Icon Aughts: M.I.A. and Radiohead

My year-end review is a recap of the greatest Pop artists of the past decade.

Pretense: Pop and celebrity are like high school; so, I made a list of my top artists and paired them up Homecoming style –– five couples in the court, two with the crown –– to give you “A Dime, A Dozen:” ten years, twelve artists (and an honorable mention couple, because in America: we’re all winners –– certificates of participation for everyone).

Court Couple the first: M.I.A. and Radiohead Foreign Firestarters

M.I.A.:  Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, the technicolor artist – British by way of Sri Lanka – burst onto the scene with her explosive debut album, Arular, in 2004. By the official release of her first album she was already an underground staple with a collection of acclaimed visual art, and the widely-shared “Galang” and “Sunshowers” tracks storming the internet. Point blank: M.I.A. was much needed and right on time in 2004. In a sloppy seconds, twice warmed (and screwed) over Bush-era world we needed outright rebellion and revolution – of the rhythmic persuasion. Namely:

M.I.A. was this decade’s Amazonian dark guerilla solider. Her music, fashion, art, image, aura all exuded battleground bombast. She didn’t make gritty glamorous, but she made it glitter – and she made it stick to the social scene like glue. After solidifying herself as a global subterranean staple with Arular, she cemented her G status by spending stacks and gs – i.e. her second set of advance checks – on trips to India and Africa to get indigenous sounds for her follow-up sophomore album, Kala. Kala continued to build the battleground atmosphere of sound with tracks like “Bird Flu,” and the first single, “Boyz.”

However, none of the reasons I’ve listed until this point are why people know M.I.A. Per usual Pop, you’ve got to put a commercial face on your product if you want to give your creativity value: enter Pineapple Express. After Pineapple Express used “Paper Planes” as their soundtrack’s frontman, the world became aware that no one had a swagger quite like Maya. From gutter girl to cover girl, M.I.A. had every soccer mom, culture vulture, hipster, hip-hopper, bro, stoner, loner, man, woman, child –– Hov and Co. included –– belting her corner-swaggin’ battle cries by the close of 2008. By Grammy night 09, she also had the world wondering if polka-dotted spandex were traditional Sri Lankan maternity garb. M.I.A. did the Pop world dirt this decade – in the best way possible.

Radiohead: I figure my list will by-and-large speak for itself. As you all are a culturally-astute bunch, I figure that if I give you general direction with couples and fun titles you’ll pick up on the pop impact – if I give you the what, you’ll formulate your own why. Radiohead is a key example. That said, here goes:

The group hailing from Oxfordshire, Engerlond –– the cloudier region across the pond, thus explaining theirs the lighter shade of Brit to M.I.A.’s tanner ilk –– crept onto the music scene in ’93 with their debut, Pablo Honey. They followed with The Bends and OK Computer, before breaking into the new millennium –– and their new sonic aesthetic –– with the groundbreaking Kid A in 2000.

Already an international mainstay on the music scene, Radiohead chose risk over rehashed material. The boys fused jazz, electronic, and strings with their signature minimalist sound to create a new niche that would become their footprint on the Pop landscape. After the June 2001 release of Amnesiac –– a collection of subsequent tracks from the Kid A sessions –– Radiohead toured and came out with their political-protest-without-being-a-“political protest” album, Hail to the Thief.

A few years, a hiatus, and a non-existent record contract later Radiohead sealed their place as musical monarchs with the unheard of In Rainbows release. The album was brilliant – obvi – but the manner in which they released the piece was the remarkable part. In the midst of a recession, and an industry tricking itself out for a dollar, a dime, or the rest of your sandwich, this British band with a healthy and willing-to-spend fanbase made their most highly-anticipated release available for the low low price of: whatever you feel like spending. I got the album for cheap (read: free ninety-nine) – I support in spirit, not finances – while some people spent upwards of $500. Even still, the album received critical acclaim and “sold” extremely well. Plus, we got a killer-in-a-band-camp-kind-of-way Grammy performance:

This is why Radiohead is in the Court: they turn the industry upside down without turning the spotlight on themselves. They’re progressive, thorough, versatile, comprehensive, mainstream, experimental, innovative, minimal, tech, layered, ambient, atmospheric, stark, electronic, and melancholy (in the not-so-emo way: thumbs = up). They protest without preaching, they create without compromising, and they’re original without being overbearing.

M.I.A. and Radiohead: the foreign firestarters. This couple came from across the pond, foreign by nature, native hometowns, and relation to the mainstream industry concept. This couple is progressive by all means, in and of themselves, and in tandem. Where M.I.A. is the bright, brash, bombastic, technicolored amazon warrior; Radiohead is the strong, steady, softly-speaking set of joint chiefs carrying a big stick. Two sides of the same coin, these two started the fire if only to highlight the depths of the shadows beneath.




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