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​MIA and Lily Allen: staying loud in a world that silences women | Music

Category: Political Protests,Politics

“The message to women – especially those whose voices might disturb the peace – has always been that things will go better for them if they keep their mouths shut,” writes author Rebecca Traister in a new essay. “And the best way to silence them is to ensure that their voices are considered illegitimate.” Traister was writing about the right’s treatment of two women who have accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Her words could equally apply to the picture that forms after reading new works of self-documentation by two female musicians: Lily Allen’s memoir, My Thoughts Exactly, and a documentary about the life of MIA, Matangi/Maya/MIA.

Their autobiographies have apparently little in common. One grew up privileged, with the Groucho Club as her creche while her father, wasted talent Keith Allen, revelled downstairs. The other left civil war-stricken Sri Lanka for London age 10 while her father, a Tamil resistance leader, stayed to fight. Their debut albums arrived a year apart: in 2005, MIA’s Arular set sharp, scattershot bars about the refugee experience to pan-global cut’n’paste rhythms. She agreed with a Spin magazine journalist that she paved the way for Allen, who on her 2006 album Alright, Still detailed her experiences with crap blokes over a slicker brew of ska, grime and reggae. MIA’s little brother was in a young offenders’ institute; Allen’s, as detailed in the song Alfie, was a feckless stoner living easy at home. And so on.

MIA in 2005.
MIA in 2005. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

What they do have in common is the gaslighting, humiliation and industry-scale punishment they have faced for being outspoken women with large platforms – and outspoken women who have often turned out to be right. MIA spent the first half of her career being called a terrorist and mocked, in the New York Times and on US television, for her attempts to highlight the plight of Sri Lankans in the country’s civil war. Two years after the war ended, the UN published a report stating that government forces had committed war crimes, slaughtering Tamils and accounting for the majority of civilian deaths in the war’s final phase. She was branded a “near humourless conspiracy theorist” for suggesting that the government controlled Facebook on her 2010 album MAYA, three years before the NSA files revealed that the US National Security Agency tapped directly into Facebook’s servers to track communications.

Similarly incontrovertible patterns arise throughout Allen’s memoir. The tabloids somehow found out that Allen was pregnant before she was aware of the fact, stirring her suspicions four years prior to the News International phone-hacking scandal. When her first child was stillborn, doctors initially refused to believe her mother’s accurate suggestion that Allen had septicaemia. Police shredded the evidence she had gathered on a man she believed to be her stalker and suggested that when he broke into her flat, apparently concealing a knife, he was just a confused drunk on his way home. Yet in police interviews, he had said he wanted to put a knife through Allen’s face. He was eventually committed to a psychiatric institution.

With the one-year anniversary of the #MeToo movement looming and, as Traister says, the collective force of women’s anger growing in power, MIA’s film and Allen’s memoir arrived at the optimum moment. Finally, they stand a long-awaited chance of being heard.

‘She looks so traditionally feminine that her foul mouth and bellicose nature are amusing surprises’ ... the New York Times on Lily Allen.
‘She looks so traditionally feminine that her foul mouth and bellicose nature are amusing surprises’ ... the New York Times on Lily Allen. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

A facile argument could pit them against one another, MIA as the voice of authenticity and Allen the shameless gentrifier, but their media treatment over the past 13 years has revealed the impossibility of existing as a woman in the public eye. Neither the privileged white woman nor the south Asian refugee is deemed sufficiently “authentic” to understand her own experience: “Don’t let MIA’s brown skin throw you off,” wrote Simon Reynolds in his review of her debut album for the Village Voice. “She’s got no more real connection with the favela funksters than Prince Harry.” He concluded that what was missing from Arular, despite its nods to grime, baile funk, reggaeton, was “local character – those telling details that transmit the true flava of a scene”.

