MIA, nine months pregnant, performs at the 2009 Grammy awards. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Perhaps they were both an embrace of the multiculturalism that came out of the end of Tony Blairs New Labour government,
as critic Simran Hans writes of MIA in Dazed: this is what Allen did on Alright, Still. Its culture-clash seems commonplace now, but in 2006, the New York Times described her as one of the oddest female artists to emerge in years, noting: She is obsessed with black music, from rock-steady to Jay-Z, but she seems blithely unconcerned with issues of authenticity and appropriation. Though that wasnt the aspect of Allens identity that most confused them: She looks so traditionally feminine that her foul mouth and bellicose nature are amusing surprises, they wrote, prudishly.
Neither artist was trying to convince anyone of the authenticity of their own experience. Both were caught between identities, forced to take responsibility for themselves: the daughter of apparent privilege whose parents were barely ever around; the refugee who hadnt seen enough of the war to fit in with her family back in Sri Lanka and was called Paki by racists on the street in her new home in south-west London. Admittedly, one of these calls for a smaller violin than the other. Yet in a textbook example of the way women are held accountable for mens actions, neither
MIA nor Allen has been able to escape their fathers shadow, even as they have agitated for their own causes. Terrorist and champagne socialist are fairly disparate reputations, but MIAs situation reveals the impossibility of both.
Her political cause was called into question from the outset. Journalists mistook her psychological identification with the Tiger cause as ideological commitment,
wrote critic Robert Christgau, and fundamentally misunderstood pops purpose by expecting her to propose solutions to Sri Lankas problems. Even if I cared, how could I possibly learn more? critic Jamin Warren wrote in a review of a 2005 gig in Washington DC that he had apparently mistaken for a charity telethon: No tracts, no call-in numbers, no informational websites.
And yet, the media behaved as if MIA was the one responsible for invalidating her cause when she became successful (further revealing the lie of the
good immigrant promise) and had a child with a billionaire, Benjamin Bronfman, to whom she was briefly engaged. A 2009 New York Times Magazine profile painted MIA as a dilettante, implying that she couldnt be an outsider because she was eating truffle fries during their interview (which, it turned out in the aftermath, journalist Lynn Hirschberg had ordered). Hirschberg who fawns over MIA in the documentary called in Sri Lankan experts and human rights organisations, plus the musicians producer ex-boyfriend Diplo, to undermine MIA. Hirschberg dismissed her activism as radical chic, the term Tom Wolfe coined to skewer the fashionability of bourgeois politics in 1970.
Lily Allen: Hard Out Here video
Both could have taken easier paths, making sexy-face, as Allen calls it in her memoir, obliging the tabloids and shutting up. Im not fighting for the space to gentrify myself and then fit in,
MIA told Torontos Now magazine recently. Ive had that offered to me every year. I could have been the brown one of them [pop stars] and not say anything about where I come from and who I am. And neither was without genuine controversy: MIA made clumsy remarks about what she perceived as the cultural dominance of the Black Lives Matter movement at the expense of issues concerning Muslim, Syrian and Pakistani populations, and Allens video for her 2013 comeback single Hard Out Here was rightly called out for relying on racist tropes to underscore her point about feminism: Dont need to shake my arse for you cos Ive got a brain, she sang as black women twerked in their underwear, her case not helped by having tweeted a photo of a penis in blackface to Azealia Banks in the course of an argument earlier that summer.
This is fair criticism both artists personal complaints betrayed a misunderstanding of structural injustice. But the tabloid and rightwing media, always acting in bad faith, also wielded the opposite tactic, reducing Allen and MIAs arguments about structural injustice to petulance and that distinctly feminine crime self-promotion. What point could MIA
possibly have been trying to make when she released the video to Born Free, in which a parade of ginger-haired boys are killed in a genocide? (Even the 12-year-old lead could grasp it: I think she was trying to show violence to end violence, Ian Hamrick told TMZ, this apparently being enough of an issue for a celebrity gossip website to stalk an unknown child actor.) How dare Allen cry when visiting the refugee camps in Calais, or amplify the north Kensington communitys suspicion that the Grenfell death toll was far higher than the official reports?
MIA: Born Free video
The climax of MIAs documentary is the perfect example of how making a point about injustice can be spun as a greater offence than the injustice itself in order to silence women. At the 2010 Super Bowl, she flipped off the cameras while performing with Madonna. The gesture seemed impetuous
she initially claimed it as a spiritual gesture in tribute to her namesake, the Hindu goddess Matangi but she later explained that she felt sickened by men telling the most successful living female pop artist to twirl and bend over (sexualised behaviour for which Madonna is often dragged in the press). The NFL attempted to sue MIA for 10m; a parade of white-bread American pundits clutched their pearls on national TV. This sequence is one of the funniest, yet most horrifying, moments in the film.
MIA flips the bird at the Super Bowl halftime show. Photograph: Christopher Polk/Getty Images
The incident drew more attention than the Sri Lankan civil war had ever received in the US media. A brown person who is standing up there and not sucking dick is more offensive than murdering someone, MIA says in the film. Never mind that behind her on the Super Bowl stage, teenage cheerleaders were being sexualised on national TV; never mind the accusations one could level at the NFL: a woman had elicited mockery for her efforts to draw attention to civil conflict was now apparently powerful enough to poke out a star on Old Glory with a single brown finger.
Allen and MIA have always intended to provoke. But Allen has said she no longer perceives success as a rebuke to the tabloids who wanted her to flop, and that being taken seriously as a musician (her fourth album, No Shame, was nominated for this years Mercury prize) is what fulfils her now. And MIA has batted away suggestions that now is the perfect time for her to make a new album, when Trumps presidency has mainstreamed politicised art and her conspiracy theories about the government and social media have become more trenchant still following the
Cambridge Analytica revelations. Talk about Donald Trump or be angry about this its okay, were happy with you being angry this time, we get it, she told Dazed. But Im already over it, you know? (She hasnt stopped agitating: just last week she was lobbying Australian airlines to stop assisting with the forced deportation of asylum seekers.)
My Thoughts Exactly and Matangi/Maya/MIA pose provocative questions about what is expected of famous women and the punishment that awaits them if they doesnt conform to the docile sexuality, the benign platitudes, the immaculate consistency of thought and identity that is impossible for any functioning human being bar rigid ideologues especially for women who have grown up in the public eye, caught between media distortion and their own maturity. Allen and MIA triumph lies in their unwillingness to flatten their identities to make themselves more palatable. They are musicians, single mothers, survivors of polarised yet turbulent childhoods and the tabloid media at its most vicious and puritanical.
a wave of memoirs by older female musicians including Viv Albertine, Kim Gordon and Chrissie Hynde were greeted as welcome correctives to male-dominated rock history. Allens book and MIAs film show exactly how anti-woman narratives are still being cemented in real time, and reveal how endurance might yield small vindications.
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. The links are powered by Skimlinks. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that Skimlinks cookies will be set. More information.