By Ben Tuthill
Bad Girls, released in 2012, disrupts the tropes of Western luxury by saturating its viewers in unimaginable amounts of Middle Eastern excess. It’s maybe the most exciting music video I’ve ever seen. Horses, guns, Jeeps coasting on two wheels: this sort of luxury doesn’t happen in the West. It’s cultural appropriation, sure, but it’s appropriation for the purpose of clobbering its viewers with a spectacle that exceeds sensible Western imaginations. M.I.A.’s goal, revolutionary or not, is to come out of the East and put every American luxury rapper to shame.
M.I.A.’s Orientalism is nasty given her very corporate (and very Western) financial ties. But regardless of who she’s fighting for, she’s fighting with the signifiers of the anti-global East. If we want to take the terms of Benjamin Barber’s ‘Jihad vs. McWorld’ seriously for a second, M.I.A.’s fight is very much based in the semiotics of Jihad. Her aesthetic is global, but hardly globalized. East and West don’t meld in her music; they clash, sometimes ecstatically, often painfully, coming together about as cohesively as a leopard-print blouse and a camo head scarf.
Helly Luv then is the poster-child of McWorld: international, empowered, branded. Revolution, released earlier this summer, starts with Helly marching into an ugly Muslim town dressed in the trappings of Western liberation: dyed hair, facial piercings, gold stilettos. Her first act as savior is to take of her keffiyeh. Her second is to imitate the West’s favorite revolutionary in an act of the West’s favorite form of protest, non-violent civil disobedience. She holds up an anti-violence sign written in English. It’s not a message for the tank driver (everyone knows that if the PLA played by ISIS’s rules that Tank Man would have been dead in a second) – it’s directed to the reasonable YouTube audience, that is, to the West, for the West, in the mode of Western discourse. That is, to me.
What does it say to me? That ISIS is bad and that peace is good and that we shouldn’t forget about Kurdistan, fine. But the real takeaway, for me at least, is that my culture –my liberation, my “revolution”– is the right one. ISIS is a bodiless army of tanks that fights for senseless destruction; Kurdistan is a ruined region that would do better to put down its guns and emulate the strategies of Western non-violent protest. The faceless Other is beaten off; the Other with a face paints herself into a portrait of modern Western femininity. Violence is condemned, then glorified, then sublated into global pacificism as expressed in an army of multinational soldiers saluting the notion of peace. The whole thing conforms to the neoliberal ideal of global consensus, centered in the ideology of the West as the superior brand of revolutionary “love”. When I watch this video as a proud Westerner, the dominant take away is to smile and say, “we won”.
I can’t claim to understand the Kurdish independence movement or the horrors of ISIS or the comparative merits of Saudi and American luxury cultures. And it’s not my place to tell someone who does understand those things how best to fight her fight. Maybe a pop song based around revolutionary platitudes accompanied by a 3rd-wave radical-chic spectacle of Oriental violence is, to paraphrase Saul Alinsky, the best particular means to Helly Luv’s particular end.
And maybe the particular end she’s fighting for is one that essentially equates to the ideals of Western freedom. That’s not an unreasonable fight: the idea of love is wonderful, and golden stilettos are cool. But it’s wrong to call that “revolution”. Revolution by definition can’t be fought by and for the interests of the dominant power. To fight an insurgent group, no matter how violent, no matter how oppressive their aims, with the semiotics of the dominant hegemony isn’t revolution: it’s cultural imperialism.
M.I.A. rejects that imperialism, even if the rejection is purely aesthetic. Helly Luv, for better or for worse, embraces it. The result is a video that’s anti-ISIS but hardly anti-colonial. As pop-culture foreign relations go it’s about as radical as Reagan-era Mid-East policy. Maybe that’s better than what in M.I.A. amounts to nihilistic materialism, but at least Bad Girls shows me a Middle East that I’ve never seen before. Helly Luv tells me what I already know: that my culture is good, that I was born free, and that the imperialistic power structure that I call “love” has long since dominated the world.