Jean Genet, A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes To You

So, a pop star turns out to be self-aggrandizing, egocentric, shallow and materialistic. That’s news?

While I don’t think the article itself and the media-social kerfuffle that followed were by deliberate, organized design, the completely artificial nature of all of it is a wonderful example of culture as a disposable commodity. At the core is a young woman who makes records that you can either take or leave. On top of that is the clumsy machinery of ‘stardom.’ And so a minor pop musician who would otherwise be forgotten in a couple years expands into cultural space via infantile claims to be part of the mosaic of revolution, expands into the fashion and media cultural complex via her engagement to the scion of that same complex, and then gets written up in a cover story in the world’s most important newspaper by a writer who exists only because pop stars exist for her to cast a journamalistic eye upon. The complete and utter artificiality of the whole thing is that a multipage spread of chic photos of M.I.A. follows the article itself.

Nobody comes off well. M.I.A. is childish, although that’s to be expected in some ways, and Hirschberg, despite the length she’s given, just a features writer and Joan Didion manqué. Her subjects are disposable and so is her writing. She’s part of the machinery of pop stardom, M.I.A. is a possible result of that stardom, and it has nothing to do with quality of music, thought or politics. It’s just disposable product. Compare this:

To this:

One starts with an actual commercial, and has money all over it, the other quietly kicks it’s ass up and down the sidewalk. One is mainstream, global consumer culture, and the other is outlaw. Very few have the personal determination and courage to be Jean Genet because that means sacrificing the Givenchy jewelry and the Met costume balls.

Pop stardom itself is antithetical to the artist as outlaw, which itself is a real thing with a long and enduring tradition. The outlaw is going to have a vital but limited appeal, and to move units at the level of stardom one has to appeal to a vast mass, which means smoothing off the rough edges while applying the artificial patina of which M.I.A., her handlers and Hirschberg are knowing masters. M.I.A.’s original label has an original outlaw on it, someone who has actually been imprisoned and is more of an enemy to himself than to society, and that’s Gil Scott-Heron. M.I.A. is also making records in a style that could not exist without his previous work. And politically, he knows what the fuck he’s talking about and instead of trying to claim specious political street cred for himself, he earns it by expressing what he observes in the streets. He doesn’t move enough units to make the cover of the Times magazine, but forty years from now M.I.A. will be forgotten, while this already forty year old statement will be as live as ever:


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

4 thoughts on “Jean Genet, A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes To You”

  1. Just watching those clips, I hear how weak M.I.A.’s rapping is; like most of the music, she’s trying to fit the words and syllables to beats, but she has no attack or rhythmic feel of her own, and that cadence on “mo-ney” is just bad. Meanwhile, Gil Scott-Heron is RAPPING Muthafucka, just talking and giving it his own attack, his own beat, his own rhythm. Tougher than leather.

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