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FFF Fest review: M.I.A.: Sensory overload or dance party brilliance?

Deborah Sengupta

Editor’s note: This article was originally published November 10, 2013

Let’s start with this, for all sorts of reasons I desperately want to love M.I.A. Back in 2005 a friend, knowing my family background (Dad’s East Indian), handed me a copy of ‘Arular.’

“This is going to change your life,” he said.

It didn’t. I warmed up to it over time, but it wasn’t until she released ‘Kala’ with its heavy stateside hip-hop influence that I fully got on board with Maya.

Fast forward to 2013, I’ve been driving around listening to Matangi in my car since it dropped earlier this week. The album has its highs and lows but I enjoy it. Some tracks I can get seriously into. All day Saturday, folks were hyping M.I.A.’s set. My take was if ‘Matangi’ had come out earlier they’d be even more psyched.

Then she performed, throwing down a sensory overload set of seizure inducing proportions that I’m still trying to unpack in my mind. Here’s my best break down.

On the one hand there was the body-shaking bass and the overall sound issues.

In the beginning of the set I loved the bass. The inescapable physical impact of sound waves moving through your being was unreal. The surround sound helicopter strobe effect that kicked off the set was out of this world. I really felt the sensation of being transported to a different plane. As M.I.A. took the stage, flanked by two street dancers, the backdrop, which had the look of a series of Steampunk style clockwork gears came to life in a brilliantly gaudy Bollywood style carnival of lights. The brash opening patches to ‘Bring the Noize’ blasted through the speakers. The spectacle was fantastic.

But as she launched into the first verse I was immediately frustrated.

Here’s the thing, M.I.A. isn’t the greatest singer or rapper, but on that track she really flows. She goes hard. When the video dropped this summer I was psyched, but live it didn’t come together. Her vocals were completely indecipherable, lost in the mix. I was close to the front of the stage so I decided to try moving back to see if I could get a better sound, but to no avail. There were occasional feedback squeals and at one point her mic cut out completely but throughout the set the biggest issue was the muddy mix. The bass boomed, and the rhythm tracks were strong but on almost every track the melodic quality and the vocals were drowned.

I get that messy, often dischordant mash-up is M.I.A.’s thing, but in this setting her songs lost much of the intricacy that makes them interesting. When she got to “Come Walk With Me” my hands down favorite track off “Matangi” I felt crushed. Again, she’s not the greatest singer, but in that song her voice aches with a beautiful vulnerability. I deliberately didn’t watch her Jimmy Fallon performance of the song with the Roots until after her Fun Fun Fun set and now that I have I’m extra bummed. Her Fun Fun Fun Fest performance didn’t do it any justice.

But on the other hand there was the general vibe of the show

A good portion of the crowd seemed completely unaffected by the sound situation. They danced wildly with those rainbow colored light sticks that seemed ubiquitous at Auditorium Shores. The bass, the pulsing rhythms, that frenetic light show that left me feeling like I was trapped in some sort of maniacal pinball machine was totally working for some people.

And M.I.A.’s personal vibe was fantastic. For a performer with a reputation for being prickly she seemed genuinely gracious and excited to share an experience with her fans. Only a couple songs into the set, she climbed into the crowd to vibe with the audience.

Later, she declared, “I need some girls up here on stage with me,” and pulled a group of about 15 ecstatic ladies up to dance with her. A few songs later she did it again. Toward the end of the set she pelted the audience with the brightly colored Puja powders that Indians toss during Holi, The Festival of Color. As she threw down an excellent rendition of “Paper Planes” – the only moment during the night when all the elements of sound, dance, effects seemed to come together beautifully – the experience was only heightened by the celebratory puffs of color from the crowd up front.

For a moment I was super psyched again, reveling in everything that this set might have been, but sadly, it wasn’t.