Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 90)
Some people want to make a sound, Maya Arulpragasam needs
to make a sound. She hit the scene like an atom bomb in late 2004 and she’s been taking advantage of every platform she’s stepped onto ever since. It wasn’t enough that she got to perform in the 2012 Superbowl Halftime Show, quite possibly the biggest platform there is, she had to give 114 million people the finger too.
But in 2004 it was looking shaky that M.I.A would even get her debut album out, much less perform on the Superbowl. The hype stirred up by the riotous smash-and-grab mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism Vol. 1
finally convinced XL to get that debut on shelves and once Arular
arrived M.I.A. demanded that no less than four major population centers quiet down so she could make a sound. At that moment, from “Bucky Done Gun”, M.I.A. sounds so charged with a self possession that everything that followed - a top ten single, a gold record, a performance on the Grammy’s, the Super Bowl halftime show - sounded guaranteed.
arrived to, as M.I.A. stated in 2005, represent “what it's like to be a civilian caught up in a war.” As someone who was raised in the midst of the Sri Lankan civil war, M.I.A. knows a thing or two about life during wartime. Yet Arular
isn’t defined by the hardship of turbulent times, instead it’s an explosive, adventurous, and hugely forward thinking pop album that pushes important ideas about a third world that has no voice in a first world indie music scene.
All over Arular
incendiary bits of wartime living are hidden by slamming beats and sticky hooks. Opening with an attention getting “Hoooooooa-ah!
”, M.I.A. issues her mission statement (“Pull up the people, pull up the poor”), defines war in the simplest of terms (“You no like the people they no like you/Then they go set it off with a big boom”), and issues this humanizing bit of wisdom (“Every gun in a battle is a son and daughter too”) all within the first three minutes of Arular
. The warm, friendly bounce of “Sunshowers” features an innocent factory worker for Nike being murdered simply for being seen with “the Muslims”. Elsewhere on that same song M.I.A. declares “Like PLO I don’t surrend-o”. On “Pull Up the People” M.I.A.’s “got the bombs to make you blow” while the first verse of “Galang” warns “shotgun get down” before “too late, you down”. The teen prostitutes of “10 Dollar” need visas and money and the sexual favors they use to get them are presented not as cautionary tales but general facts of life.
To get to these packets of information though, you have to get through the music and unless you’ve been paying very close attention to a whole lot of global music over the last two decades you’re going to be too overwhelmed by the sounds on display here. Arular
often gets filed under electroclash, the oft-regrettable early 00’s trend towards merging electro and punk music, because that’s a comfortable sounding descriptor. Jamaican dancehall’s incendiary riddims coupled with Brazilian favela funk’s reckless energy get twisted with electroclash’s load-it-into-a-Roland-505-and-start-hitting-buttons aesthetic. “Bucky Done Gun” and “URAQT” do hilarious things to two of pop culture’s most iconic theme songs, looping up the most distinctive bits like an eager teen hammering away at his first MPC beat machine. “Bingo” fashions lusty pants and a few steel drum notes into a cocksure strut (that was “made in Lon-d-d-don”). “Galang” is both the simplest song on Arular
and, not coincidentally, the most galvanic, laying down an iconic drum loop underneath mutating synths and bubble pops building to some truly motivating “Yah, yah heeeeeey!”s. Crucially though, it all comes out feeling like pop music which is why it appeals to so many different listeners in ways the genres it pulls from never could.
A tough brown female striding into an indie landscape that almost exclusively accommodates sensitive white males blew a lot of sensitive white male rock critic’s minds. M.I.A.’s arrival and subsequent acclaim began to tear down the music journalism world that’s more adept at launching the careers of rock bands than one woman armies like M.I.A.. The subsequent hype for Arular
gave M.I.A. the boost needed to land a deal with Interscope, a platform she would take full advantage of but we’ll get to that later. For now, Arular
remains a vital knot of music, one that can be enjoyed on its own ample merits then used to trace the threads that make up its composition back to discover music that remains almost completely unknown on both sides of the Atlantic.