It's easier to take in the scene -- the small, pretty woman in blue silk waving her arms and shaking out her long black hair on the lip of the stage; the gaggle of young things on the floor stretching out to her in response; the media cameras separating them, bobbing above the front row like robotic birds in a dance of their own -- by watching it all in the long mirrors that line the wall of the Drake Hotel Underground in Toronto. The dark liquid reflection seems more real, more coherent, somehow, than the actual event.
Maya Arulpragasam, the London-based singer known to a growing international following as M.I.A., feels the reality gap too. Once the cameras have done their thing and gone, she asks that the stage lights be brought down: "I feel like I'm in a school talent contest," she remarks. When the spotlight's glare is attenuated, the stiffness begins to melt out of her 27-year-old limbs and she settles down, settles in, at least as much as she will on this Wednesday night.
M.I.A. has the kind of looks and body language that command attention, the kind that get you signed to a record deal on the spot, for example, when you bring your homemade demos round to the record company down the block (London's XL).
If in Wednesday's set she sometimes seemed not to know what to do with her charisma, remember it was her first show in North America and, depending what you count, one of the first full-fledged concerts of her life. Her backing DJ (and rumoured new fiancée), the American producer Diplo, occasionally had to wind tracks back so she could find her cues. (After Toronto's warm-up, they headed to Los Angeles, and tonight they take Manhattan.)
M.I.A.'s career so far is a topsy-turvy one. After about a year in the business, she has hardly played live, but she has the ears of record execs, the press, even the marketing industry: Apple is running a contest in which you can win an iPod Shuffle that plays her upcoming debut album, Arular (due Feb. 22), and is decorated by hand with the art-school graduate's signature psycho-tropical graphics, which also were projected on the walls of the Drake as she performed. (Her entrée into show biz was doing graphics for Britpop band Elastica.)
Part of the reason she looks better in the mirror may be that she's more used to the cameras than to the crowd; she seems better scaled to a screen or a frame. People distrust that quality (as preshow chatter about "hype" at the Drake attested) especially in an enviably beautiful young woman with her own blend of musical genres and a ton of fawning reviews.
They ask where she "really" comes from, whose creation she is, even though the only bandwagon she is jumping on is one built of lumber scavenged from every sound she's ever heard, and booty repirated from pirate radio. (Many listeners first encountered her on a mix she and Diplo released last year called Piracy Funds Terrorism.)
When The New York Times asked her to name her favourite current tracks in a feature last weekend, she chose Jamaican dancehall, American hip-hop, British "grime" (a salad of harsh ping-ponging electronic beats and patois-laden rap) and Puerto Rican reggaeton. Her own music contains fragments of all those styles, stripped down to buzzing minimalist grooves over which she rhymes in a saucy schoolyard sing-song style.
But this is no rootless child of privilege browsing in some kind of global sonic supermarket. Rather, M.I.A. is a profoundly uprooted person. Until the age of 10 she lived in Sri Lanka, where the father she never knew was a leading figure in the Tamil Tiger guerrilla army, and she and her siblings lived in hiding with their mother, dogged by the Sinhalese government from village to village in secrecy and poverty. They made it to safety in England as refugees in 1986, where they lived in a housing estate and her mother took in sewing.
Music and art were key to Arulpragasam's process of crossing over into urban Western culture, and you can still hear the journey in her songs: She mixes references to civil war and revolution with lines about dating and sex and nonsense-syllable chants. This discomfits people. On the business side, MTV has demanded she clarify what she means in her single Sunshowers, which refers both to the PLO and to putting "salt and pepper" on her "mango," before they'll play the video.
Meanwhile some fans complain that she doesn't seem to have a clear political agenda -- as if a straight political line has ever come across well in music, especially in pop music, a mixed-up, bastard form if it's anything. (Remember those early-nineties "industrial" remixes of Noam Chomsky lectures? Surely nobody wants to go back there.)
M.I.A.'s music is beguiling because it is confusing. Rather than embrace an existing genre or a given persona, whether sexpot or thug or Third World intellectual or sensitive painter, she asserts her right to all of them. She finds in pop's wild hybrid tendencies a readymade machine to take on all these questions of identity -- to belabour my metaphor, a mirror inside a mirror.
It would be much more artificial for her to produce some kind of Sri Lankan roots music, or British dance music in some heavy "insider" style. In London she's a foreigner; in an airport line in the Blair and Bush era, she's once again the suspected terrorist she was as a child. Yet when she returns to the country of her birth with her education and her pop connections, she is a Westerner. She is only an insider to the outside, and she can't be "with us or against us" for anybody.
That's why, even in its current rough-draft form, her presence and sound have such urgency in 2005. More than ever in history, we live in a world of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced and stateless persons -- tens of millions of them -- yet in culture and politics alike, we often demand proofs of loyalty or authenticity, the kind of identity card people like M.I.A. simply can't produce. Hence her stage name.
In such a mosaic, looking for coherence seemed the wrong impulse. So I turned my eyes away from the Drake mirrors to watch Arulpragasam do Amazon, a song in which she imagines herself kidnapped and held for ransom. Listening to it on Arular, and considering abduction was probably a real risk in her childhood, the song seems an act of defiance, turning a nightmare into a liberating action fantasy.
But live, when she shimmied toward the crowd and sang the chorus, "Hello! This is M.I.A.!/Would you please come get me?" the plea began to turn into a pop star's love cry: Hello, world, this is M.I.A. -- come dance with me, come sing with me, come on to me, come and get it. And the room roars back to her.
In M.I.A.'s music, the displaced world calls out for company as much as for rescue, the outside teases the inside, and abduction is a sort of state of grace. It isn't blindly optimistic: She knows firsthand that any "universal language" is a myth, that every kind of music, just like every village or council estate, has its own codes meant to keep you in and others out. But as one of the millions with no home, no single idiom to call her own, she is almost forced to make pop, the music that's always found in translation.
And then, as for any aspiring pop star, our attention is her ransom.