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M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" is a brilliant pop song, an irresistibly catchy three-minute head-bopper that became almost ubiquitous on the radio airwaves in late 2008. But behind the song's airy melody, banging bassline, and finger-snapping beat lurks a grim and even disturbing lyrical message.
This is a song that features verses in which M.I.A. raps unapologetically about evading border police, manufacturing fake visas, selling crack, and delivering "lethal poison to the system." Even more unsettling, this is a song that features a choir of adorable children singing that all they wanna do is shoot you and take your money. The whole bit punctuated by the sounds of echoing gunshots and ka-chinging cash registers.
Unsurprisingly, the song has generated more than its fair share of controversy. Both MTV and the David Letterman show censored the gunshots; others have called for the entire song to be slapped with an "explicit" label and banished from the airwaves. M.I.A. has been accused of glorifying violence and criminality—even advocating terrorism.
M.I.A. insists, however, that she has been misunderstood, that the song was intended not to support antisocial behavior but instead to satirize widespread negative stereotypes about immigrants. The "character" rapping in "Paper Planes" is not, then, the real M.I.A. but is instead a fictional thug representing the sum of all prejudices about dark-skinned foreigners supposedly menacing Western society.
Some of this ambiguity in meaning is a natural result of M.I.A.'s self-consciously postmodern artistic style. M.I.A.'s distinctive sound comes from deconstructing other musics from all around the world—a Trinidadian soca rhythm here, an Indian bhangra drumbeat there; a sample from an old Clash song here, a snippet of Jamaican dancehall rapping there—and then reassembling the bits and pieces into fresh new creations of her own design. In the course of all that cutting and mixing, the original cultural meanings of the bits and pieces might be retained, or they might be lost entirely, or they might be recast as something new.
Does the message of the Clash's antiracist punk anthem "Straight to Hell" live on in the looped sample of that song that M.I.A. uses as the foundation of "Paper Planes"? Does the booty-rap party attitude of Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rump Shaker" infuse the gunshot-laden chorus of "Paper Planes," which borrows its melody? In both cases, those meanings might persist through M.I.A.'s acts of cultural appropriation, but only if the listener actually knows the references.
If you've never heard "Straight to Hell" or "Rump Shaker," you're not going to get the message (if, indeed, there even is one). This is postmodern art; in the end, it probably means whatever you think it means, until someone makes you think it means something different.
With that postmodern sensibility in mind, here are a few of our ideas about the many layers of meaning at play in "Paper Planes."
First and foremost, this is an immigrant song. The first hint of that comes in the song's first notes, which are borrowed directly from the intro to the Clash's 1982 hit "Straight to Hell." "Straight to Hell" was one of the Clash's slowest, darkest, and most moving songs, a sad meditation on the poor treatment the band felt was being meted out to Third World immigrants in Great Britain and the U.S.A.
Joe Strummer's lyrics begin with the shuttering of steel mills in England's industrial North, an economic crisis that leads to the locals telling immigrant workers "There ain't no need for ya / Go straight to hell boys." Then the song shifts its focus to Vietnam, where the interracial children born to American soldiers and Vietnamese mothers are denied the possibility of emigration to their fathers' country. "Oh papa-san please take me home," a child pleads, "Oh papa-san, everybody they wanna go home / So mama-san says."
But Strummer's lyrics reply with the callousness of a United States then abandoning all its commitments to the Vietnamese people: "Let me tell you 'bout your blood, bamboo kid / It ain't Coca-Cola it's rice." From this dark place, Strummer moves on the decaying neighborhoods of New York City, where the streets are overrun with junkies and crime and where the native-born residents want the Puerto Rican immigrants moving into the Lower East Side to go back where they came from:
Hey chico we got a message for ya
Vamos vamos muchacho
From Alphabet City all the way A to Z
In the song's powerful final verse, Strummer's sneering lyrics cast such harsh treatment of immigrants as a nearly universal phenomenon:
There ain't no need for ya
There ain't no need for ya
Go straight to hell boy
Go straight to hell boy
Can you cough it up loud and strong?
The immigrants they wanna sing all night long
It could be anywhere
Most likely could be any frontier, any hemisphere
No man's land
There ain't no asylum here
King Solomon he never lived 'round here
Straight to hell boys
Go straight to hell boys.
The Clash occupied a position within the British punk movement similar to M.I.A.'s within contemporary hip-hop: both self-consciously cast themselves as standard-bearers for radical left-wing political engagement within musical movements that previously emphasized mostly the more hedonistic themes of sex, drugs, violence, and destruction. (While the Sex Pistols were screaming about "Anarchy in the UK," the Clash were rallying to the defense of Jamaican immigrants, condemning police brutality, and naming records after Nicaraguan guerilla fighters.)
