Thursday, June 3, 2010

Persona Non Grata

So Leigh Alexander wrote today about the recent M.I.A. NYT article controversy and made a really interesting connection to the games industry. If you're not up on the story, read Leigh's post and/or do some Googling. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Okay, ready for some ranting? Good.

Now. Gonna throw this out there & that's about all the energy I want to spare on this twit M.I.A., aka Maya:

If you are not an actual fucking musician, you have no right to expect respect as a "singer." Period.

Ella Fitzgerald was a singer. Chan Marshall is a singer. Christ, fucking Celine Dion is a singer. M.I.A. is a performance artist. And not a particularly good one at that.

M.I.A., for all her posturing with her new Hirschberg-diss track "I'm a Singer," cannot carry a tune. Like, not even close. I have no idea how the atonal mess that is "Paper Planes" passes for a pop song, or how it became inexplicably popular. And it's not even an interesting atonal mess. It's just off-key. Fashionably so, I guess.

Oh, and her lyrics sound like rhymes scribbled furiously during study hall by a precocious 9th-grader who's just read Animal Farm. They do no justice to the actual third-world struggles she purports to represent. They reek of hipness and unearned righteous indignation.

"Like Madonna," Lynn Hirschberg says in her NYT Magazine profile, "Maya is not a trained musician but a brilliant editor, able to pick and choose and bend the talents of others to fit her goals." Fine. There are plenty of talented musicians who were not formally trained, or whose main instrument is the studio. But unlike, say, Sir George Martin, M.I.A. is using music as a mere prop in her performance art.

It's not like this is a new phenomenon - ever heard of the Sex Pistols? - but it's really disturbing that she insists on piggybacking off of actual tragedy in her endless quest for self-promotion.

Whatever relevance M.I.A. has is entirely dependent on her image, pseudo-politics, fashion, cult of personality, etc. Actual musical talent is immaterial. Without the medium of video to show off her sexy costumes and dance moves and "third world democracy" schtick, M.I.A. would have no following. Her ostensible principal product - music - cannot speak for itself. It needs to be paired with her persona to be properly consumed.

She herself has deliberately created this expectation, so she has no credibility when she bitches about Hirschberg's piece making her look bad. When your "look" and "message" are everything, why are you surprised when people try to expose the contradictions in them? Even if Hirschberg really did purposely slant the story, is the point really that M.I.A. is a hypocrite for rapping about life in the slums and advocating revolution while living in a Brentwood mansion? Or is it more to show how deeply her creative output is dependent upon her persona?

Also? Homegirl is boring as hell. Seriously, if your "best story ever" can't hold the viewer's attention for two entire minutes, you probably shouldn't pin your career on your "message."

Whew. Sorry for that. What does this have to do with games, anyway?

Leigh's argument in her post is that she could never write a piece like Hirschberg's about a prominent, interesting game industry figure because the industry's "PR machine" prevents any meaningful contact between developers and journalists, and thus reinforces gaming's continued "cultural irrelevance."

Leigh certainly knows the machine much better than I, so no argument here. But to Leigh's point that there are not a lot of "nuanced enough 'personalities' worth covering" in video games - well, I have to ask, do we really want that?

The Will Wrights and Ken Levines of the world - who are, despite their godlike status in the industry, not exactly household names in mainstream culture - might not make for a good profile piece like Hirschberg's, but not because they're not talented people with interesting things to say. It's precisely because of their talent that most game developers wouldn't make good subjects for an expose. Their public personas are not essential components of their product. I can enjoy Spore or BioShock without ever knowing or caring who dreamed them up and made them real, whether it's one guy with an outsize personality or a hundred faceless programmers. The work speaks for its own damn self. You can enjoy shit for what it is. And if you learn about the creator and his/her personality helps inform your understanding of the work, great, but if that persona is essential to the work? Forget it.

So for Leigh and any other game journo looking to recreate the magic of the Hirschberg piece, let me humbly suggest the following steps:
1. Find the dudes who did, say, Superman 64 or Damnation
2. Listen to them ramble incoherently about how their shitty games are a comment on Western imperialist aggression while eating various foodstuffs
3. Attempt to stitch together some kind of relatively objective narrative despite subjects' incompetence/arrogance, fail
4. Say "fuck it," write something awesome & scathing
5. Take lots of calls from bros who got your phone number off Twitter

1 comment:

  1. Honestly, I'll take someone who can put an entertaining song together over a technically talented singer any day of the week. And MIA, for all her crazy and possibly stupid political views, can sure bring a track to life.