Local girl powers
it in Brooklyn
“I nearly had a seizuh/Trying to get my visah/Just to come and talk to youuu.” So rhymed M.I.A., between songs, as she watched a street full of fans — the crazed and, in greater numbers, the curious — watching her. She lives in London, and she has had to cancel recent concerts in the United States while waiting for her travel documents.
With a roller coaster as backdrop, M.I.A., from London, performed at the Siren Music Festival at Coney Island, Brooklyn, on July 21. Visa troubles had threatened to derail her plans.
She finally made it, and just in time for the seventh annual Siren Music Festival on Saturday at Coney Island, Brooklyn, a free concert organised by The Village Voice. There were 14 acts on two stages to entertain cheerful indie-rock crowds, as well as thousands of unsuspecting boardwalk saunterers.
Past Siren lineups have included the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse: underground heavyweights on their way up or already there. By contrast this year’s headliners were the New York Dolls, the reunited proto-punks led by David Johansen, a tough and skinny veteran who now bears a passing resemblance to beef jerky. When a reconstituted 36-year-old band headlines Siren, that tells you something (good) about the band and (not-so-good) about the festival.
M.I.A. played before the New York Dolls, though in some sense she was the day’s big star. A few years ago she became a not-quite-mainstream sensation: a London hipster chanting lyrics full of political slogans and references to her Sri Lankan heritage. Using beats inspired by the dance music of Rio de Janeiro, Kingston, London and (even more exotic) Baltimore, she helped teach American listeners that world music could be as raunchy and as futuristic as anything homegrown.
The best part of her set was her attitude. Instead of straining to match the hectic energy of the beats, she kept her cool, rattling off lyrics in a quiet, authoritative voice. Even so, she wilted in the heat, especially during the new tracks, which sounded both less playful and less fiery than the old ones. “M.I.A. is coming back with power, power,” she chanted, raising her right arm. We’ll see.
It was easy to think about what was missing: a hint of Brooklyn’s ethnic and musical diversity; a reminder that nonpopular music can be noisy or chaotic or dangerous; thrills. With a few exceptions the lineup felt full of second and third choices. The bands generated applause, but with the exception of M.I.A., few acts inspired much curiosity beforehand, or chatter afterward.