Heidelberg Talk 6 August 2010

As part of the  workshop STEREOTYPING, DOMESTICATING ANDINVENTING POPULAR MUSICS IN/OF ASIA, a talk called:
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“Stereotypes that Are Knocked Down just Get Up again: Music and Repetition in World War Three”
by John Hutnyk
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Stereotypes are nasty. Despite critique of the often evident simplifications involved, knocking them down can tend to reinforce them. This has been the case with the controversy, somewhat contrived, that surrounds Sri Lankan rapper Maya Arulpragasam’s recent Romain Gavras-made video promo for her track ‘Born Free’, from the new MIA album /\/\/\Y/\. Consideration of transliteration and repetitions in music – from Edgar Varese’s (mis)understanding of Hinduism, through Adorno and Twelve Tone, the work of Zappa, South Asian Hip Hop, up to Slavoj Žižek’s appreciation of Freudian witticisms – can set the political context of the track in relief. In the video the reference is to immigration crack-downs in the USA; on the album the association is with Sri Lankan army execution of Tamils. Can we think music (musicology, hip hop scholarship, pop) without addressing a wider syncopation? The predicament of Samina Malik, the UK’s ‘lyrical terrorist’, arrested in 2007, will also be noted.

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9.30am Friday August 6th 2010
Karl Jaspers Centre, Conference Room 212
Voßstr. 2, Building 4400, 69115 Heidelberg
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Free Admission.
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  • john hutnyk  On 08/08/2010 at 10:32

    That a cultural project runs alongside the military project of the war on terror – World War Three – is not open to analysis by a culture industry focussed cultural studies. Market research modes of scholarship (audience studies, facilitation/celebration of identity, diaspora, arts and crafts, ethnomusicology) do not enable a critique of the deployment of culture in war.

    The issues MIA references in her music include security paranoia, civil society restrictions, new police powers, surveillance technologies, a massive global information net – cctv, visa checks, credit check and fraud squads, telephone taps, detention centres, terror alerts and terror alert journalism – all reliant upon a double-play of culture industry gamesmanship. This is more than a some good, some bad routine, difference within limits, an ‘open’ discussion of immigration, citizenship testing, attacks on ‘grumblers’ and other intellectual types… – these are the cultural forms that enable the commercialization of fear and the profitability of shallow to thrive.

    This, as you can imagine, has not meant MIA is universally admired. Nabeel Zuberi usefully lists a range of responses to her work that revels in their contradictory, exoticists-orientalist perversity:

    “A cluster of positive and negative types and tropes emerged in countless blog entries and comment threads, major and minor music publications. M.I.A. was a refugee-immigrant done good; a postcolonial pimp and whore; a cultural thief; Arundhati Roy with a drum machine; Mowgli with a spray can; hip-hop punk Situationist; prole art threat and bourgie fetish; terrorist bitch and slumming ragpicker; an average talent with skilled (male) producers pulling the strings. Music journalists also tended to determine her authenticity or lack of it based on signs of middle-class privilege, the veracity of her transnational experience as a Sri Lankan refugee, and whether or not she was an apologist for Tamil terrorism. Much of the commentary was geared to putting M.I.A. ‘in her place’” (Zuberi 2010:188)

    Fresh from the success of having her track ‘O Saya’ featured in Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire (2009), in July 2010 MIA released her most provocative video yet.

    Describe/Show video.

    As uniformed agents with automatic weapons raid households and bundle people into buses that look like classic US prison buses as rendered by Hollywood movies, we realise soon enough that it is red-heads that are being rounded up and held for detention. As the bus moves along a street there is some small scale resistance – stone throwing – and a hint of an organized opposition, but no direct challenge to the dragnet. About twenty red-headed males are taken to a detention facility and forced to run across a minefield at gunpoint. Those that do not are shot, those that do take their chances with the mines and snipers. The video is graphic and explicit, and designed to provoke.

    The lyrics from MIA provide a soundtrack that offers a searing indictment on the part of those forced to live beneath the radar of the state, an aggressive throw back (of this shit) in the face of power. ‘Cause I got something to say’ is the refrain, ‘I got something to say’.

    What is curious is the number of responses to this Romain Gavras video made for MIA’s Born Free which have often completely missed the point, staging a kind of ponderous shock and outrage, and even sometimes taking the attack upon red-heads themselves as ‘real’, missing the entire allegorical plotting. There is little to be gained in correcting these misreadings, even where they have been maliciously intentional.
    What is more disturbing, and thereby interesting, are the accusations that claim a form of dialectical critique, insisting that though the progressive intentions of filmmaker and artist may be evident, the makers shoot themselves in the foot by way of, variously, a didactic heavy-handedness, a schlock-mock horror appeal or a shameless commercialized controversy seeking sensationalism. The reasonable tone of such accusing commentaries, for example by Anna Pickard (The Guardian 28 April 2010) and Douglas Haddow (Guardian 1 May 2010) in the UK, or by Yaseen Ali (Varisity.com 5 July 2010) and Stelios Phili (NYUNews 28 June 2010) in North America, are shrill in a way that only reasoned and self-regarding ill-informed conservatism can be. Haddow, in a piece called ‘The Real Controversy of MIA’s Video’, especially seeks to impress us with his analytical range, citing Southpark and the IRA as antecedents, and not failing to offer a high-minded diagnosis that take Born Free as symptomatic of …

