Cosmopolitan Pop

Cosmopolitan Pop

DJ /rupture and MIA capture the new global spirit of pop music.


In 2001, a young Harvard graduate named Jace Clayton began to tire of Boston’s club scene. “It’d be one tempo, one style of music all night long, and I just felt that didn’t reflect what I was as a musician,” he recalled. “I was like, I wanna rupture that dance floor, put a big hole in that.” Using a groovebox and samples found online, Clayton started working on a sprawling mixtape as varied as a night out should be long. He called the album Gold Teeth Thief and gave himself the stage name DJ /rupture.

Self-released online, the album packed 43 songs into a mix recorded live in just over an hour. Opening with snatches of Missy Elliott and Nas, Clayton then mashed up their songs with snippets of dancehall, Arabic folk, and Paul Simon’s Graceland. In the process, he created a blueprint for how 21st-century music could sound: eclectic, anarchic, at once global and local, uprooted and linked to a variety of specific musical traditions.

In an earlier time, Clayton’s work would have had to be passed around by hand. These days, though, a Boston-based DJ with a laptop and a good ear can create a mixtape that becomes an international hit almost overnight. Within several weeks of Gold Teeth Thief’s release online, Clayton was a viral phenomenon. Magazine covers, world tours, and corporate endorsements followed.

As Clayton shot to prominence and became a favorite of music critics and websites like Pitchfork, he began to develop a philosophy of this new cosmopolitan and digital sound. A new space for cultural and economic exchange had opened up in the post–Cold War years—one that was no longer defined by one’s language or passport. This was especially true of music, which was helped by the easy proliferation of MP3s online. “The Web,” as Clayton later observed, “is…a superabundant and hopelessly cluttered digital warehouse distressed by user error, junk data, and bandwidth bottlenecks.” From this cluttered international warehouse, a savvy musician could develop a new kind of global sound. He or she could help find in the midst of all the chaos some kind of coherence, making “disparate records sound like a whole.”

Around the time Clayton was beginning to gain prominence, another young musician was just getting her start. On the recommendations of the Canadian shock-rocker Peaches and Elastica front woman Justine Frischmann, Mathangi Arulpragasam began tinkering with a Roland 505 turntable. In her early 20s, Arulpragasam was a student at Central St. Martins, a prestigious art school in London. The child of refugees, she’d planned to make documentaries about her parents’ native Sri Lanka. She was not a musician by any stretch of the imagination and back then, as she later recalled, could barely clap in time. Still, inspired by the music she had been exposed to on a recent trip to the Caribbean, Arulpragasam began to record, pairing dancehall and reggae rhythms with samples and noises that sounded like they could have come out of Brazilian carnivals and local construction sites.

It was a fitting act for a globally minded, politically aware artist who already fancied herself a tad worldlier than her art-school friends. Having grown up in a working-class and multicultural neighborhood in South West London, she spent much of her childhood and adolescence listening to the foreign music and radio broadcasts that came through her neighbors’ windows. Arulpragasam now wanted to find a way to make music that captured the simultaneously global and local nature of her upbringing. Using a borrowed turntable, a four-track, and a microphone, she recorded a six-track demo that included “Galang”—a compulsively danceable, jungle-inspired hit that would launch her career, first in underground circles and then on British radio. Within a couple of years, Arulpragasam became an international pop star. She gave herself the name MIA.

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Jace Clayton got word of MIA’s music early, and he loved it. It captured the very kind of sound he was himself exploring. “‘Galang’ transported the listener to a land where the sonic and social status quo have gone topsy-turvy,” he writes. “The endearingly brutish instrumental was constructed from fidgety atonal squelches that stood in the place of melody.” It was suffused with different geographical and cultural references, appearing both to zoom in on particular localities and transcend them, giving it a sound that Clayton believed captured a more general experience of disorientation and dislocation. “MIA’s early work spoke intuitively to so many of us,” Clayton explains, “because its sound articulated the distinctly contemporary condition of identity as loose and lossy data.” It left its listeners in a musical no-man’s-land, wondering: “Where are we?”

Clayton’s new book, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture, tries to answer this question. Like the mixtape that helped make him famous in the early 2000s, his book seems to encompass many genres at once: It is at once travelogue and cultural ethnography, pop philosophy and memoir, a guide to contemporary music and a fanzine. In it, Clayton tries not only to provide us with an animated and engaging theory of our moment’s global music scene but also to figure out the ways in which globalization has transformed how we speak, think, travel, and make music.

