“This may sound like science fiction. But to some, it’s not so far-fetched!” The peppy evening-news-anchor audio clip that opens M.I.A.’s latest embattled piece of creative output refers to a specific development: the use of 3-D printers to create fully functional guns. But it applies just as easily to any number of frightening turns modernity has taken in the last few years. Drones that can hunt down and kill enemies and civilians alike from halfway around the world, for example, or government surveillance of the virtual communication that we’ve become all but dependent on. For years, M.I.A. has very publicly been one of those people to whom these things don’t sound far-fetched at all. With “Double Bubble Trouble,” her first self-directed music video, she revives the themes that once earned her pans, snarky headlines, and New York Times hit pieces for an audience that’s finally caught up with her.
M.I.A. has never been shy about her politics. They’re a central part of her appeal; her biggest hit, after all, is a rap about immigration with gunshots in the chorus. In 2010, however, the inevitable backlash began during the wave of publicity surrounding her third album. There was the Lynn Hirschberg profile, which took her to task for talking about poverty while having a rich husband and eating truffle fries. There was a Nylon cover story, after which she was mocked for saying stuff like, “Everyone on the Internet is like, ‘Oh my God, come and join Facebook!’ They’re all so optimistic… and really, everyone is fucking you up behind the screens.” And then there was the unfortunate fact that, unlike Arular and Kala, Maya wasn’t embraced by critics so much as shrugged at, if not rejected. That put the nail in the PR coffin: M.I.A. was a crazy-pants conspiracy theorist, the kind that’s tolerated at pot-fueled, four-in-the-morning, freshman-dorm-room bullshit sessions and nowhere else.
M.I.A. always had her defenders. “People don’t need to be nuanced or thoughtful to say something important,” Nitsuh Abebe noted in a far more, well, nuanced take on the artist’s persona than Hirschberg’s. “We don’t need musicians to be ‘right’ so much as we need them to be resonant,” and what’s more resonant than a nine-minute music video about ginger genocide? Abebe rightly takes issue with M.I.A.’s flippant endorsement of political violence. Still, between flat-out wrong statements like “Google and Facebook were developed by the CIA” (from that Nylon interview) and high-ground-ceding antics like posting Hirschberg’s phone number to Twitter, M.I.A. offered ideas worth considering.
Fast-forward three years, and M.I.A.’s Big Brother-esque vision of oppressive Western governments versus their own citizens, plus the entire Global South, seems more Cassandra than crackpot. In a case of near-perfect timing, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of NSA surveillance came to light just three months before the long-delayed release of her fourth album, Matangi. And public criticism of the American military’s use of unmanned drones in Pakistan has been steadily mounting for years, even as massive corporations like Amazon are promising to put unmanned aircraft to more market-driven use. M.I.A. couldn’t come up with a better example of warfare and capitalism coming together if she tried.
Post-Matangi, M.I.A.’s been taking full advantage of the far more receptive political climate. She Skyped Julian Assange to open a New York show in November; the next night, she played an audio recording of Snowden himself. And now, there’s the “Double Bubble Trouble” video, with a thesis summed up by the graffiti that appears periodically throughout: “1984 is now.” A couple years ago, that declaration would have only added fuel to the “M.I.A.’s crazy!” fire. But no one’s laughing her out of town now.
The video is filled with imagery that’s simultaneously classic M.I.A. and specifically 2014. Lots of bright prints, wild youths (pronounced YOOTs) smokin’ weed, and low-budget visual effects that call back to early-’00s Word Art would probably make an appearance in any M.I.A.-directed clip from Arular on. But then there’s those 3-D-printed guns, which said youths wield throughout the video in various colors and patterns. And the “drone survival guide” that’s the backdrop for some dancers. And the colorfully lit mini-drones that hover above M.I.A. and her backup dancers as they break it down in front of a drab-looking apartment building.
“Double Bubble Trouble” isn’t the first video M.I.A.’s released since her resurgence/vindication. The “Y.A.L.A.” clip is gorgeous, but not overtly political, consisting mostly of the singer herself lit up in various color combinations. The “Bring the Noize” video inches closer to “Double Bubble Trouble” territory, featuring lots of urban, non-white young people. Yesterday’s release, however, is the first Matangi-era video that’s an unabashed distillation of M.I.A.’s in-your-face brand of global leftism.
It’s hard not to read at least a bit of “I told you so” into the clip, especially that opening bit of repurposed audio. M.I.A.’s always inhabited the space between politics and paranoia, though. What’s changed is the viewing public, which is now all too aware of the loss of privacy and abuse of authority she’s been talking about all along. Between 2010 and 2014, M.I.A. has never toned herself down. We’ve just become more willing to listen up.