As I wriggled out of the teeming crowd that clotted for M.I.A, I eavesdropped on the Spalding basketball-bronzed sorority sisters speaking behind me: “If I was like a dude, I would totally want to do M.I.A.” Personally, M.I.A. doesn't really do it for me, but I get where they're coming from. After all, I've long suspected that at least a modicum of the unchecked praise tossed her way stems from the fact that hundreds of thousands of her fans, “totally want to do [her].” Big deal. “Pop star's success aided by looks,” is a story so spavined that it could only be broken by the Onion.
But–of course–there's more to Maya Arulpragasam than just looks. Her back-story was Slumdog Millionaire before it was a glint in Danny Boyle's eye. Between the radical politics, the day-glo clothing, and a savvy iconography befitting a former visual artist, she's emerged as the first true pan-global pop star–the type to send writers to their keyboards binding the viral nature of “bird flu” to the viral nature of the Internet. Like the faces of the overly tanned acolytes standing behind me: it's a slam dunk. Critics love nothing better than a good narrative, and let's not kid ourselves that globetrotting, caps lock-impaired, Tamil Tigress isn't a whole lot more interesting than Katy Perry–or god forbid, Lady Gaga.
Indeed, the penultimate performance on the Main Stage is a slot reserved for stars–and with the runaway success of “Paper Planes,” Maya has levitated from exotic music crit-crush, to one of the world's most viable pop icons. It's a position she's at once inherently well-positioned for and adversely opposed. As an inherent outsider, there's obviously something weird about being in the clubby position of Coachella marquee, a fact that MIA noted when she repeatedly mentioned her discomfort with not knowing how to rock the main stage. It's a duality faced by dozens acts in the past–perhaps most notably her idols, The Clash. And she's understandably over-sensitive to any accusations that she's gone Hollywood, declaring “just because I've done the Oscars, doesn't mean I've gone all sold out.” Say what you want about the quality of her actual songs (I personally find the quality ranging from great to migraine-manufacturing), you can't dismiss her savvy. By using improper grammar to repudiate her star-turn at the Academy Award, she's simultaneously aligning herself with the proletariat and linguistically challenged music bloggers everywhere (solidarity sister).
Of course, there's something bizarre about alienated assaults on the bourgeosie regurgitated by girls clutching Louis V. bags. But MIA is no ascetic, after all, for all her revolutionary posturing, she did have a son with the scion of the Bronfman clan. And despite claiming at last year's Bonnaroo that she was finished touring, she excepted the inevitably hefty check from Goldenvoice. So in her unofficial debut as a legitimate festival (near) headliner, it's little surprise she was characteristically paradoxical. Blessed with a canny understanding of the blunt force of bright light, her stage show looked like a cross between the video for Busta Rhymes' “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” and a runaway show for Bape Hoodies. Emerging with 20 backing dancers bathed in neon glowsticks, a jumbo-tron of seizure-inducing visual imagery (the cover of Kala, whirring planets, fireworks explosions), it was hard not to be overwhelmed and impressed by the “Glow in the Dark Tour” indulgence. In her naval officer suit and admiral cap, atop a podium filled with faux news-microphones, she revealed her true talent–a propagandist as adroit, and far more pulchritudinous than Michael Moore.
After all, M.I.A.'s songbook is far more diatribe than demure, so stuck in the bully pulpit, it's logical that she devised something to harness her strengths. Being immured into the pop star prism isn't necessarily a bad thing. Music industry cash cows are only required to write three great singles per album (and usually, less than that). Moreover, her often excruciating philosophical and lyrical simplicity seem to matter that much less. After all, when Gwen Stefani is the competition, “All I want to do is just take your money,” is practically Anne Sexton. Yet stripped of the backing dancers, and forced to delve deeper into her songbook, the middle section lagged terribly–with the audience shuffling its feet and playing the “Paper Planes” waiting game. With only two albums and only a half-dozen truly excellent songs, Mia doesn't have the songbook of a Janet Jackson, a Madonna, or even a Britney Spears. While she may be infinitely more interesting, both conceptually and sonically, the moribund mid-section revealed the limits of the phosphorescent flash
At one point, she mentioned that her baby was at home, and it seemed to hint that there were other places she'd rather be. The set wasn't without its great moments–renditions of “Galang” and “20 Dollar” were particularly kinetic. But stretched out over an hour, the set was as schizophrenic as the artist herself. There's no denying MIA's talent, her skill at re-appropriation is akin to a pop Shepherd Fairey, meshing a nebulous radical-chic politique, with a retina-searing palette, and the desire to mix and match sounds from Baltimore Club to Bollywood. Just check the three best songs on Kala, built from a Clash sample, a New Order sample, and a Bollywood cover. But as much as it illumined why she's risen to the upper echelon of pop, MIA's set revealed how much further she needs to go to complete her circum-navigation. Or maybe I'm wrong. After all, when the you-know-what last song soared out of the cochlear nerve-killing Coachella speakers, the place cracked like a walnut–hands in the air, bodies writhing, sheer bedlam. The fact that she was 15 minutes late and the intermittent tedium was seemingly forgiven. After all, things like that don't matter to the masses when you've got “Paper Planes” and you're fly.