M.I.A. – “Borders” Review
M.I.A. comes drenched in subtext, existing as a cypher for political treatises from left and right, critics and fans. In many ways she is the perfect popstar, provocative in all that she does; offering an onslaught of aesthetics and impudence. Despite the vitriol that surrounds her every appearance (and her own increasingly frequent online outbursts), the M.I.A. that changed the face of pop music was never particularly political. Kala and Arular may have provoked with fleeting mentions of the PLO and gross inequality, but, at their heart, they were universal in truest possible sense. Multicultural music with half-explored, barely-articulated ideas overflowing atop banging beats from M.I.A.’s “World Town” – not a mythical fantasy land, but reality on the bustling streets of London, Cape Town or Colombo.
Since those halcyon days of youth M.I.A. (much like the world itself) has hardened and darkened. The glorious, future-street sound cobbled together with an enthusiastic amateurism gave way to aggression and a weight of mirthless electronics. Despite becoming embattled, Maya’s best moments continued to come when she tried the least. Lightness of touch and freedom of spirit gave her work a power that no hamstrung politicizing or tortuous sonic onslaughts could hope to match. 2013’s “Come Walk With Me” was a joyous and ever-so-slightly sardonic reminder that Maya’s message of social unity and creative integration could best hatred and political oppression with a smile on its lips.
“Borders” has seemingly learnt this lesson. The track (with a video that explicitly addresses the Syrian refugee crisis) tackles crushingly heavy themes, but endeavors to tread with feathery lightness. The beat is alluring and hypnotic (think a Bengali rave in a Depeche Mode’s old warehouse where someone swapped all the MDMA for benzos). Full of tight asian swirls, while retaining a haunting sense of space that underwrites every lyric with a nigglingly chill. Stepping into this portentous breach M.I.A. avoids a lecture by deciding to sidestep sorrow. This is not an impassioned plea to the West, instead Maya asks an array of open questions, like a valley girl trying to sound deep on twitter:
“Borders, what’s up wid dat?”
“Privilege what’s up wid dat?”
“Love wins! What’s up wid dat?”
“Being real, what’s up wid dat?”
“Your values, what’s up wid dat?”
“Being Bae, what’s up wid dat?”
The list goes on, but is it all one big joke? The idea of finding any real lasting answer certainly is – and perhaps that’s the point. “Borders” lays it all on the line in a gorgeous sonic vacuum. From the most vital questions troubling the world’s elite to tangential social assumptions and throw away thoughts about youth culture – Maya is spit balling into the void. The Internet age affords us an unparalleled sense of connectivity, we are perpetually engaged, but how often do we drown out the rhetoric to truly reflect on any and everything? Does the race to have an opinion come at the expense of actually forming one? Of ever considering our own underlying assumptions?
M.I.A. has created one of the most powerful political singles in recent memory without making a single statement. Instead she has created a gorgeously illusive pop song that hides a crafty hook in plain sight (“We’re sitting on the stoop/where we get the scoop/This is how we keep it cool/This is how we do“). “Borders” simply lingers, refusing to take an overt stance in an age (and at a time in history) when taking up a concrete position and defending it bitterly is an instantaneous obligation.
This is no microwaved hot take in the face of a global tragedy, this is the sound of one woman reflecting on an highly individualized society that faces issues so complex and deep rooted that they are destined to overwhelm all but the most cohesive community. What hope could a million screaming voices and thousands of furious twitter fingers possibly have? Perhaps, sometimes, to truly step outside your self, you need to be met with indigent sarcasm: your every assumption, your crumbling world, what’s up wid dat?
All you can do is laugh (or succumb to despair). There are no “real answers” and certainly no easy ones, so just sit back, draw a line under what you know; empathize and think again.
The video is an iconoclastic visual sensation (despite the usual concerns about appropriation/exploitation), as we’ve come to expect from M.I.A. and is worth a watch regardless of your tastes or opinion on the crisis itself (HD version via Apple).