Colorado songwriter mixes obscenity and emotional heft with huge pop melodies
Terminal 5, New York City Friday, November 1
After Assange finishes praising her for being "the most courageous female performer” working today, Venus X of the party collective GHE20G0TH1K gets the crowd roaring with a mix of Twilight Zone samples, hip-hop bangers and tabla drumbeats. As she finishes her set, fog consumes the stage. Whirling spotlights set to a soundtrack of helicopter blades create a setting more seizure-inducing than an episode of Pokémon. As a mashup of ‘The Message’ and ‘The World’ starts, MIA comes out in sunglasses and a silver-and-gold suit that recalls Elvis. She struts around, shimmering. We're watching the Queen.
The first part of her performance is dominated by confrontational new tracks from ‘Matangi’, which are mostly unknown by the crowd. They freak out anyway – such is the power of MIA's confidence. 'Bring the Noize' is the clear standout, sounding like a classic MIA party anthem complete with an easy-to-scream battle cry of a chorus (“bring the noise when we run upon them”). When she performs 'YALA,' her response to the acronym 'YOLO', she slowly struts around the stage while her dancers – who are wearing MIA’s Versace collection – take the spotlight, and there’s an unexpected twist when Julianne Moore gets namechecked as a person whose paycheck MIA covets. 'Matangi' is a similarly swaggering meld of her personal and political background (“grew up listening to war” she sings at one point) and surely the best rap diss of 2013: “I'm ice cream, and you're sorbet”.
As MIA races from song to song the scene onstage is kinetic and frenzied, thanks to the lights and the wild and skilful grace of her dancers. At times, though, she seems a bit listless. Many of her vocals are prerecorded, and she's outsourced most of the physical dazzlement to the athletes behind her. When she repeatedly extends the mic to the crowd her vocal track doesn't skip a beat, and you wonder how much of her rapping is coming from the DJ booth. But no one seems to care if she's shouldering the performance's full weight or not. She's MIA, a person capable of making adolescent stoners feel 20 times cooler and more politically aware just by listening to her.
She becomes more animated in the second half of the night, which is built largely of beloved cuts from 2007's ‘Kala’ and 2005's ‘Arular’. At one point she balances on the rail at the front of the stage, supported by the hands of her fans. Then she, her dancers and some volunteers plucked from the crowd lob paint bombs into the audience, turning members into pink-flecked Jackson Pollock lookalikes. This is exactly the kind of wonderful weirdness you want from an MIA show. It closes with a thrilling one-two punch of ‘Paper Planes’ and ‘Bad Girls’, then the last track on ‘Matangi’, ‘Sexodus’. MIA uses a pink scarf as, alternately, a veil, a headwrap and a whip, and fully commits to rapping the entire encore herself. She does it so well you wish she’d engaged herself this fully from the start. But it's hard to complain when you leave a show hoarse, sweaty and covered in paint. Bad girls do, in fact, do it well – even when they're not trying all that hard.
The Message/The World
Bring the Noize
Pull Up the People
Double Bubble Trouble
Come Walk With Me
Bucky Done Gun
VIEW FROM THE CROWD
Megan Tatem, 22, New Jersey
"Y.A.L.A." and "Bring the Noize" seem more focused on beats than lyrics. I don't think she wants to deal with having the government on her back anymore."
Ajua Duker, 20, Washington DC
"I thought the atmosphere tonight was awesome. I hadn't heard anything off the new album before this, but it seems like she's doing a more 'dancehall' thing with it."
Christos Mark, 24, New York City
"I think M.I.A.'s new stuff is more upbeat and positive. It was really weird to see Julian Assange in the beginning, but her stage presence was great."
Nick Holdorf, 24, New Jersey
"The crowd was super into her. It was my first time hearing her new songs, and they were very energetic. I expect even more awesomeness from her in the future."
Lisa Cepisul, 25, Paris
"The colors all over the stage—and all over us!—were so cool. The show was a little too short for me, though—only an hour of her wasn't enough."
Amy Rose Spiegel
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