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  • john hutnyk  On 10/08/2010 at 00:38

    of a critique that he then extends much further. His mistakes however are compounded when he equates the pointblank execution of the red-headed boy in the video with a famously disturbing execution picture from the Vietnam war. Haddow confuses South Vietnamese General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan with the victim rather than identifying him as the brutal executioner of the Viet Cong communist Nguyễn Văn Lém – the picture taken by Pulitzer prize winner Eddie Adams on 1 February 1968, with film by Vo Suu (original footage now available on google video: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2390091327094425662#). It is of musicological interest perhaps to note that this footage – not just the more often seen still photograph, that was reproduced in full in the Monkees’ Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson film Head, which also features a Frank Zappa cameo where Frank criticizes the Monkees for playing ‘pretty white’ songs, commends Davvy Jones on his dancing, but suggests he spend more time on his music, ‘because the youth of America depends on you to show the way’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOI-SDYGviM). The way they show is towards Easyrider, which was funded in large part by Monkees profits (Mike Watt, 2 August 2010).

    This chapter will have more to say about Zappa, and the sort of Monkeying around that many would call pranks (etymologically a prank is both a trick and an ostentatious mode of dressings so as to attract attention)…

    Born Free continues to generate controversy beyond its mild mannerisms. Haddow suggests that ‘genocide can now be parodied in order to promote a pop record’ and calls it a ‘dog’s breakfast of a subaltern text’ which, in his view, does not address the source of the Western viewer’s ‘desensitization’ and ‘apathy’ in the face of a myriad atrocities. His diagnosis is of ‘narrative poverty’ that infects much more than merely this music video – his other examples are Spielberg, The Hurt Locker and Green Zone (Guardian 1 May 2010). Pickard, in her quibbling article, at least recognised a more consistent politics in Born Free, despite herself, referring to the view that the execution of the boy contravenes YouTube content policy, she opines:

    “And that’s not the only reason it’s controversial. MIA says that it’s not a direct comment on a particular political situation – and since much of her lyrics touch on real situations of conflict and ethnic cleansing, that’s completely plausible. But the fact is that it’s coming out at precisely the same time as a law proposed in the state of Arizona that will allow police to detain anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant. Unsurprisingly, much heat is being generated by news organisations and political blogs that see the video as a direct response” (Pickard, Guardian 28 April 2010)

    There are far worse fictional scenes in the history of cinema and television, many of them on YouTube (Rambo, Full Metal Jacket, Natural Born Killers etc etc) and it might be worth trying to remember that here Pickard’s point in this very paragraph is that the pop song video does not refer to the real, it really is fictional, these are actors, not Vietnamese – or for that matter Tamils or Mexicans. The point of allegory, of course, is to both allow and suggest a reading that relates different circumstances to the ostensible story being told. It is not a secret or accidental association on the part of Arulpragasam, who had herself complained on twitter some months earlier at the New York Times presentation of Sri Lanka as a tourist paradise while videos such as the alleged execution of Tamil refugees received only limited attention, and certainly much less attention than Born Free.

    The critiques offered of MIA by those on the informed Left are problematically a part of the low-intensity ideological warfare that runs alongside the deployment of troops, bombs, weapons systems and commercial clean up (Halliburton). At the same time, MIA has a favoured and important role that extends beyond the apparatus of the music industry. It is, in Minima Moralia, one of Adorno’s most telling insights when he explains that the dialectic is more nuanced than the critics usually manage. ‘dass einzig die Narren der Herrschaft die Wahrheit sagen’ (Adorno MM:89). Only fools tell the truth to the masters – dialectical thinking in a sick world is necessarily paranoid and unreasonable (Minima Moralia section 45).

    This unreasonableness is not credited by many, but MIA is right to rant. In Pickard and Harrow we see however, recourse to a sub-Adorno-esque refrain about MIA’s complicity with the sales department of the Culture Industry. This should give the warning to any too easy dismissal. Brand visibility is step one (MIA named as one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine); step two is to do something with that visibility. The question of commercial opportunism is often also raised, for example, by Yaseen Ali in Canadian net paper The Varsity.ca, where she argues that ‘M.I.A. remains an artist who profits on the proliferation of new media. Whether fans download her work, watch her music videos or attend her concerts, there is no way of denying the fact that she has become a brand. She is a product that can be experienced, in the same manner that her politics can be purchased’ such that ‘M.I.A.’s output becomes something that can be taken up as an affectation – a political idea that can be bought, consumed, and trotted out in the name of “resistance.”’ (5 July 2010 http://thevarsity.ca/articles/31433 accessed 8 July 2010).

