M.I.A. steps from art underground to media spotlight

Sat Jun 12, 2010 7:51pm EDT
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By Mikael Wood

NEW YORK (Billboard) - During "Space," the dreamy future-shock ballad that closes her upcoming third album, M.I.A. repeatedly coos, "My lines are down/You can't call me," over a gently percolating beat that sounds like a Sega Genesis practicing its pillow talk. It's just one of the many observations on our data-drenched Infotainment Age that crop up throughout "/\/\ /\ Y /\," a more-or-less self-titled effort from the 34-year-old Sri Lankan native, born Maya Arulpragasam.

Yet in a recent telephone interview with Billboard, the lyric is taking on another, more literal meaning, as M.I.A. travels on a Eurostar train from Brussels to London during a hectic round of European promotion. Namely, her cell phone keeps dropping the call whenever her train enters a tunnel. When the line goes dead for the fourth time, it's tempting to wonder if M.I.A. has perhaps hung up on purpose.

After all, she'd just been asked about the massive attention paid to journalist Lynn Hirschberg's less-than-fawning cover profile of her in the New York Times Magazine in May, and to M.I.A.'s responses. Maybe she's tired of discussing the story's focus on her supposed radical chic: a comfortable, even posh personal life allegedly at odds with her firebrand art and politics. Maybe she's fed up with talking about why she tweeted Hirschberg's cell phone number, or later posted a covert recording of one of her and Hirschberg's conversations. Maybe she's sick of the term "Trufflegate" (so coined after Hirschberg made hay out of M.I.A. ordering truffle-oil-flavored French fries) and figures that simply avoiding the topic might help it die a speedy death.

But the fact is, M.I.A. is forthright in addressing the media cause celebre. Does she regret doing the Times story?

"Not really," she replies. "I kind of knew what it was going to be.

"I said, 'F--- the New York Times,'" she continues, referring to a series of tweets earlier this year in which she objected to the newspaper's coverage of the conflict in Sri Lanka between Sinhalese and Tamil factions. (Although M.I.A.'s mother moved herself and her children to London when M.I.A. was young, the artist's father remained in war-torn Sri Lanka, taking part in various Tamil opposition efforts.) "Of course they weren't going to be like, 'Hi! How you doing? We love you!'"

Whatever else it demonstrated, the Truffle Kerfuffle made it clear that at some point between the 2007 release of her second album, "Kala," and this spring, M.I.A. underwent an unlikely transformation from underground phenom to Very Big Deal.

TAKING A STAND   Continued...

<p>British artist Maya Arulpragasam, otherwise known as M.I.A., performs on stage during her concert at the Rock-en-Seine Festival in Saint-Cloud, near Paris, August 24, 2007. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier</p>