Before you even start reading this, open a new browser window and head to https://www.myspace.com/mia. After a few seconds, M.I.A.'s recent single, “Boyz,” will load. That'll give you thumbnail approximation of what we're discussing. Then return here and continue reading.
The above photo was taken with a very expensive camera, set at a high shutter speed, its tripod secured to the floor with gigantic battleship bolts. If so desired, the camera could have taken a photo of the inside of Maya Arulpragasam's left pupil. (It looked pretty crazy in there from where I was standing.) But even a million dollar gadget couldn't compete with the bass at the Echoplex last night during the second of two performances by M.I.A. It rumbled the floor as though emanating from the Earth's molten core. Thus the photo above, in which the barely visible specter of Sri Lanka born, London-bred Arulpragasam – who is M.I.A. – tosses off a few caw-caws during the evening's pre-encore closer, “Bird Flu,” while the room vibrates.
At her humongous show last night, the beats were more like muscle-bound hums. I was standing in front of one of the woofers, and the subharmonics shook my esophagus, made my arm hairs erect. Each inhale contained low frequency fuzz which massaged my sinuses, vocal cords and lungs. It kind of tickled, and arriving as it did in between a bunch of nutty snare and tom-tom fills, was captivating. (Alas, the music – except for the scratches of M.I.A.'s DJ – was all pre-recorded. What I wouldn't give to hear this arranged for a live band.)
The beauty of the rhythms M.I.A. employs (and she's got great taste in producers) is that they're as much about the silence between the beats as they are about the beats themselves. A pound appears, then vanishes, and the resulting moment of solitude becomes this elephantine absence. It's usually followed soon thereafter by some weirdly logical sound placed somewhere between beats. Somewhere unexpected, somewhere harder, odder, funkier.
The moment “Bird Flu” dropped, the crowd got way low, went all bent-legged and akimbo-winged and started strutting like horny roosters. It's a nutty dance, and very enjoyable to perform. (The other night at the Devin the Dude show at the Knitting Factory, an MC taught the crowd his variation, which he called swangin'.) It was a real life moment, seeing so many people in the same (squatted) psychic space.
Maya and her backup dancer locked into their own little sparrow dance, this little step-step-stutterstep to and fro, and then the singer moved to the front and raised her fist in the air. She hollered: “Bird flu gonna get you made it in my stable!” – M.I.A. even brags about her poop! — “From the crap you drop on my crop when they pay you.”
If she were frumpy, was chubby and had a double-chin, would we still worship her? If her eyes were a half-shade less intense, her bouncing a little less rubbery, her cockeyed sailor's hat a little less perfect, her anthems a little less sticky, would we bow down before her the way that we did last night? Is it all charisma, beauty and buzzwords, with a few precisely placed referential samples to suggest a depth that's not there?
I say no way man. It's all there. Last night she tossed off Miami bass lyrics, referenced post-punk and Brazilian booty beats, created this post-rap vibe that shook most of us to our very core. By the time she performed the remarkable “Paper Planes,” which samples the ominous melody from the Clash's “Straight to Hell” and is on her forthcoming CD, Kala, most of us were in full-on submission mode.
Then again, maybe for Maya, we're a pushover. We out here in the crowd have been waiting for something really new, something explosive, something mind-blowing, to come. M.I.A.'s the closest thing we've got right now. Hip hop? Snoozing. Rock? Coasting. Techno? Could use a little levity. But Rio rhythms, London grime and dubstep, Jamaican reggaeton, Georgian post-crunk and Miami bass, all messed up and blasting out of the Echoplex's jumbo sound system? Holy fucking shit, sign us up!