She's fallen afoul of everyone from the United Stated immigration department to skeptical reporters, but near the end of her set at New York's HARD Fest on Governor's Island Saturday night, M.I.A. was shut down by Mother Nature.
Two long, sharp flashes of lightning brought to a close a set that had itself been, to say the least, stormy. It was loud, chaotic, atonal and often seemed specifically designed to alienate. In other words, it was typical M.I.A. The first sounds from the speakers were a symphony of power drills, and the rest of the set aimed to replicate that grinding, mechanical whirr. Songs were shorn down to either booming beats or shrill, shrieking synths. The high end was cranked to ear-splitting levels. The crowd may have come to Governor's Island for a party, but M.I.A. was going to give them a performance piece.
After opening with a partial rendition of "Steppin' Up" while a trio of backing vocalists dressed in burkhas swayed eerily to the rhythm, she sandblasted "Illygirl" and "Lovalot," bonus tracks found only on the deluxe edition of Maya , into oblivion. Female dancers flooded the stage for Arular's jubilant "10 Dollar," but the track was nearly unrecognizable, overblown with shrieking synths. Only a few numbers snapped into perfect sonic focus, like a giddy, rambunctious "Bamboo Banga." Much of the show was illuminated only by blacklight, reducing the players to ominous, glowing shapes and adding to the overall feeling of dehumanization.
It was hard to determine just how much of the chaos was planned: at one point, after M.I.A. repeatedly announced that she didn't have a set list, the performance ground to a halt for five full minutes as she goaded her DJ into playing clips of machine gun fire and took song suggestions from the audience. When the crowd's picks had been narrowed to two contenders — "World Town" and "Born Free" — she obliged by launching into "Boys."
But even at its most chaotic, there was something mischievous about the performance. The closing moments of "Teqkilla" plunged into pure atonality: arrhythmic bass beat, zigzagging synths and heavy, piercing shards of static. On top of the maelstrom came M.I.A.'s dead-eyed, disconnected chant: "Who wants to feel the beat? Who wants to feel the beat?" At first, it felt like crowd-rallying, but as the beat receded further into the murky mix, it started to feel first like a taunt, then it became almost rhetorical: who wants to bother with something as trivial as rhythm?
Six hours earlier, on the same stage, the Baltimore rapper Rye Rye asked the crowd, "Do we got any hardcore girls in the building tonight? Any art school girls?" Then she promised, "We've got something for both." In a way, that banter went a long way towards summing up the spirit of the afternoon: hard dance music, artfully reconstructed. U.K. dubstep superstars Skream and Benga delivered a bracing hour-long set comprised of dark, thrilling, mysterious music. Led by a jabbering MC, who taunted the DJs as often as he encouraged them (at one point, he just muttered, "horrible, horrible, horrible"), the duo focused on slow-building dance numbers that began elegiac before bursting into hard, jerking rhythms. Their music suggested the ominous uncertainty that occurs in the few seconds before a violent act: swelling dread, building tension, then a final, brutal eruption.
New York duo Sleigh Bells felt violent in a more traditional sense. The group uses dance rhythms as a base, but their set Saturday night owed far more to heavy metal. Their stage was bare except for an imposing wall of Marshall amplifiers. They arrived to the sound of grinding, pit-of-hell death metal, and guitarist Derek Miller pushed the group's already extreme songs even further into the red. He segued from a riff that could have been lifted from the first Black Sabbath record into a punishing version of "Tell 'Em," the stage bathed in infernal red light. If Miller, in his torn denim jacket, was the class burnout, Alexis Krauss played the part of the nihilistic cheerleader. She punched the air furiously, doubled over, heaved back and skipped in place, calling out cadences in a sharp, searing tone.
Even the artists who strayed beyond the borders of traditional dance music used that genre as a jumping-off point. South African performance art duo Die Antwoord dished out high-energy, if juvenile, approximations of hip-hop with production constructed from the scraps of old rave music. Frontman Ninja, born Watkin Tudor Jones, opened the first song rapping, "When I was a boy, I wanted to be a Ninja/Now I am a man, now I am a Ninja," which was about the limit of the group's lyrical adventurousness. Ninja's glottal raps were often offset by the high, chirping vocals of pint-sized Yo-Landi Vi$$er, who took the lead on the dank, doomy "Rich Bitch" while wearing an oversized gold winter parka. Both members began the show clad in white jumpsuits covered in black-ink drawings, and near the end, Ninja stripped down to a pair of boxers that featured the cover art from Dark Side of the Moon.
Earlier in the afternoon, Brooklyn trio Ninjasonik also took a pass at reinventing hip-hop, spiking it with bits of punk and post-punk and a healthy helping of Miami bass. They brought out Johnny Siera from the Australian group the Death Set and fused that group's "Negative Thinking" with their own "Tight Pants" and delivered a flurry of rhymes over stuck-needle sample of "Misirlou." But the best moment of their set came when their DJ simply played Fugazi's "Waiting Room" from start to finish, and the crowd gamely sang along. It provided an interesting and unlikely bit of symmetry: the band may be punk rock provocateurs, but on Saturday, the line "Everybody's moving, everybody's moving," could hardly have felt more apt.