Monday night, mid-set on stage at Royale, it almost seemed like Maya Arulpragasam, a/k/a M.I.A., had had it.
She was perched atop the PA speakers stage right, and as is usual for her, she was having microphone issues. The song she was singing was from her new album, Maya
(Interscope), and the chorus went, "All I ever wanted was my story to be told." As she sang this simple plea, huge shards of feedback pierced the air. By song's end, it was too much: she tossed her mic off the stacks, and it hit the ground with a whump!
As she found her way down from the speakers, it was clear that she was going to have to do a little work to get this whole set back from the brink of oblivion.
It's a feeling that M.I.A., a Sri Lanka-via-London indie-pop-rap dynamo, knows well — not just the occasional sound issue at a gig, but trying to find a way to be heard above the din, to tell her story in the face of adversity. This would seem to be an odd predicament for her — after all, since the 2008 left-field success of her Clash-sampling single "Paper Planes," it almost seems like the music world has been bombarded with non-stop M.I.A. But when I catch up with her on the phone a few days before the Royale gig, she explains that just because you have everyone's attention doesn't mean that they're listening.
"At the end of the day, it's really difficult to be heard," M.I.A. says, in a patient and measured tone. "Even though people are like, 'Okay, we hear you, we hear you, you've got this hit song,' they didn't really hear me. And it left me wanting to spend more time with figuring out who I was. I felt like the only person who could help me was me. And there's no point going to other people for help, being like, 'Hey, there's this shit going on.' "
The "shit going on" that M.I.A. refers to is the Sri Lankan government's 2009 defeat of the country's Tamil insurgents, with thousands of reported civilian casualties amidst the violent end of a bloody and prolonged civil war. It isn't the typical cause célèbre of a newly minted pop star — but then again, M.I.A. has always been hell-bent on proving that she isn't a typical star, or even really a star at all.
As I talk to M.I.A., our conversation constantly returns to the theme of helplessness in the face of tragedy. In 2008, M.I.A. made a public retirement from music, evidently quitting at her peak. By that point she had already spent four years zipping from complete unknown to an Internet phenomenon who turned the world of indie music upside down — first with the viral pipe-bomb that was her first single, the infectiously bizarre "Galang," and then three years later with "Paper Planes," a weird tune that combines a joyous reggae lilt with a chorus of gunshots. But the success combined with the turmoil of her home country was, in a sense, one juxtaposition too many.