I haven’t been listening to NPR as much lately. I feel like their news coverage has been tipping more and more toward the right, and they’ve noticeably been doing this thing where they quote people in Trump’s administration on issues without then independently verifying those “facts” themselves. It’s extremely irritating, and I probably shouldn’t be that irritated when I’m driving!
But NPR Music has kept up the good work, and this morning, they released their list of the The 200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+, which they describe as “part of Turning the Tables, an ongoing project from NPR Music dedicated to recasting the popular music canon in more inclusive — and accurate — ways.” Some more context:
This year, our list, selected by a panel of more than 70 women and non-binary writers, tackles history in the making, celebrating artists whose work is changing this century’s sense of what popular music can be. The songs are by artists whose major musical contributions came on or after Jan. 1, 2000, and have shifted attitudes, defied categories and pushed sound in new directions since then.
Our list includes songs performed by women and non-binary artists. The use of the term “Women+” is part of our engagement in a movement to recognize a wide spectrum of gender identities coming to greater light in the 21st century.
It’s a pretty fascinating compilation, including recognizable names like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kaki King, Adele, Kelis, St. Vincent, Khia, and of course Beyoncé, as well as Tunisian activist Emel Mathlouthi, Yemenite Jewish sisters A-WA, Spanish rapper Mala Rodríguez, and the up-and-coming Colombian-American singer Kali Uchis. And sitting on top at No. 1 is M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” my forever-favorite song of the summer.
For better or for worse, M.I.A. doesn’t fuck around. She descended on the pop music scene with a backstory about her father being a Tamil Tiger, with her art-school background, with her pointed criticisms of capitalism and colonialism and her support of immigrants and refugees and migrants, and she changed the way the genre moved from that point forward. She burned bright and she burned hard and it was only a few years from the excellence of her albums Arular and Kala (and the mixtape with then-boyfriend Diplo, Piracy Funds Terrorism, which I listened to for many hours while working at American Apparel, because that’s who I was in 2007) to that infamous truffle fries profile in the New York Times to flipping off America during a SuperBowl performance with Madonna.
There were ups and downs and they ricocheted one after another at an almost breakneck pace, but M.I.A.’s pointed resentment toward the mainstream was constant, as was her insistent highlighting of subcultures and realities we didn’t know that we didn’t know — Rebel Without a Cause-style drag races in Morocco, dozens of dancers breaking it down in Jamaica, and the devastating silence of migrants stacked on beaches, floating in water, and trapped in cages.
I suppose this is where I must tell you that I used to love M.I.A. fully, wholeheartedly, without abandon. When Kala was released in 2006 I felt finally, fully seen by pop music: Here was a brown woman with skin the same color as mine, complaining about how thoroughly fucked most of the world was thanks to centuries of colonial greed, working African and Indian and Caribbean and Middle Eastern rhythms and traditions into her music, unapologetic and unfiltered. I’ve seen her at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., and at the Virgin Festival in Maryland, and one time she pulled me up onstage and I thought I would pass out from joy.
I can’t co-sign everything she’s done since then. Selfishly, I didn’t particularly like the musical direction of the albums Matangi and AIM, although each had some solid tracks. This is more about what she’s said and what she’s done, how she’s kept being the outspoken M.I.A. of always, to varying effect. People thought she spoke out of turn about Black Lives Matter by asking why there weren’t similar movements about how “Muslim Lives Matter” or “Syrian Lives Matter,” and she was dropped from the AfroPunk festival in 2016 as a result. She’s pissed people off with her thoughts about Israel and Palestine, about American police, about the U.S. government and its handling of her visa, and with how often she seems to purposefully (and sometimes gleefully) break the accepted rules of pop-star celebrity.
But here’s what I’ll say: We always seem to turn hardest on outsiders once they become insiders; we reserve the most backlash for people who work their way into the system instead of criticizing the system itself. Will M.I.A. ever live down those damn truffle fries? Or the fact that after breaking up with Diplo, she hooked up with a gazillionaire heir? Do those choices nullify every other thing she’s done, every time she’s repped for people who are underrepresented or undervalued? Did we attack her authenticity instead of accepting her identity?
There’s been a meme going around on Twitter where people spell out the chorus of “Paper Planes” and say what they would want, much like M.I.A. says in the song “All I wanna do is … and take your money.” I contributed this the other day:
All I want is— Roxana (NOT ROXANNE OR ROXANNA, DAMMIT) Hadadi (@roxana_hadadi) July 27, 2018
*cash register noise*
for MIA to still be making music as good as "paper planes."
And honestly, that was kind of shitty of me! Because M.I.A. has made good music since then (see above, “Bad Girls” and “Borders”), but “Paper Planes” transcends. It’s a distillation of everything M.I.A. stands for as a musician: reveling in your own swagger while realizing that mimicking the people who oppress you isn’t the way out, but sometimes is the only way to survive.
“Some some some I some I murder/Some I some I let go,” M.I.A. sang on The Clash-sampling track. Maybe we let go of M.I.A. too soon, but lucky for us, “Paper Planes” endures.