What’s immediately striking is Clayton’s tone: He really, really digs music. He wants to live it, breathe it, be it. For every negative quality he identifies, Clayton finds dozens of other things to celebrate. From his perspective, music has never been more diverse, exciting, or democratic than it is today.

Clayton’s story begins in Cyprus in the year 2000, pre-Teeth, with our hero preparing to perform with an acid-jazz group in “a ghost town on the dividing line between North and South Cyprus” populated by playing children and UN patrol units. The location, he believes, captures something of the ambiguities and tensions found in music’s new global landscape. It is a place between borders, and yet policed by an international force. It is a site of children playing and also possibly of menacing violence. It is an arena in which one can use music to help people come together, and it is also a site for the wealthy and powerful to make money. “If North Cyprus represented the forgotten side of a fault line of global conflict,” Clayton writes, “how were we getting paid? Who owned those scattered mansions that we saw on the way from the airport?”

During his short time in Cyprus, Clayton never finds out. But the question of money—where it comes from, what it does, and what, ultimately, it means for musicians performing and recording in the 21st century—is one he ponders continuously throughout his travels, and that gives his often exuberant book its occasionally ambivalent and uncertain tone.

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As a DJ, Clayton makes most of his living by touring between countries. DJs—particularly those whose work largely consists of borrowed, stolen, or repurposed samples—can’t make ends meet by putting out records, and so they are forced to spend most of their time on the road, often living off the largesse of festival organizers and massive corporations. While this globe-trotting lifestyle can have its drawback, it also affords a unique view into the globalization of music culture and allows Clayton to observe both its good and bad effects.

Journeying from Mexico to Morocco, Clayton travels from one city to another, exploring (and performing in) the musical peripheries of the world. He lives for the anarchy of “the improvised venues, the semilegal warehouses, the microcommunities”; he celebrates the local, the hyper-local, the hyper-hyper-local, but he also traces, as the title of his book suggests, its “uprooting” and re-rooting.

This push and pull, Clayton believes, is the dialectic that drives the most exciting music today. “The ungraspable swirl of digital flotsam hinders our ability to locate ourselves,” he writes, “just as surely as deeply rooted places such as Kingston leverage that grounding to send musical ideas around the world.”

Throughout his travels, Clayton frequently makes an oft-overlooked observation: that the peripheries aren’t just being globalized by the West—they are also beginning to globalize the rest of us. Capital and culture don’t trickle down from developed countries to less developed ones; people and goods don’t just move from North to South. The patterns of movement and development expand every which way.

This uprooting and re-rooting, this process of defamiliarization and re-­familiarization, is something Clayton appreciated even before he embarked on his globe-trotting. Recalling the strange, dissonant experience of listening to Japanese noise bands back in Boston, he observes: “Japanese noise taught me that experiencing the world via music or travel is supposed to be strange. Acknowledging that you don’t know what’s going on while being willing to linger, listen, and learn is all it takes.”

* * *

Clayton is a wonderful listener. His enthusiasm is infectious, and his joyful investigations into the form and function of different sounds will teach even a hardened snob a great deal. Take, for example, his defense of Auto-Tune. Many have worried that its prevalent use captures a certain business-class blandness found in much of the pop music made today. But Clayton isn’t shy about singing the praises of the vocoder’s “cyborg embrace” in six different keys, and he certainly isn’t surprised when he travels to Casablanca and discovers an unlikely rationale for its popularity in Arabic music: It allows women to mimic the effects of vocal melisma without the immodesty of Whitney Houston’s wail.

True to our times, Clayton also grapples with the ethics and politics of appropriation. As a DJ, he finds himself often both the appropriator and the appropriated, and he spends a considerable amount of his book worrying about the effect it can have on making music. He winds up borrowing from places where he spends very little time—a trip to the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, for example, ends with him bashfully claiming to be South African and then making a mix based on the music he finds. At the same time, he also finds his music being used by various companies that have sponsored him, and in situations where it’s difficult, if not impossible, to refuse them.

