL ME IF YOU WANNA TALK TO ME ABOUT THE N Y T TRUTH ISSUE, ill b taking calls all day bitches ;)"

The phone number she included with the tweet was Lynn Hirschberg's. Naturally, the reporter found herself inundated with voicemail messages. Most fans who called were greeted with a full inbox. It's a move whose deviousness is only surpassed by its hilarity.

Reading the article, it seems clear why M.I.A. might want to get a bit of info superhighway revenge on Hirschberg. Throughout, Hirschberg approaches Arulpragasam, unquestionably one of the most important artists of recent years, with the begrudging tolerance of a bored teenager. She seems bent on deliberately half-listening to what it is that the artist has to say--despite some insightful quotes on her part--and writing her off as a base provocateur.

To Hirschberg, Arulpragasam's music and unabashed outspokenness are all simple tools to get middle-America's quills up: "In contrast to, say, Bono or John Lennon, with their peacenik messages, Maya taps into her rage at the persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka to espouse violence..."

Never mind that the sanctimonious pronouncements of Bono have precious little in common with the radicalism of latter-day Lennon. The "espousing violence" smacks of crude baiting--the kind that George W. Bush would use against the Iraqi insurgency when he said "bring it on."

True, M.I.A. waffles very little when it comes to the distinction between oppressive force and the violence of liberation. Hirschberg, however, resorted to flipping quotes. The article printed Arulpragasam's thoughts on her memorable performance at the 2009 Grammy Awards:

"I wasn't trying to be like Bono. He's not from Africa--I'm from there [Sri Lanka]. I'm tired of pop stars who say, 'Give peace a chance.' I’d rather say, 'Give war a chance.' The whole point of going to the Grammys was to say, 'Hey, 50,000 people are gonna die next month, and here’s your opportunity to help.' And no one did."

In the ensuing online kerfuffle, the Times printed a correction, pointing out that the section describing the Grammys actually came much earlier in the interview. On the surface, it might seem a minor detail. But switching the two quotes also paints the western world's most recognizable Tamil advocate in a different light. As opposed to prioritizing the very real genocide of the Tamil people that the Sri Lankan government was carrying out in the early months of 2009, Maya is portrayed as a booster of war for war's sake.

In fact, the only other person to reference the conflict is Ahilan Kadirgamar of Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, who despite admitting the atrocities committed by the Colombo government, also denies that they composed a genocide. Kadirgamar's statements happen to fly in the face of what was claimed by countless Tamil organizations world-wide at the height of the civil war.

This kind of tone and journalistic equivocation maintain throughout the article. Ample time is, of course, spent speaking of M.I.A.'s unique clothing styles and genre-bending music. Rather than see them all as a holistic and organic statement rooted in the experiences and upbringing and Arulpragasam, Hirschberg sees it all as a ploy. It's politics as a component of fashion--not the other way round.

And then, there's Hirschberg's treatment of the now-infamous and near-banned video for "Born Free:

"[T]he video for 'Born Free' feels exploitative and hollow," claims Hirschberg. The author goes on to more or less say that M.I.A. had been gunning to be banned from YouTube all along. "As a meditation on prejudice and senseless persecution, the video is, at best, politically naïve."

First, anyone who has seen the "Born Free" video might be forgiven for thinking Hirschberg is a cyborg. The vid is plenty of things--graphic, unflinching, upsetting--but to call the full-on images of twelve-year-old children being shot in the head "hollow" is to mistake the short film for a gutter piece of smut. It's not.

Second, nobody in Hirschberg's position is slapping the "naive" label on, say, the simplistic images of Muslims that abound in Sex and the City 2 (though plenty have called it "bad"). It seems only when a brown-skinned artist turns the logic of the post-Abu Ghraib world on its head that critics balk and start insisting she's on the fringe.

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The day after M.I.A.'s tweet attack, Hirschberg responded, but was completely unapologetic. She called the posting of her phone number on Twitter "infuriating."

"It's a fairly unethical thing to do," said Hirschberg, "but I don't think it's surprising. She's a provocateur, and provocateurs want to be provocative."

Here we have it folks: a look inside the circular mind of Lynn Hirschberg. M.I.A.'s politics are ill-conceived and tailored only to provoke. Any notion to the contrary and attempt to fire back in any way isn't to be taken seriously because, well, it's just another provocation. Good luck getting yourself out of that intellectual headlock!

In actuality, though, M.I.A.'s posting of Hirschberg's phone number harkens back to a time when music journalists were expected to be held accountable for what they wrote about artists. Says Mat Callahan of the 1960s in his book The Trouble With Music:

"Throughout Europe and North America (and soon after, Latin America as well) magazines and periodicals sprang up dedicated to popular music, which initially made no distinction between political and artistic matters. Writers commonly discussed issues of music, drugs, the police, the Vietnam War and Civil Rights all in the same breath. There was an intimate link between the journalists and the music and politics they were writing about since they had to be involved to speak knowledgeably to their audience, who were the ones being drafted, experimenting with drugs, demonstrating for civil rights and attending rock and roll concerts."

In other words, music and journalism were part of a conversation between equals taking place in broader society as a whole. It was a conversation about broadening their respective roles beyond the realm of mere info-tainment. It was a conversation that, as the '60s progressed, often lead to revolutionary conclusions.

Right away, it should be apparent how all of these things are not Lynn Hirschberg. She is not involved. She is not informed. Any politics outside the mainstream--no matter how grounded in reality they may be--are sneeringly derided as "provocation."

Most importantly, though, Hirschberg shares no intimate link with the music she is writing about. There is no dialogue; her word is the last. Any attempt to call her out is only to be looked down upon from the ivory tower.

In this respect, the New York Times Magazine article is no different than any other call for politically active artists to "shut up and sing." Past years and months have seen a notable widening of artists lending their voices to various struggles. In a culture where even the most unassuming piece of music can shoot around the world in a nanosecond, the calcified notions of art's role in the world are once again breaking down. M.I.A.'s success is a testament to this, and her lackluster coverage is only proof that the same has yet to happen in the world of the music scribe.

What really makes Hirschberg's hatchet job of M.I.A. so contemptible isn't simply that she gets the facts and art all wrong. It's that she is so used to being unchallenged by her very subjects. It may be true that journalists' duties are to point out the foibles of the world around us. But if we are ourselves human, and if we personify the contradictions of that very same world, then, well, who will journalize the journalists?

In a fashion that can only be called signature M.I.A., the artist also posted a new song on her website in the days following the Times piece. Called "I'm a Singer (Haters)," it sums up the interests writers like Hirschberg really represent:

"And the story's always fucked by the time it hits
Why the hell would journalists be thick as shit?
'Cuz lies equals power equals politics"


This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts website.

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