Found on the Fringes


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She grew up in the projects. Her father was wanted by the Sri Lankan army. She thinks Jay-Z and Lady Gaga are corporate sellouts and she wears neon leggings and red lipstick. Sign her to Interscope, mix all ingredients evenly. Bake until she has risen to international pop stardom.

M.I.A.'s public image might sound like the perfect recipe for an obscure artist's rise to fully blown mainstream fame, complete with quirky clothes and club-worthy beats. So naturally, when Lynn Hirschberg wrote an article in the New York Times pointing out the contradictions between the singer's alleged street cred and luxurious lifestyle, M.I.A. quickly took revenge - posting the writer's personal phone number on her Twitter. Petty as it may be, the squabble illustrates our culture's preoccupation with authenticity - a paradoxical obsession that accounts for indie music's recent surge in popularity, as well as its wealthiest purveyors' struggle to bridge their ideological inconsistencies as they deal with renown.

Independent music is a vague term full of nuances. First adopted in the 1980s, the word "indie" describes music of any genre created outside of the four ubiquitous major record labels - EMI, Warner, Sony and Universal. As independent artists emerged over the decades criticizing greedy executives and image-cultivating PR teams, indie music became inseparably associated with a defiant attitude and a homemade approach to production. Judging by the attitudes of some music fans and artists, anything less is enough to warrant suspicions about the musician compromising their artistic integrity.

Perhaps M.I.A. can't get these dichotomous ideas out of her head, or maybe she's insecure about whether the glitter of her marriage to Seagram heir Ben Bronfman will obscure her humble roots. After all, M.I.A.'s unprivileged origins are the main selling point of her gimmick. She invokes her Tamil separatist father to justify her outspoken political opinions and alignment with the violent Sri Lankan resistance group, the Tamil Tigers. She grew up listening to Public Enemy and defends her realness as vehemently as Dr. Dre did when he insisted that he still had love for the streets in "Still D.R.E." off 2001.

In any case, M.I.A. the woman and M.I.A. the performance artist have internalized this pressure to appear unchanged by the music industry, guiltily covering the tracks of the bountiful splendor afforded by her fame.

Hirschberg's negative profile of the artist is hard to contest. Though M.I.A. promised to post an unedited version of the interview on her record label N.E.E.T.'s blog, her MP3s from the interview only seem to disprove one of the article's cursory but telling mentions of M.I.A.'s expensive taste: "'I kind of want to be an outsider,' she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry."

Hirschberg may have ordered the rare delicacy for her interviewee as M.I.A.'s blog suggests. But her account of the time she spent with M.I.A. is enough to reveal the singer's hypocritical political endorsements, extravagant shopping trips and simultaneous mistrust of money-motivated artists - normal human behavior, unless, of course, you've built a career based on being an unmediated spokesperson for the Third World, the streets and anything else supposedly unaffected by money-grubbing mainstream society.

The conflicting interplay between money, artistic integrity and street credibility in indie music stems from age-old notions of authenticity. Just as the Grimm Brothers travelled across Europe seeking out the household tales of illiterate peasants unaffected by modernization, M.I.A. has traveled the world to promote undiscovered artists.

M.I.A. tailors N.E.E.T.'s image to fit popular ideas of who's the real thing and who's a sellout. She opts to sign music festival-ready acts like the charming, lo-fi indie duo Sleigh Bells, whose rhythm-heavy "Rill Rill" has the same crossover appeal and cheeky lyrics that made M.I.A.'s own "Paper Planes" a dance floor staple in 2008.

Teen rapper Rye Rye owes her jump-start in the music business to M.I.A.'s obsession with capturing, and sometimes contriving, all things raw. M.I.A. overheard Rye Rye's demo in a studio while working with DJ Blaqstarr. Rye Rye claims to be one of the "Hardcore Girls" from Baltimore as the title of her song suggests. But it's probably no coincidence that M.I.A.'s protegee sports multicolored spandex and raps to electro-infused beats like her mentor, even in spite of M.I.A.'s criticism of other artists' lack of originality.

With the oligarchy of conglomerate labels dominating the recording industry in the twentieth century, it's no surprise that there is a growing number of people thirsting for an escape from corporately manufactured pop and radio rap. Recorded music sales continue to slump while festivals like Coachella and HARDfest are ever in vogue.

Despite her contradictory politics and intentionally controversial statements, M.I.A. and other big-name indie artists open up the door and the outdoor stage for a wider variety of talent. Still, in this hyperactive decade of music A.D.D., it's easy to get distracted by manufactured authenticity. M.I.A.'s eye-catching clothes and head-banging rhythms may satiate a public hankering for originality, but it's an originality created to fill the cracks of society's concept of independent music as it bleeds further into the mainstream.


Enjoy a truffle-flavored French fry with Nastia at [email protected]

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