MIA was never trying to convince anyone of her musical authenticity. She couldn’t play an instrument. She couldn’t sing that well on her debut, let alone play and sing. “But I’m gonna do something you could never copy and do,” she told Fader in 2004. “That’s the philosophy of MIA – cut and paste and bish and bosh.” Arular wasn’t about contriving an intimacy with the cultures it plundered, but celebrating the borderlessness of culture in the young internet age – something that white critics such as Reynolds couldn’t conceive of a brown woman doing, preferring them to remain monocultural and exoticised. “We wanted more colour, more culture, more liberalism and we wanted more celebrations,” MIA told Rolling Stone in a 10th anniversary retrospective.

MIA, nine months pregnant, performs at the 2009 Grammy awards.
MIA, nine months pregnant, performs at the 2009 Grammy awards. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps they were both “an embrace of the multiculturalism that came out of the end of Tony Blair’s New Labour government,” as critic Simran Hans writes of MIA in Dazed: this is what Allen did on Alright, Still. Its culture-clash seems commonplace now, but in 2006, the New York Times described her as “one of the oddest female artists to emerge in years”, noting: “She is obsessed with black music, from rock-steady to Jay-Z, but she seems blithely unconcerned with issues of authenticity and appropriation.” Though that wasn’t the aspect of Allen’s identity that most confused them: “She looks so traditionally feminine that her foul mouth and bellicose nature are amusing surprises,” they wrote, prudishly.

Neither artist was trying to convince anyone of the authenticity of their own experience. Both were caught between identities, forced to take responsibility for themselves: the daughter of apparent privilege whose parents were barely ever around; the refugee who hadn’t seen enough of the war to fit in with her family back in Sri Lanka and was called “Paki” by racists on the street in her new home in south-west London. Admittedly, one of these calls for a smaller violin than the other. Yet in a textbook example of the way women are held accountable for men’s actions, neither MIA nor Allen has been able to escape their father’s shadow, even as they have agitated for their own causes. “Terrorist” and “champagne socialist” are fairly disparate reputations, but MIA’s situation reveals the impossibility of both.

Her political cause was called into question from the outset. Journalists mistook her “psychological identification with the Tiger cause as ideological commitment,” wrote critic Robert Christgau, and fundamentally misunderstood pop’s purpose by expecting her to propose solutions to Sri Lanka’s problems. “Even if I cared, how could I possibly learn more?” critic Jamin Warren wrote in a review of a 2005 gig in Washington DC that he had apparently mistaken for a charity telethon: “No tracts, no call-in numbers, no informational websites.”

And yet, the media behaved as if MIA was the one responsible for invalidating her cause when she became successful (further revealing the lie of the “good immigrant” promise) and had a child with a billionaire, Benjamin Bronfman, to whom she was briefly engaged. A 2009 New York Times Magazine profile painted MIA as a dilettante, implying that she couldn’t be an outsider because she was eating truffle fries during their interview (which, it turned out in the aftermath, journalist Lynn Hirschberg had ordered). Hirschberg – who fawns over MIA in the documentary – called in Sri Lankan experts and human rights organisations, plus the musician’s producer ex-boyfriend Diplo, to undermine MIA. Hirschberg dismissed her activism as “radical chic”, the term Tom Wolfe coined to skewer the fashionability of bourgeois politics in 1970.

Lily Allen: Hard Out Here – video

Both could have taken easier paths, making “sexy-face”, as Allen calls it in her memoir, obliging the tabloids and shutting up. “I’m not fighting for the space to gentrify myself and then fit in,” MIA told Toronto’s Now magazine recently. “I’ve had that offered to me every year. I could have been the brown one of them [pop stars] and not say anything about where I come from and who I am.” And neither was without genuine controversy: MIA made clumsy remarks about what she perceived as the cultural dominance of the Black Lives Matter movement at the expense of issues concerning Muslim, Syrian and Pakistani populations, and Allen’s video for her 2013 comeback single Hard Out Here was rightly called out for relying on racist tropes to underscore her point about feminism: “Don’t need to shake my arse for you ’cos I’ve got a brain,” she sang as black women twerked in their underwear, her case not helped by having tweeted a photo of a penis in blackface to Azealia Banks in the course of an argument earlier that summer.

