M.I.A. Doesn’t Need This Sexist Groove Thing

The publicity cycle for M.I.A.’s recently leaked KALA is spinning faster, and today on Pitchfork there’s an interview with the genre-bending singer that’s been described to me at least 20 times as “contentious.” It certainly starts off in heated fashion; after a pause where M.I.A., who’s giving the interview while at a diner, orders pancakes, she has the following exchange with Pitchfork’s Paul Thompson:

Pitchfork: So tell me a bit about Kala. I just heard it for the first time today, and–

M.I.A.: Diplo didn’t make it.

Pitchfork: Uh, what?

M.I.A.: He never made Arular, but you guys keep writing it.

She later clarifies:

M.I.A.: If you read the credits, he sent me a loop for “Bucky Done Gun”, and I made a song in London, and it became “Bucky Done Gun”. But that was the only song he was actually involved in on Arular. So the whole time I’ve had immigration problems and not been able to get in the country, what I am or what I do has got a life of its own, and is becoming less and less to do with me. And I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female or that people from undeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blond-haired and blue-eyed. After the first time it’s cool, the second time it’s cool, but after like the third, fourth, fifth time, maybe it’s an issue that we need to talk about, maybe that’s something important, you know.

Yes, let’s talk about it; right now it seems that pop music–even in the demographic of people who are talking about and listening to M.I.A.–is regressing a lot as far as gender roles go. Part of M.I.A.’s frustration may stem from her performance style. As a performer who dances around and doesn’t necessarily mix or play instruments, the perception that she’s the face and voice of the music, and little more, is probably nagging away at those people in the audience who still have even the most residual rockist (I apologize ten times for using that word, btw) tendencies. This despite the fact that her involvement may–and likely does–go beyond her laying down some vocal tracks while the (male) knob-twiddlers around act as svengalis. Call it the flip side of the Avril Lavigne problem, although one could say the tendency toward suspicion of Lavigne’s songwriting credits (by people like me!) is of a piece with M.I.A.’s complaint here.

There’s more:

Pitchfork: What is your relationship with Diplo like right now? I hear that you’re not seeing each other, but are you two still speaking at this point?

M.I.A.: Yeah, I mean, we have stuff… I don’t want the whole interview to be about this, I just really wanted to be like ‘look, if anyone’s going to get credit for helping me produce this album, it was me and Switch who co-produced this album.’ Diplo has got two tracks on there, Timbaland’s got one track, Blaqstarr’s got two tracks, but the rest of it, the bulk of it, is built out of me and Switch. And if I can’t get credit because I’m a female and everything’s going to boil down to ‘everything has to be shot out of a man,’ then I much rather it go to Switch, who did actually give me the time and actually listened to what I was saying and actually came to India and Trinidad and all these places, and actually spent time on me and actually cared about what I was doing, and actually cared about the situation I was in with not being able to get into the country and not having access to things or, you know, being able to direct this album in a totally innovative direction. I was just kind of taking what I was given, and took the circumstances I was put in. And I wanted to make the most of it. And the only person that believed in it was Switch, and he gave me the freedom to have the space and have thinking time and have the experiences or whatever and came and shared them with me.

Pitchfork: I’m a little surprised by what you’re saying, not because I don’t agree with it, but because, in a way, you seem to be ceding or maybe even resigning the marquee to Switch out of frustration. All of this attention has been put on someone else in helping you make this record, and I completely understand why that would be upsetting, but at the end of the day, no matter who produced the tracks, it still says M.I.A. on the spine of the record packaging.

M.I.A.: That’s what I’m saying. There is an issue especially with what male journalists write about me and say “this MUST have come from a guy.” I can understand that, I can follow that, that’s fine. But when female journalists as well put your work and things down to it being all coming from a man, that really fucks me up. It’s bullshit. I mean, for me especially, I felt like this is the only thing I have, and if I can stick my neck out and go for the issues and go through my life as it is, the least I can have is my creativity. And I think that’s probably the stupidest thing about it. I wish somebody did conjure the spirit out so I can change that, and now I’m going to spit some politics, I was going to be like this… fucking… whatever, the thing that I was, I wish that somebody did conjure it out. But I’m not going to give that credit, whatever my life is and whatever my lifestyle and whatever people in Sri Lanka feel is right, like somebody masterminded it. You know what I mean? I think that’s bullshit.

I’ve been thinking about this interview–particularly these segments–all day, and they’re causing me to ask more questions than answer them. The one question I’ll throw out now is this: How similar would these writers’ perceptions be if M.I.A. collaborated on her music with, say, Ellen Allien? Obviously a lot of the more lurid tabloidy “are they dating or what” chatter would be gone (and you can probably chalk that up to American culture’s inherent heterosexism), but would there be as much of a rush to give equal–or in some cases the bulk of–the producing credit? I’m not sure; and, truth be told, I’m also not sure of what happened in the studio, how the creative process really broke down. But the level of frustration that M.I.A. has on this subject is palpable in the interview, and I think it speaks to something very real about how women–particularly women who are surrounded by males, and who serve as the “face” for their artist imprint–are (still, after all these years) perceived by the rock world at large.

M.I.A. Confronts The Haters [Pitchfork]