Track of the Week: M.I.A.'s "Space Odyssey"

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Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 21 2010 4:36 PM

Track of the Week: M.I.A.'s "Space Odyssey"


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Jonah Weiner:
Hello again, Jody. Today we're talking about a new song from M.I.A. called "Space Odyssey." It comes to us via M.I.A.'s Twitter —she filmed a cheapo video for the song, uploaded it to TwitVid, and posted the link to her feed. She has described "Space Odyssey" as a protest song (the video arrived amid a bunch of angry tweets about a recent New York Times Travel piece that declared the ethnic combat in her native Sri Lanka "over" and then gushed about the country's scenic beauty), but that's interesting since a) the phrase protest music could be, in some form or other, applied to most of her music and b) this is a mellow track, the most prominent lyrical theme of which is total disengagement. "My lines are down, you can't call me/ As I float around in space odyssey," she sings (only the faintest hint of rapping here). The music, courtesy of the U.K. dubstep producer Rusko, is lush, languid, and squishy, punctuated here and there by deep burps of bass and a synth squeal that suggests an air-raid siren. Call me crazy, but it reminds me of the " Reading Rainbow " theme. Her longtime collaborator and ex-boyfriend Diplo said last fall that the music on her next album would resemble a combination of Animal Collective and Gucci Mane, and Rusko's bass-heavy psychedelia seems more or less of a piece with that unlikely description.

I wanted to talk about "Space Odyssey" because anything from M.I.A. is worth excitement and because I think it's hauntingly lovely. That said, I'm not sure whether it's that the song's unfinished (the vocal line could stand some variation) or just that the audio quality is so poor, but this one feels a bit undercooked, doesn't it? It sounds a like a demo played on a stereo in a room and recorded by a computer microphone, which may be exactly what it is. Which is fine, except we're missing a lot of musical detail—all these little ambient squiggles and sighs and moans—and a lot of bass, especially in the glitchy breakdown that comes at around 3:10. What I should have written above is that the song is almost lush.

Jody Rosen : Jonah, I love M.I.A., but "undercooked" is generous. "Space Odyssey" stinks. What we have here is a single, gratingly monotonous melody line, repeated more or less continuously for four minutes. (It feels like 25 minutes.) The effect is not unlike "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," although that song holds far more melodic and harmonic interest than M.I.A.'s. The various gurgles and bird twitters are, I guess, intended to distract our attention from the droning saminess of it all; but they're window-dressing. There's something almost offensive about the slapdashness of the method, here: disgorge a rudimentary tune, toss some sound effects at it, throw the word "space" in the title, and, presto!—it's psychedelic , man. But good psychedelia takes work. The best "space" songs are even more meticulously worked-over than "straight" songs. But "Space Odyssey" isn't languid. It's lazy.

Or maybe just rushed? I think what we're hearing here is one of the pitfalls of the brave new pop world. It's neat that M.I.A. can cobble together a song and blast it out on the Internet in just 24 hours. But what's being lost? A bit of rigor, I'd say. As for M.I.A.'s claim that this is a protest song: Isn't coherence a protest-song prerequisite?

J.W.: Maybe the "protest song" tag is something of a red herring—it's twice removed from M.I.A., after all, synthesized by a Fader reporter from a publicist's statement. But, anyway: You do not like this one. I think we've discovered by now that I'm a bit more content than you are to splash around in mood and texture and that I'm a bit more willing to take or leave "song craft"—or maybe I just have a loose, degenerate definition of the term! You say the gurgles and pitch-corrected moans and such are here on "Space Odyssey" to disguise some deeper lack. I'm with you that something else needs to happen (I wouldn't say the song feels like it's 25 minutes long but I'll give you, oh, seven), but for me, the ambient bits aren't ornamental elements so much as the perfectly engrossing main event, weaving and floating and humming and buzzing vertiginously through the mix. They don't smack you across the face the way the drums on " Bird Flu " do, say, and this would be an odd choice for a single, but I find the steady, thwacking beat and electronic flotsam, if not hypnotic, then pleasantly lulling and even a bit poignant. I could see "Space Odyssey" re-emerging—in CD quality, and hopefully with the melody changed up—as a quiet kind of knockout.

J.R. Just for the record, I don't have a problem with mood and texture, per se. I'm on record as a Four Tet fan. I just think the mood and texture in this song is awfully sloppy. Nothing that grabs my ear or grabs anything else. Feels like rush job-underthunk and underfelt. But, anyway. I reserve the right to be blown away by the upgraded album version of this thing, if and when it surfaces. Here's hoping.

In the meantime, one more gripe. The video is godawful. I wish M.I.A. had just leaked the MP3, sans alleged video. Or at least set her space odyssey to some stray Sagan footage !

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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