This is fair criticism – both artists’ personal complaints betrayed a misunderstanding of structural injustice. But the tabloid and rightwing media, always acting in bad faith, also wielded the opposite tactic, reducing Allen and MIA’s arguments about structural injustice to petulance and – that distinctly feminine crime – self-promotion. What point could MIA possibly have been trying to make when she released the video to Born Free, in which a parade of ginger-haired boys are killed in a genocide? (Even the 12-year-old lead could grasp it: “I think she was trying to show violence to end violence,” Ian Hamrick told TMZ, this apparently being enough of an issue for a celebrity gossip website to stalk an unknown child actor.) How dare Allen cry when visiting the refugee camps in Calais, or amplify the north Kensington community’s suspicion that the Grenfell death toll was far higher than the official reports?

MIA: Born Free – video

The climax of MIA’s documentary is the perfect example of how making a point about injustice can be spun as a greater offence than the injustice itself in order to silence women. At the 2010 Super Bowl, she flipped off the cameras while performing with Madonna. The gesture seemed impetuous – she initially claimed it as a spiritual gesture in tribute to her namesake, the Hindu goddess Matangi – but she later explained that she felt sickened by men telling the most successful living female pop artist to twirl and bend over (sexualised behaviour for which Madonna is often dragged in the press). The NFL attempted to sue MIA for £10m; a parade of white-bread American pundits clutched their pearls on national TV. This sequence is one of the funniest, yet most horrifying, moments in the film.

MIA flips the bird at the Super Bowl halftime show, February 5, 2005.
MIA flips the bird at the Super Bowl halftime show. Photograph: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

The incident drew more attention than the Sri Lankan civil war had ever received in the US media. “A brown person who is standing up there and not sucking dick is more offensive than murdering someone,” MIA says in the film. Never mind that behind her on the Super Bowl stage, teenage cheerleaders were being sexualised on national TV; never mind the accusations one could level at the NFL: a woman had elicited mockery for her efforts to draw attention to civil conflict was now apparently powerful enough to poke out a star on Old Glory with a single brown finger.

Allen and MIA have always intended to provoke. But Allen has said she no longer perceives success as a rebuke to the tabloids who wanted her to flop, and that being taken seriously as a musician (her fourth album, No Shame, was nominated for this year’s Mercury prize) is what fulfils her now. And MIA has batted away suggestions that now is the perfect time for her to make a new album, when Trump’s presidency has mainstreamed politicised art and her “conspiracy theories” about the government and social media have become more trenchant still following the Cambridge Analytica revelations. “Talk about Donald Trump or be angry about this – it’s okay, we’re happy with you being angry this time, we get it,” she told Dazed. “But I’m already over it, you know?” (She hasn’t stopped agitating: just last week she was lobbying Australian airlines to stop assisting with the forced deportation of asylum seekers.)

My Thoughts Exactly and Matangi/Maya/MIA pose provocative questions about what is expected of famous women and the punishment that awaits them if they doesn’t conform to the docile sexuality, the benign platitudes, the immaculate consistency of thought and identity that is impossible for any functioning human being bar rigid ideologues – especially for women who have grown up in the public eye, caught between media distortion and their own maturity. Allen and MIA triumph lies in their unwillingness to flatten their identities to make themselves more palatable. They are musicians, single mothers, survivors of polarised yet turbulent childhoods and the tabloid media at its most vicious and puritanical.

In 2015, a wave of memoirs by older female musicians including Viv Albertine, Kim Gordon and Chrissie Hynde were greeted as welcome correctives to male-dominated rock history. Allen’s book and MIA’s film show exactly how anti-woman narratives are still being cemented in real time, and reveal how endurance might yield small vindications.

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