    Other critics find MIA annoying, her ‘babbling is palatable because its rendered incomprehensible by the jungle beat’ (Stelios Phili, 28 June 2010 on NYUNews.com, http://nyunews.com/arts/2010/06/27/28mia/ accessed 2 August 2010), a ‘middling rapper’ (TamilNet, Tuesday, 13 July 2010, http://tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=31895).

    My argument is that these are unfair assessments – and I think many of them are simply wrong – spitting too much at a pop video that has at least some merit as a provocation and in any case the issues themselves, whatever the merits of the video or of its critique, remain sharp – people worldwide are subject to arbitrary arrenst and detention, by cops very much like the prototype Texan Rangers shown here. So, while there can be continued controversy, commercial sponsors, debates about propriety and taste, but there is no question that the withdrawal of the video from YouTube in late July and the subsequent chatter, have made this a celebrity prank.

    A performance of Born Free on Dave Letterman’s show, with a dozen identically dressed MIA clones of herself taking over the Tonight Show stage, is a further prank. One, two a thousand MAYA’s? Letterman can only manage a feeble ‘Happy Halloween’ (in July) in response and smirking disapproval reminiscent of Ed Sullivan introducing the Rolling Stones all those years ago.

    Born Free – lyrics

    Whooo!
    Yeah man made powers
    Stood like a tower higher and higher hello
    And the higher you go you feel lower, oh
    I was close to the end staying undercover
    Staying undercover
    With a nose to the ground I found my sound

    Got myself an interview tomorrow
    I got myself a jacket for a dolla

    And the car doesn’t work so I’m stuck here
    Yeah I don’t wanna live for tomorrow
    I push my life today
    I throw this in your face when I see ya
    I got something to say
    I throw this shit in your face when I see ya
    Cause I got something to say

    I was born free (born free)
    I was born free (born free)
    bo-bo-born free

    You could try to find ways to be happier
    You might end up somewhere in Ethiopia
    You can think big with your idea
    You ain’t never gonna find utopia
    Take a bite out of life make it snappier yeah
    Ordinary gon super trippyer
    So I check shit cause I’m lippyer
    And split a cheque like Slovakia

    Yeah I don’t wanna live for tomorrow
    I push my life today
    I throw this in your face when I see you
    I got something to say
    I throw this shit in your face when I see you
    Cause I got something to say

    I was born free (born free)
    I was born free (born free)
    I was born free (born free)
    (bo-bo-born free
    Ooooh

    I don’t wanna talk about money, ’cause I got it
    And I don’t wanna talk about hoochies, ’cause I been it
    And I don’t wanna be that fake?, but you can do it
    And imitators, yeah, speak it

    Oh Lord? whoever you are, yeah come out wherever you are
    Oh Lord? whoever you are, yeah come out wherever you are
    And tell em!

    What does disturb me is this last refrain repeated about the Lord. Born Free and requiring the Lord to get the message across – enlighten people, redeem them from their apathy, resensitize them, is about as forlorn as hoping that twitter commentary will achieve redistribution of power and wealth adequate to the idea of that ‘freedom’.

    What might need to be evaluated is the status of provocations of this sort. Is it plausible to consider MIA in the context of other allegories and tropes, pranks and jokes, witticisms and the critique of the fool in the face of power? Recall that Adorno calls this dialectics unreasonable, and of course it might also be the fraught condition of poetry.

    Red heads as copy, substitute

    Mimicry, doubles, repetition

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  • Thomas  On 27/08/2010 at 10:47

    Hi John

    I’m looking forward to getting to know you at Seth’s conference in London. http://zenithfoundation.com/conference2010/

    For now just a short question. Where do you have this bit by Nabeel Zuberi from – I might use it in an article.

    Thanks! Thomas

    “A cluster of positive and negative types and tropes emerged in countless blog entries and comment threads, major and minor music publications. M.I.A. was a refugee-immigrant done good; a postcolonial pimp and whore; a cultural thief; Arundhati Roy with a drum machine; Mowgli with a spray can; hip-hop punk Situationist; prole art threat and bourgie fetish; terrorist bitch and slumming ragpicker; an average talent with skilled (male) producers pulling the strings. Music journalists also tended to determine her authenticity or lack of it based on signs of middle-class privilege, the veracity of her transnational experience as a Sri Lankan refugee, and whether or not she was an apologist for Tamil terrorism. Much of the commentary was geared to putting M.I.A. ‘in her place’” (Zuberi 2010:188)

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  • john hutnyk  On 13/10/2010 at 10:31

    Thomas, Nabeel’s chapter is not yet out – due soon. Write to him on n.zuberi[at]auckland.ac.nz. He is also planning a book which looks great, in a Palgrave series Steve Wright is getting together. See you in a month now. J

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Trackbacks

  • By Belle D’Opium « trinketization on 29/07/2011 at 21:07

    [...] I’d missed – Nitin Sawhney, Romain Gavras (who also did the MIA vid I am writing about) Mélanie Thierry working together on a Yves St Laurent advert with choreography by Akram Khan. [...]

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