The Art of Defying the System
Consider, if you will, how many young hopefuls have entered the entertainment industry with nothing more than a dream and a smidgen of talent. They get picked up by someone — a record label, an executive, some famed producer — and this means everything. Getting picked up means family and friends applaud you, enemies from school see your face on the cover of magazines, and a sizable paycheck is in your future. It also means your individuality will be slowly stripped away. “Do you want to be famous, or what? Lose the accent, dress this way, don’t say that, sing this, promote that, suck here…” Such “experts” style and media-train these young hopefuls within an inch of their lives this side of Stepford. And for what? Not art.
Every single narcissistic music video that comes complete with a four-minute monologue leading to the grand reveal of a sad-looking pop star staring into their own empty eyes in the mirror before moaning lazy lyrics that have been auto-tuned to death is due to this moneymaking system. Got something to say? Well, keep it to yourself. Wanna be an activist? Here are the permitted causes you can get behind, the policies you can support, the issues you can discuss, and the virtue-signaling you can use once we give you that award for being such a good little puppet. Dare to color outside these lines, and you’re done. No one will ever work with you again, and no more magazine covers for you.
Sadly, it isn’t until these ingénues are half-naked, shellacked to death for HD, dry-humping some background dancer, and lip-syncing about sexy cannibalism to a synthetic beat that they realize the work that they’re producing is neither art nor meaningful. But by then it’s much too late for change. They can’t revert to their “true identity” (if they can even recall what that is), because the public is already acquainted with the identity they allowed others to forge for them.
The music industry has become so vapid it’s no wonder the ratings for the Grammys have reached an all-time low. They’re not giving anyone a reason to dance, to sing along, or to even expand their thinking. Instead, the industry has become so egocentric that they must crush any opposing views, silence outspoken thinkers, and shame them as much as they can through hit pieces in the New York Times and other means of censorship. Industry execs can’t afford for their little ingénues to get any ideas.
Perhaps this is why there’s been so much resistance to artists like M.I.A.
Born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam in London, she spent most of her childhood in her native Sri Lanka, where her father was an activist and political leader who played a role in the Sri Lankan Civil War. Maya spent her early childhood dodging bullets while living in poverty, with her father notably absent due to this conflict. And when the situation became too dangerous for Maya and her siblings, their mother fought to get them out of the country and back to England. There they lived as refugees, experiencing harsh racism in southwest London. Luckily Maya’s mother was able to get a job as a seamstress, which provided a modest income for the family. All the while, young Maya was filming everything.
Maya initially dreamed of becoming a documentary filmmaker with the goal of telling stories most of us never hear: of the poor, the working class, the victims of war, the oppressed and the ignored. Her first major attempt at making a documentary brought her back to Sri Lanka, where she hoped to follow her cousin to film the war, but then her cousin went M.I.A. Maya ended up back in London shortly thereafter and took up painting, since it was cheap. It wasn’t until later that she found herself working as a musician, but that’s when her desire to speak truth found its proper medium.
Armed with a Roland MC-505 groovebox and drum machine, she began to create her own songs. By June 2004 she was uploading them onto MySpace, where major record labels instantly took note of her unique sound enhanced by diverse cultural flavors and earworm lyrics that were fun to sing yet steeped in political and economic significance. Within the year she was signed by XL Records, whose only desire was that she do something interesting. In a 2008 interview, Maya said, “Nobody wants to be dancing to political songs. Every bit of music out there that’s making it into the mainstream is really about nothing. I wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing. And it kind of worked.”