/\/\ /\ Y /\

(Interscope/N.E.E.T; 2010)

By Calum Marsh | 22 July 2010

/\/\ /\ Y /\ has been so poorly received by so many people that to swoop into the fray two weeks late and champion the thing might seem eye-rollingly polemical. I think, though, there’s a great deal that needs to be said on behalf of this album; I believe, quaint a notion thought it may be, that /\/\ /\ Y /\ is simply misunderstood. Rather than being taken on its own terms—which are, as it is with all pop music, reasonably modest—/\/\ /\ Y /\ has instead become a platform from which critics have engaged in a kind of communal vet of M.I.A. the icon, and so launched into all kinds of incendiary diatribes on subjects as wide-ranging as political ignorance, hypocritical cosmopolitanism, entitlement, misguided advocacy, Lady Gaga, vanity, whiny self-interest, sloganeering, Third World credibility, truffle fries—basically everything but the music itself.

I think the reason most people find /\/\ /\ Y /\’s music less interesting to talk about than these other subjects is that the album’s essential goodness or badness, depending on what side of the argument you fall on, seems somehow self-evident. I joked recently that people who love the movie Speed Racer and people who hate the movie Speed Racer could both summarize their arguments by simply pointing to the screen and saying, see? I think that’s also true of /\/\ /\ Y /\: this music is just so confidently extreme that the reactions it provokes are immediate and totally visceral. But ask members of either camp to describe the album and you’re bound to get similar responses: Rolling Stone, in a positive review, calls it “confrontational” and “aggressive”; Pitchfork says essentially the same thing but slams it. And really: explain to someone who finds the hardware-store clatter of “Steppin Up” appealing why that noise is definitively bad-sounding. How would you do that?

This is exactly the subjective realm that /\/\ /\ Y /\ taps into: it puts its listeners in a position where opinions are formed in large part by predetermined prejudices. Of course, this is true for most music in general, but what makes /\/\ /\ Y /\ tacitly brilliant is that it forces us to engage with those prejudices in a way that pop music typically does not. “XXXO”‘s ostensibly dumb chorus-cry of “you want me to be somebody that I’m really not” foregrounds this idea: M.I.A.‘s gripe is not that mainstream audiences demand that she be readily digestible, but rather that certain audience members want M.I.A. to conform to a whole bunch of unfair standards and that further—and here’s the kicker—we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. /\/\ /\ Y /\ wants to agitate us in a way that makes us think about why it agitates us so much; this is a hipster icon rubbing our faces in the sound of this unexpected music, demanding we respond.

There’s the other side of that, of course: people will argue that even if the music is a sonic call to arms—a challenge—the lyrics are little more than vacuous sloganeering. And, of course, given the media hype surrounding M.I.A. lately, that’s an argument we might make. But I have to ask: why is it artistic suicide for M.I.A. to sing something potentially reductive or ridiculous about Google and the Government, but nobody bats an eyelash when Lady Gaga says some dumb shit about wanting your “vertigo stick”? Why can we look the other way when various pop musicians tacitly reifiy all sorts of socially ingrained political wrongs, but we can’t stand /\/\ /\ Y /\’s “obnoxious political antics,” to borrow Pitchfork’s phrase, just because it’s expressed a little more actively? I suspect the harshness with which /\/\ /\ Y /\’s political conceits are being treated is directly related to how unsettled listeners are by what it sounds like. By crafting pop music from the most abrasive of elements M.I.A. has deliberately strong-armed listeners into a position where gut reactions trump critical ones, where the language that allowed eloquent lauding of mainstream successes like “Paper Planes” no longer seems equipped to engage with her music meaningfully.

See, this whole discussion has become a critical lacuna where metaphors fail and M.I.A. the icon—a vague collection of obnoxious postures and gestures—is infinitely easier to think and talk about and succinctly criticize and dismiss than /\/\ /\ Y /\ the album. And so the artist inevitably comes to stand in for her music. But by focusing on the truffle fries and our disappointment that there’s no standout track like “Paper Planes” here, we’re neglecting the fact that /\/\ /\ Y /\ contains some seriously compelling music, that M.I.A. has once again ingested and spun out an impressive spectrum of styles and moods. On “XXXO,” M.I.A. reinterprets Lady Gaga as a pop singer with an aesthetic as challenging as her wardrobe, the result surprisingly infectious. “Teqkilla,” though something of endurance test, is an importantly provocative slice of Maya Machine Music. “It Iz What It Iz” drops the art-house edge and shoots straight through to the sublime (the results sound frankly gorgeous, which is not a word one hears used to describe this album very often). Even “Born Free,” with its infamously rabble-rousing music video, brings so much punch to the already near-perfect “Ghost Rider” that—prepare for blasphemy—one almost wishes Suicide had adopted this approach to percussion.

It’s not that there aren’t valid discussions to have about M.I.A.‘s recent publicized activities; it’s that it’s a shame that an album that features some of her best and most adventurous material had become victim to those discussions. And even if you find you don’t have a change of heart if you listen again, at the very least I must insist: there’s something to talk about here. Here’s about the best recommendation I can make: it’s so good that you might love it even if you think you hate it.

:: myspace.com/mia