The XX Factor

Hirschberg’s Hatchet Job

The print version hasn’t even hit the streets yet, but Lynn Hirschberg’s supremely unflattering New York Times Magazine profile of rapper M.I.A . (nee Maya Arulpragasam) is burning up the blogosphere. Yesterday, M.I.A.-stupidly? brilliantly?-threw oil on the fire by publishing Hirschberg’s personal phone number on Twitter .

You can see why the Sri Lankan-by-way-of London artist would be perturbed: Hirschberg has done a grade-A hatchet job, exposing everything that’s juvenile, contradictory, and hypocritical about M.I.A.’s whole sloppy Warholian/terrorist-chic persona. It should immediately be added to every J-school reading list, right after Janet Malcolm . (If you haven’t read it, Vulture has pulled out the 10 harshest moments , and Rob Harvilla has listed the 11 most undermine-y lines .)

The thing is, M.I.A.’s politics have always been incoherent at best. Do I really need 8,000 words to remind me of this?

This quote from Diplo-M.I.A.’s often-producer and erstwhile boyfriend-offers an interesting lens on Hirschberg’s critical M.O.: “In the end, Maya is postmodern: she can’t really make music or art that well, but she’s better than anyone at putting crazy ideas into motion. She knows how to manipulate, how to withhold, how to get what she wants.”

Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing today’s pop artists usually get praised for? Isn’t that kind of the point ? But Hirschberg quotes it as some sort of damning gotcha. The way she sniffily details M.I.A.’s obsession with fashion also seems to miss the point-as if fashion undermines her art, when in fact it is her art. Reading Hirschberg’s takedown definitely tickled my shadenfreude center- Stars! They’re just as stupid as us! -but I wish she had tried to engage with M.I.A.’s work more sympathetically. Is there nothing interesting or valuable about her? Is everything to be dismissed so cavalierly? It’s not like I would have preferred a vapid, celebrity interview that took everything M.I.A. says on face value. But Hirschberg’s piece is uncharitable to the point of being critically unhelpful.

(Meanwhile, here’s a smart defense of M.I.A.’s work and aesthetics by Mike Barthel.)

Photograph of M.I.A. by Larry Busacca/Getty Images.