Is M.I.A. Actually Trying to Drive Away Her Fans?

Categories: Last Night
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Richard Haick
M.I.A.
October 12, 2010
@ The Fox Theater, Oakland

Better than: Well, I guess she could have not played at all.

Last night, M.I.A. was that kid you hated to do group projects with in school: She showed up late, she left ridiculously early, she barely did anything on her own, and yet she still behaved as if her own piddling contribution to that wet blanket of a concert was miraculous. If 2010 is the year of Maya Arulpragasam's undoing, last night her bad luck began to look more like a slow public suicide.

It wasn't just that M.I.A. left jaws on the floor and middle fingers in the air when she walked offstage after a 50-minute show. But that helped. She pranced away brazenly after the shortest headlining set I can remember, a performance that, for ticket buyers, cost about 70 cents per minute before fees, and a dollar or more every 60 seconds if you bought from scalpers.

Maya bolted, but the crowd remained. As the lights went up and it became clear that she wasn't coming back, kids howled and stared at each other in disbelief. "That was a bullshit concert," I overheard one girl saying to her friends as she held up a middle finger at the stage, where roadies were already loading out the gear. "Fuck you."

The 35-year-old Brit didn't depart after some mind-blowing performance, either. During the main set, which lasted all of 35 minutes, M.I.A. basically sang over her records while shimmying around the stage. With a DJ blasting out her vocal tracks from three CD decks, Maya was free to sporadically point her wireless mic at the crowd -- and, most annoyingly, at the speakers, where it sent tremors of whale-fart feedback through the theater.

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Richard Haick
Her setlist plucked evenly from all three albums, with most highlights coming from Arular and Kala -- rightly lauded albums that seem like rosy memories after this year's mediocre Maya. (The latter two, we should add, were largely crafted by expert producers including Switch, Diplo, and Timbaland.) Last night, the fuzzy stabs of "Galang" hit second in the set and had me longing for 2005. The bouncing slam of "Boyz" made the front of the room pop like Orville Redenbacher's. But other than closer "Born Free," the new songs sounded as ho-hum as they do on her poopy new record.

Most disturbing, though, was the pervasive feeling last night that M.I.A. is pretending -- that she isn't who she used to be and just doesn't have the stomach to tell us. Or, that she never was and simply can't act anymore.

M.I.A. came out parading as a sharp-tongued, tech-hip Tamil revolutionary, beret and sunglasses part of the uniform, shirt and pants patterned with the YouTube play bars that grace the cover of Maya. But what radical needs a security dude to get within touching distance of the fans in front? Even Lady Gaga dove into her (much larger) public basically naked.

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Richard Haick
When Maya climbed a stack of speakers last night, the nanny security dude came back to hold them steady. This would be fine for someone with a smaller mouth and a smaller ego, but I've seen a shitfaced Julian Casablancas climb to far more precarious heights while smoking a cigarette. Two weeks ago at the Greek Theatre, Arcade Fire scaled the trusses on the side of its stage while banging a drum. And for M.I.A.'s final cred-shattering straw last night, she returned for the encore wielding a bottle of Patron tequila -- the booze equivalent of a chauffeured Maybach. (More bougie, even, than a truffle-flavored french fry.)

None of this would have even warranted a mention had M.I.A. either revised her image or actually done something impressive musically. Instead, she had her DJ play for 20 minutes before coming out onstage. She let her recorded voice or the crowd sing. (She shouted, rapped, and sang some, but it was clear she knew she didn't have to, and the sound was bad enough that you couldn't hear much of it.) She wore irritated looks as she rearranged her hair mid-song. She retired to the back of the stage in the longish pauses between tracks, looking tired and obligated. She tried sexy dancing, but she's not particularly good at either dancing or being sexy. And then she disappeared after less than an hour.

As she does too frequently these days, M.I.A. did the bare minimum. Just like that kid in school.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: I am not and have never been in the generally-hate-M.I.A. camp. Maya has about four good songs on it. The "Born Free" video is dumb. But Arular is very good, and Kala is a landmark. In other words, this review is not the product of a grudge.

But regardless, retribution assistance: Maya, since you like to Tweet the digits of writers who criticize you, here are mine: (415) 659-3820. (That's my real number, and if you call it, I reserve the right to quote you in future posts, stories, and restraining orders.)

Random factoid: M.I.A. and Hunter S. Thompson and me all share a birthday: July 18.

Overheard after the show: "Everyone I was standing near was like, 'That was disappointing.'"

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