But while Clayton worries about the exploitative features of the new global and digital music industry, he doesn’t have much of a strategy for achieving a fairer ecosystem for those making music and those using it. In fact, he often sounds fairly naive when it comes to imagining any alternatives. “The hope is that music lovers will resuscitate the meaning of terms like do-it-yourself and indie to describe music whose distribution lies in the hands of its creators,” he writes. “Indie fans become those who support knowing that their money (or their ‘likes’) will reach the artists with a minimum of third-party interference, and that the music will circulate among its audiences with a maximum of artist-friendly control.”

For the most part, Clayton appears to make his peace with his appropriations and those of corporations. They are, in his view, sometimes necessary compromises. “I care a lot when Westerners rip off non-Western musicians,” he writes; but if it means that more artists can play, record, tour, and be recognized, that’s a net positive in his book. “My desires here are basic,” Clayton explains. “How can I access great new tunes and ensure that their creators receive the lion’s share of payment for their work?”

* * *

In 2002, Wilcannia Mob, a group of indigenous tweens from New South Wales, Australia, released “Down River,” a gritty, heady rap track with blown-out prepubescent vocals croaking over a swirling didgeridoo. The song was a hit, but the group faded into obscurity until 2007, when MIA sampled it on a track from her hit second album, Kala. Another surge of attention followed; this time, it was much larger and global in nature. But then the song, and its creators, faded from memory again.

Wilcannia Mob’s trajectory is emblematic of what Clayton calls “World Music 2.0” or the “folk music of the twenty-first century”: the story of “aboriginal hip-hoppers whose work got versioned by a cosmopolitan tastemaker.” It is also emblematic of the emergence of a new generation of cosmopolitan tastemakers like Clayton and MIA, who not only bring local music to a broader public but also help forge a new kind of global sound.

MIA, writes Clayton, represents “a new kind of multiplatform artist: one who combines music, activism, and provocation with a deep understanding of how messages and style migrate across our increasingly wired mediascape.” Her style of composition and the patois in which she raps are intentionally placeless; she tickles the Western ear, so acclimated to 4/4 rhythms and simple intervals, with complex drum loops and temple hymns. Her songs are rooted in particular places, but they are also willfully cosmopolitan, transcending any particular space or culture.

This jumble of the local and global is also augmented with repurposed forms of aural detritus: gunshots, the canned sound of a cash register, fishermen’s chants, a sarcastic, droning “om.” The overall effect is that the foreign sounds become familiar, and the familiar sounds foreign. At its best, her music offers us a glimpse of an alternative kind of globalization, one that captures the vitality of our increasingly cosmopolitan lives. Rather than reproducing the flattened sounds of commercial music, songs by artists like MIA can, in Clayton’s view, capture the pungent, human, even riotous experience of life in today’s globalized world. To quote Clayton: “welcome to the true embassies of the world.”

It’s fitting that for Clayton, MIA offers something of a symbol for this new style of music; they have a lot in common. Like Clayton, MIA spliced and diced samples, voraciously consumed music from the world’s farthest-flung corners, and channeled a very specific international high-low hipness that’s equally at home on the streets of Kingston and in a club in Tokyo. Like Clayton’s, her success as an artist also originated in avant-garde enclaves—she was listened to at art parties, fashion shows, and underground clubs—but it quickly spread online at a dizzying pace before she became a commercial success.

MIA’s and Clayton’s work are even of a kind visually: The opening scene of Clayton’s book, with the peacekeeping troops and running children, could easily double as one from an MIA video. And from the moment she came onto the scene in 2002, the British Tamil art-school grad changed mainstream perceptions of global pop in much the way Clayton describes, and appreciates: by doing 16 things from five continents all at once. “Every song [on Kala] has a layer of some other country on it,” MIA told The Fader in 2007. “It’s like making a big old marble cake with lots of different countries and influences. Then you slice it up and call each slice a song.”

MIA’s latest album, AIM, however, marks a slight shift in her sensibility. She has stated that it is her last, but it provides little lyrical or musical closure besides some references back to the artist’s early work (one song features a conspicuous sample of “Galang”). And even while its subject is this new globalized landscape in which MIA emerged, the album lacks much of the zany, anarchic quality that made her best music feel so vital and evocative of our current moment. Trading in electrifying jangles and jagged breaks for more smoothed-over melodic songwriting, MIA has made her music more accessible and, one guesses, more commercially appealing; she has also, as a result, stripped it of many of its more local sounds and samples.

