M.I.A.: Kala (pt. 2)

Kala

Dear Matt:

This tweet notwithstanding, I can detect no connection between M.I.A. and Kate Bush. But hey, one’s ears are one’s own. Moving on.

I have never been much for subtlety. You will have gathered that by now. That tendency extends from my taste in rock to my preference of Beethoven string quartets. (Opus 132, please. Keep your 127.) So, M.I.A’s aesthetic is well within the ballpark of ‘stuff I tend to like.’ (Subtle as a landmine, indeed.) Kala’s great.

But, let me be totally honest: after a couple of listens, ‘Paper Planes’ still eclipses everything else on the album. You may find that disappointing, the same way I do when someone informs me that their favourite Jethro Tull song is ‘Aqualung,’ or their favourite Peter Gabriel song is ‘Sledgehammer.’

Why should that be disappointing, though? Once in a while, the slightly-left-of-centre (though not necessarily obscure) artists that thinky music people* listen to make a song that allows the rest of the world to get in on the joy. Isn’t that worth celebrating? Of course it is. That, for me, was a key takeaway of the most tiring ideological debate in pop culture over the last decade.

But, to write that just now, I had to subdue a tremendous amount of pathological geekiness and symphony-goer snobbery. Because, the fact is, the music that speaks most deeply to me speaks to a relatively small number of people. I’m under no illusions that there’s any superiority in that. But, some part of me can’t help thinking that when an artist does manage to conjure the secret sauce for a ‘Paper Planes’ or a ‘Sledgehammer,’ they sacrifice something that makes the bulk of their music so meaningful to the true believers.

And it’s entirely possible that I’m not equipped to be a true believer in this case. You entreated me in your assignment to engage with M.I.A.’s mashup aesthetic, and consider her as one of the first breakout artists of the digital age. And while I love mashups in concept, I suspect that some of the effect was lost on me in this case, since Kala appears to mostly reference stuff I’ve never heard of. The only references I caught were the Clash and the Pixies — the first only because you told me, and the second only because of Fight Club.

But, I’ve just realized that I’m doing that thing again where I make it seem like I enjoyed an album less than I did. I really enjoyed Kala, and I’ll definitely be checking out more M.I.A. One of the structural weaknesses in this project is that it can only ever be about first impressions. Ten listens from now, ‘Paper Planes’ might be my least favourite track on the album.

— Matthew

*These people are the worst. (Mea culpa.)

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