There are so many ways to say “I love you,” and if you’re singing, it can be hard to say anything else. Pop stars are our love machines, expressing desires people are otherwise too uptight or disconnected to put into words. And women artists can hardly find a way beyond that role. Springsteen sings for the working stiff, and Zack de la Rocha slaughters bulls on parade; but when Lady Gaga crafts a commentary on human trafficking, she still has to call it “Bad Romance.”
So, what if you’re a female artist who puts politics first? And then, what happens when you start to feel the muscle that is your heart?
Maya Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A., is in that nearly singular circumstance. The UK-born Sri Lankan war child turned agitprop-loving art-school kid achieved critical success and some popular renown with a global mash-up sound that cast her as ultimate street urchin -- "Robin Hoodrat," as the critic Jessica Hopper called her in her perceptive "/\/\/\Y/\" review.
Spitting slogans and throwing beat bombs, M.I.A. danced like a rapper, not a single lady. Her lyrics trumpeted self-confidence and spoke for others' struggles, rarely dwelling on tender emotions. She always looked great, but never bared too much skin. Her androgynous charisma, in fact, was the source of her breakthrough, when two different films, "Pineapple Express" and "Slumdog Millionaire," used her song "Paper Planes" as background to the antics of delinquent boys.
In the midst of M.I.A.'s rise, though, a couple of things happened: She started her own record label, the Interscope Records imprint N.E.E.T., getting into the music industry in earnest. And she met her future husband Benjamin Brewer, son of Warner Music Group CEO and Seagram's magnate Edgar Bronfman Jr., a guy with a different set of issues than M.I.A. may be used to confronting. The two had a son, Ikhyd, last year.
"/\/\/\Y/\" responds to these changes, and it feels like a serious artist's sometimes tentative but very promising step toward a broader vision of herself. In its 12 tracks, M.I.A. explores both what it means to serve as a sexual/romantic ideal in the Beyonce way, and what happens when a self-consciously political artist like herself confronts the sentimental streak deep within.