Tramps Like Us Swagger Like Us: M.I.A., the Boss, and the Class Politics of Pop

I once asked the country rock musician Langhorne Slim if his songs were based on his own personal experience. Singing of love and loss, and “life in a small town,” he could have been mistaken for a grizzled old country-westerner who had lived hard – at least judging from the lyrics. Slim admitted that he grew up in suburban Bucks county, outside Philadelphia, and his songs did not exactly reflect the place he was coming from. But he also pointed out that musicians create different characters and personas, just like novelists do – and we don’t usually give writers of fiction a hard time for speaking from the perspective of someone unlike themselves.

Such questions have been raised about a variety of performers throughout the history of pop music – from Bruce Springsteen, who has been condemned by the experts on working-class life at the New Republic for being “inauthentic” in his portrayal of daily struggles of ordinary New Jerseyans, to rappers like Jay-Z or Biggie, whose detailed tales about living poor and dealing crack may be based more on imagination than they’d care to admit. When Saigon talks about shooting crackhead Reggie in the leg and stuffing two bodies in the trunk, he declares, “I’m not just giving you shit to critique, everything I rap about I lived in the streets.” One wonders if Saigon should be incriminating himself if he really is serious about his kneecapping past.

There is a bigger question at stake here, one that students of the humanities and social sciences will know well – can you write about or sing about someone else’s experience without inevitably getting it wrong? Does each ethnic group, religion, or class get to write its own history? Is Steinbeck’s memoir Travels with Charley greater than The Grapes of Wrath, because the author was not, in fact, an impoverished okie? Is someone who has always lived in comfort and security unable to access the truth of another’s experience of poverty and fear?

Recently, the Sri Lankan rapper-singer M.I.A. has come under fire for identifying herself with the Tamil struggle in which her father was involved, and for seeming to advocate violence in songs like “Paper Planes” (with its sounds of guns cocking and cash registers cha-chinging). Part of the critique seems to be that since M.I.A. left Sri Lanka as a child and grew up in the UK, her identification with the rebel movement rings false.

More important, critics claim that the singer simplifies a complex and painful political struggle by creating an illusion of heroic – and violent – rebellion. To my mind, this criticism seems to be about on a par with blasting the Clash for not investigating violations of civil liberties in Nicaragua on its Sandinista! album, or telling Biggie that he should have written a more thoughtful treatise on the drug war. Even if Rage Against the Machine unwisely championed the destructive Shining Path movement, at least they provoked discussion of issues that were otherwise largely ignored in the US.

Perhaps M.I.A. is just striking a pose, infusing her volatile mash-up of cultures and styles with a revolutionary ardor – a vague feeling of anger at injustice and inequality that struck a chord with many listeners in the waning days of the Bush regime. “Third world democracy,” M.I.A. growls. “I put people on the map who never seen a map,” she claims. Rage, in this case, is as globalizable as cheeseburgers and lead toys.

In other words, the would-be Tamil Tiger swaggers like a third-world rebel to position herself against the global status quo, which we all know stinks, no matter how you slice it – much like an American rapper who uses a language of aggression and menace to disrupt the illusions of a happy, orderly, capitalist society – to be the outlaw, the Robin Hood, the dangerous man. A rapper who’s never so much as shoplifted a candy bar before, to say nothing of selling crack, can tell stories of taking from the rich or breaking the law to survive – “making some money to feed my daughters,” as Biggie put it. Does that make them “inauthentic”? Maybe.

This whole discussion of who’s really “real” and who isn’t leaves many questions unaddressed.  For example, who is so real that they get to judge – to throw the first stone, so to speak? Some instances may be so galling and contrary to reality that they are difficult to ignore, e.g. Kanye West saying “I ain’t one of the Cosbys, I didn’t go to Hillman,” as if he didn’t grow up the privileged son of the English department chair at a major university.

But what are middle class or even rich kids supposed to sing about? Like Weezer, they could write about life in suburbia (“In my garage, I feel safe…”). The question reminds me of a recent episode of the Starz sitcom Party Down, in which a bubble-headed blonde actor asks an elderly black man to teach him the blues. The aged gentleman tells him to think about his painful experiences, and all the actor could think to sing about was his Xbox being broken.

In fact, the much-loved and much-maligned Vampire Weekend offer a fine example of this tension. Critic Jim DeRogatis, a noted and accomplished hater, can barely conceal his loathing for the Columbia-educated rockers (perhaps the first musical stars to come out of the school since Jack Kerouac last hit a bongo drum). The Weekend’s songs about Cape Cod and Jackson Pollock irritate DeRogatis to no end, and he could not believe that the band named its second album Contra, with an Aryan girl in a polo shirt gracing the cover. To DeRogatis, this seemed to be a direct reference to the Clash’s Sandinista – and worst of all, “they backed the wrong side!”

The young woman who debated DeRogatis on the radio could not get him to acknowledge that Vampire Weekend’s image as WASPy elites had a touch of humor to it – or, at least, that the band was being frank about who they are and where they are coming from. They may ham up their privileged look in videos for songs like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” but at least they’re not denying their background like a certain diplomat’s son who ran around acting like a working-class outlaw.

Perhaps some songs just ring truer than others, conforming to some loose gestalt of reality that we as listeners recognize and understand – whether it is the Clash singing about unemployment or the Spanish Civil War, or Bruce Springsteen singing about hopeless young people whose only means of escape are horsepower and velocity. Or, for that matter, Vampire Weekend singing about the Ivy League and Martha’s Vineyard.