The aptly named “The New International Sound-Pt. 2,” for example, recalls Rihanna, with MIA warbling over a generic dance track, but in place of any specific cultural or political references, the sound is flattened, antiseptic, and self-congratulatory. Likewise, her song “Foreign Friend” captures something of the experience of being a recent immigrant. “Where we come from, we get out our tent,” MIA raps, “Then we climb over the fence / We don’t wanna cause an offence / Then we get a Benz, flat screen TV, Then we pay rent…Then we be your foreign friend.” But its punchy and sometimes sarcastic lines feel a bit glib when one thinks about the current plight of refugees today.

Which isn’t to say AIM doesn’t work as pop. It can be a catchy, fun album, with melodic peaks and some great beats. It just won’t send your compass points spinning the way that her 2010 mixtape Vicki Leekx or her epic hit single “Paper Planes” did, and it doesn’t create the sounds and excitement of placelessness that Clayton’s book helps elevate and that MIA contributed so much to over the course of her career.

Perhaps what is more frustrating about the record is how MIA engages with politics. AIM is structured as a refugee concept album—a pop opera that takes us from Calais to gentrified Brixton—and it is as ham-handed as you’d imagine. “At the border I see the patroller cruising past in their car,” MIA raps on a song called “Visa,” “Creeping in my socks and slipper / Mexicans say ‘hola!’”

Like Clayton, MIA is at her best when sampling and celebrating sounds from around the world. She is a great lover and listener, but her music begins to flag when she lets her politics speak louder than her songs.

* * *

MIA’s references to current affairs are, in fact, one of the sources for Clayton’s misgivings about her work. His jabs particularly sting because of their the two artists’ likeness. Relative to the rest of the book, he sounds uncharacteristically angry. “MIA uses hundreds of anonymous brown men as a backdrop to messianic self-imagining,” he writes of the music video for “Borders,” a single that appears on AIM. “She walks on water; they wait, inert, in crowded boats…. The fact that Arulpragasam and her family fled to London as refugees in 1986 doesn’t make her maudlin portrayal of border crossers in the midst of a major European crisis any more palatable.”

Clayton’s critique is fair and could be made of MIA’s album as a whole. But it also reveals something of a common anxiety that he shares with MIA about their easy movement across borders that others—those in North and South Cyprus, for example—cannot so easily cross. Clayton’s gift as a writer lies in his articulation of an optimistic musical cosmopolitanism: He sees a future where a deep, visceral musical rootedness is disseminated anarchically by existing and emerging technologies. But he is deeply troubled by the other side of globalization and unsure how to fix the problems he observes. MIA’s music hits its stride when she is finding odd and wonderful things to sample. But she also struggles to find a way to articulate a coherent vision of how we’d be better off living.

In fact, in many ways the tensions found in Clayton’s and MIA’s music reflect the dialectical stakes of global pop more broadly. As Clayton observes early in his book, being of the world, and inhabiting more than one place, can create a universe where nothing is sacred, and everything is up for grabs. This can be a powerful experience, but Clayton is also aware that to sample the world the way he does is an enormous privilege that only a few people have, and it comes with a responsibility to elevate, not bury, the original versions. There is a fine line between enthusiasts who pay homage to local musical traditions and scenes by introducing them to a global audience and mercenaries who rip off what they find completely. Clayton is also aware of a similar dynamic when it comes to money. Is it really possible to resist the pull of corporate partnerships when they make so much else possible? How much buy-in is too much?

Like Clayton, MIA has walked this line throughout her career. Her collaboration with Versace on a clothing line stands in opposition to her flipping off the cameras during a performance at the 2012 Super Bowl (for which she was sued). This often makes her a contradictory and uncomfortable figure. MIA won’t let us pretend she, or we, or the kind of cultural expressions we produce, exist in a vacuum. We are all in some way implicated in the bad, as well as the good, side of globalization. Clayton, likewise, struggles to orient himself in the face of the many moral and political ambiguities created by globalization. By the end of his book, he happens upon a more pragmatic way to navigate these uncertainties. If capital can enjoy a hypermobile, fluid status, let’s do our best to make sure people and art and music can also thrive in this environment, too. What’s important, as a musician, is to put music and other musicians first. If it means working with corporations that need a little avant-garde in their marketing strategy, so be it. Surely there’s still a way to be subversive? he asks himself uneasily, from a booth plastered with Red Bull ads.

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