M.I.A., trodding through much the same cultural territory, surely is familiar with the Clash's progressive politics; she almost certainly meant to send a very specific message by using a sample from "Straight to Hell" as the foundation for "Paper Planes."
In fact, "Paper Planes" might be seen as an immigrant's frustrated response to the unwelcoming attitudes of native-born Brits and Americans captured in "Straight to Hell." In this version, the lyrics of "Paper Planes" might be viewed as an immigrant's nihilistic daydream, a fantasy vision of turning to gangsterism to attain an American Dream too often denied by the grim reality of minimum-wage employment. If mainstream society's message is "There ain't no need for ya / Go straight to hell," then the immigrant might wish his response could be "All I wanna do is [blam blam blam blam] / And [ka-ching] / And take ya money."
But in reality—as the video for "Paper Planes" suggests—he's most likely to keep on simply working his long days of manual labor…no matter how frightened of him you might be.
In a 2008 interview, M.I.A. suggested that this meaning was what she had in mind while writing "Paper Planes." The song, she said, is "about people driving cabs all day and living in a s---y apartment and appearing really threatening to society. But not being so. Because, by the time you've finished working a 20-hour shift, you're so tired you just want to get home to the family. I don't think immigrants are that threatening to society at all. They're just happy they've survived some war somewhere." (Source)
There may be a strong element of autobiography in this explanation, as M.I.A. herself had to survive a war somewhere—in Sri Lanka, in her case—and then endured the hardships of life as a refugee before becoming an international pop star.)
As powerful as this explanation for the lyrics of "Paper Planes" may be, there are other potential meanings at play here as well. M.I.A. wrote the song after spending the better part of a year mired in the bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security, unable to obtain a legal visa to enter the United States. It was never made clear exactly why the U.S. government was so reluctant to let M.I.A. (nom de reality Maya Arulpragasam, a British citizen who has no criminal record) enter the country.
Rumors swirled that her ties to her father (who had been involved with the Tamil Tigers separatist movement—a movement that sometimes employed terroristic tactics—during Sri Lanka's civil war) had set off red alarms on some terror watch list. Others suggested that the Bush administration simply didn't like the message of her music. Or perhaps the hang-up was simply some mundane bureaucratic snafu, with no political significance at all. In any case, for most of 2008, M.I.A. was prevented from entering the United States; it's hard not to imagine that this experience colored the first verse of "Paper Planes," with its lyrics about evading the border police, using phony visas, and selling fake IDs.
In an interview, M.I.A. complained that border agents were "always giving me a hard time…that's why I wrote ["Paper Planes"], just to have a dig." (Source)
M.I.A. has also suggested that the implied violence of the gunshots peppering her chorus has been misunderstood. What sounds, at first, like the simplest kind of "stick-'em-up" thuggishness might be heard as a broader critique of the violence and profiteering marring even the highest levels of human society. "You can apply [the gunshots and cash register ka-chings] on a street level and go, oh, you're talking about somebody robbing you and saying I'm going to take your money. But, really, it could be a much bigger idea: someone's selling you guns and making money. Selling weapons and the companies that manufacture guns—that's probably the biggest moneymaker in the world." (Source) So, then, "All I wanna do is [blam blam blam blam] / And [ka-ching] / And take your money" is really a subtle critique of the military-industrial complex and Third World arms dealers?
Maybe it is. Or maybe we're getting carried away with all this postmodern intellectualizing. Maybe the lyrics mean exactly what they sound like they mean, and the song really is just a celebration of simple gangsterism. Since the debut of her first album, Arular, in 2005, M.I.A. has been a darling of music critics on both sides of the Atlantic. But until "Paper Planes," she struggled to really break through to mass audiences. (Arular got named on just about every critic's annual top-ten list but barely sold 100,000 copies in America.)
It's no secret that a violent "gangsta" attitude can help a hip-hop artist make it to the big time (just ask 50 Cent, who famously survived a gunshot wound to the face on the way to becoming a rap star). Is it an accident, then, that the song that finally became M.I.A.'s first breakthrough mainstream hit is the one with the gunshots, the one with the lyrics boasting about slinging crack, dodging the feds, and, well, shooting you and taking your money? Maybe "Paper Planes" isn't an ironical critique of social ills, so much as it's a coldblooded embrace of the most socially dysfunctional elements of modern pop culture, all in the interest of selling records and making money.
Or maybe it's all of the above. Once an interviewer, perhaps slightly overwhelmed with the breadth of possible meaning in M.I.A.'s songs, remarked that "Paper Planes" was full of "a lot of stuff, for a pop song." "It is," M.I.A. agreed, "but you only have three minutes to put in your thesis." (Source)
So, what's the final thesis of "Paper Planes"? You'll have to be the judge of that.