M.I.A. Goes Heavy, Nods to Edward Snowden While Mashing Politics with Beats: Concert Review

Kyleen James
The singer inspires impassioned onstage chaos on the first of a two-night L.A. stand.

As M.I.A. exited the stage of the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles on Monday night, she literally dropped the mic. The singer had just offered an aggressive 90-minute onslaught of music and lights, climaxing with the song "Sexodus," and then mumbled something into her microphone as she strutted out.

It was an appropriate conclusion to the performance, which mashed the singer’s past hits like “Galang” and “Bucky Done Gun” with tracks from her intense new album, Matangi. She left little room to breathe between songs, each segueing into the next with a jangled blitz of in-your-face beats and stomach-churning bass.

The set was heralded by two unidentified DJs, neither of whom were billed on the show. As of 4:00 p.m. on the day of the show, there was, in fact, no opener announced for the performance, leading some fans to the assumption that Wikileaks’ Julian Assange would prelude M.I.A. like he did at one of her recent New York shows. Instead, the incessant thump from the DJs led into the singer’s slightly delayed set, opening with “The Message,” a track off her 2010 album, MAYA, that critiques the all-too-prevalent presence of government surveillance.

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As the set progressed into “The World” and new single “Y.A.L.A.,” the stage, with glimmering symbols similar to mandalas, lit up from multi-colored lights, giving the performance a carnival sensibility. Her backup dancers gyrated aggressively in military uniforms made of money, a strange and poignant visual aesthetic on Veterans Day. Throughout the set, M.I.A. reveled in the onstage energy, clearly empowered by the music itself. It was as though these tracks were the sort of songs she’d listen to if she weren't already making them, something that lent an augmented sense of power to her obvious enthusiasm.

M.I.A. spoke sparingly, mainly because there were almost no lulls or quiet moments, and when she did, the words were mostly unintelligible. That was true of the songs, too, as their hefty beats and bass often drowned out the lyrics. It was unclear whether this was the fault of the venue’s sound system or the singer herself, but it almost didn’t matter. The massive energy generated by the onstage spectacle took over the room.

There is a distinct political tone that follows M.I.A., and it’s one that she actively cultivates. As she stepped onstage to perform “The Message,” helicopter lights and noises led into an audio snippet of Edward J. Snowden's voice, the security contractor who exposed the NSA’s heavy surveillance. The singer recently was penalized for giving the middle finger during her 2012 Super Bowl performance with Madonna and has been an outspoken proponent of Assange. Onstage, however, M.I.A. seemed to care less about the politics and more about the party, although certainly her brazen sensibility translates equally into each arena.

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The appropriation of the mandala, a spiritual symbol from Hinduism that represents the universe, and M.I.A.’s compelling investigation of various cultural aesthetics in her music and visuals, made the most impactful statement. As an English-Sri Lankan artist, the singer has often interpreted Eastern cultural elements into what is unabashedly Western pop music, a conflation that feels important and unique, particularly in the U.S.

As M.I.A. performed her brash single “Boyz,” off 2007’s Kala, she invited a slew of fans onstage to dance with her. All participated wildly and recklessly, grooving alongside the singer’s backup dancers as the lights pulsated rapidly. Like much of the show, it felt tinged with chaos, the sort of raucous abandon you’d expect during a rowdy street celebration. The vibe whipped all present into a self-contained frenzy, punctuated by the thump of the microphone slamming against the floor.

Set List:

The Message
The World
Bamboo Banga
Pull The People Up
Double Trouble Bubble
Come Walk With Me
Bucky Done Gun
Bird Flu
World Town
Bangra Bina
Paper Planes
Bad Girls

Twitter: @emilyzemler