It was a set-up worthy of Sophie's Choice.
The organizers of this year's Austin City Limits festival, which took place this last weekend, generally did an excellent job, dealing with headliner cancellations, fires and dehydrated sorority girls, but they really gave us a doozy of a decision to make on Friday afternoon: M.I.A. or LCD Soundsystem?
See, both were scheduled at the same time, on two different stages. Hell of a choice—the funky international hip-hop of an intelligent Sri Lankan party girl or the funky new-school dance amalgamations of an intelligent American punk boy? Both artists are among the few who manage to stay grimy, nasty and original in the icky, sanitized world of music, and both deserve our attention.
I went with M.I.A. I used the same decision-making device I use when faced with a game between two NFL teams for whom I have equal affection: I chose the one with the prettier uniforms.
Of course neither artist wore a uniform per se, but at this festival where sound was king, I let the visual be my guide. This may initially sound flip, but it actually proved to be a significant part of the ACL experience, if you could see through the beer blur and sweat dripping over the lenses of your sunglasses.
For those who don't know, M.I.A.—her real name is Maya Arulpragasum—is a rapper from Sri Lanka who hit it big with her debut album, Arular. The disc caused some controversy with its imagery of guns and terrorism, though it was mainly noted for the fact that it was the best album of 2005. Upon release of her follow-up, the recent Kala, M.I.A. was denied a visa to come tour in the States until Homeland Security, initially worried the rapper was some kind of terrorist, cleared her.
At ACL, M.I.A. bounded onstage clad in cropped pants and matching shirt, tucked in so hard the whole ensemble resembled a pantsuit. The pattern of said clothes came close to that of a red and white bandanna, only the pockets just to the side of her breasts broke the outfit up with the same pattern, only in blue denim. She polished off the outfit with a camel toe and a pair of Reeboks. She looked kind of crazy.
The rapper, her backup singer/dancer (clad in short shorts, midriff exposed, face painted and with some tribal thing goin' on) and her DJ Low Bee put on a bangin', if inconsistent, set. At times, Low Bee appeared more stressed out than jammin', especially after he missed a couple of cues and slowed down the show. M.I.A. seemed a bit spent from the heat, though she perked up enough to yell "I'm about to get political," and then informed the crowd she had just been on the Letterman show and the producers wouldn't let her use the gunshot sound effects that are central to her new song "$20," from Kala.
M.I.A., whose father reportedly is a member of the rebel group Tamil Tigers, has been criticized for being quasi-political or contradictory for preaching an anti-war message in one lyric, singing about guns in the next, indulging in girly materialism, then switching to spiritual mode. "$20" doesn't disappoint those who focus on such things, with the line, "So I woke up with my holy Quran and found I like Cadillac." Similarly, one of the catchiest of M.I.A's songs, "Amazon," from her debut album, says in part, "Painted nails, sunsets on horizons/...somewhere in the Amazon they're holding me ransom."
Such things could be seen as contradictory, but as M.I.A. regained her energy in the latter half of the set, it became clear they are not tossed-off juxtapositions but rather well-considered ideas. M.I.A and dancer Jazzercised their way through several songs, booties shaking and arms twitching, putting those Reeboks to use, till she switched gears from the deep bass and crafty samples that make up her backbeat and launched into "$20," its verse comprising the lyrics to the Pixies "Where Is My Mind," its sample a slowed-down guitar/bass bit from the same song. Then, she ratcheted up the party, beer raised overhead, exhorting the crowd to come up onstage and "bring some pot." At first the crowd seemed shy, but suddenly a rush of humanity jumped onstage and never stopped coming. It was a loose, scary, awesome moment—a party where people could get hurt or have the best time of their lives or both. "I want people to go fuckin' crazy!" M.I.A. shouted into the mike, and while maybe the crowd showed a smidgen of restraint, it was a wild scene.
At the end of it all, M.I.A. thanked David Letterman, whom she had just scorned for censoring her, for letting her "into the American mainstream." It seemed yet another contradiction, but really it was the key that made it clear that M.I.A. knows very well what she's doing: She's synthesizing the complications of what it means to live in a world where the visual beauty of painted nails and sunsets exists side-by-side with violence. She's trying to make sense of the difficulties in using such violence to gain freedom, like her father does. M.I.A.'s bangin' beats, booming guns, half-ironic costumes and half-hearted endorsement of questionable behavior are all part of the same serious party. You can mix seminal indie rock with international beats and come up with something bizarre and amazing, she is saying, and you can want to be on the Late Show with David Letterman and not want to be on Letterman. But her most important lesson is this: You can have a revolution and a party too, and a sexy, goofy jumpsuit is appropriate dress for both.