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M.I.A.'s Global Party: The Futuristic Pop Star on Her Decade's Journey

"I was good at surviving just because of my lifestyle and my life's story"

December 29, 2009 12:40 PM ET

The Rolling Stone editors picked eight stars — from Bruce and Beyoncé to Radiohead and U2 — who not only made the best music but also led the way as Artists of the Decade in our new issue. Here's more of our conversation with M.I.A.

Global party starter M.I.A.'s wildest looks.

In 2000, you hadn't made any music yet.
No, I was on the dole. I got my first job, but it wasn't an ongoing job, I got to do Elastica's album cover in 2000. I would go in [to the unemployment office] and make really complicated job titles up that they couldn't find, and I got to know everyone on a first name basis, and I thought, "This is not good." That went on until 2003.

What was your vision for this decade and how does it compare to the reality?
I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. That was the shit. I was obsessed with other people, and I liked traveling, and I felt an urgency to tell people's stories all the time. I was doing graphics, photography, but ultimately I wanted to make a documentary. I was still working at a shop when I had "Galang" out, and it was record of the week at Radio 1. People were in the shop saying, "What's going on, why are people calling?" I had no idea.

When did you start taking music seriously as a potential career?
Even my next album is not me saying, "Hi, I'm a musician now" but "Am I a musician?" If I truly think that I'm a musician, then I should just accept it by this album. I haven't accepted it yet, I'm still in denial, listening to too much Destiny's Child...

Your music has always felt like it was from the next century. How conscious were you of that aspect, making something forward-looking?
I don't think I was conscious of it. It was really circumstantial. Music gets you really close to being able to understand the universe a little bit. Whether you like it or not, if you're an artist, especially a musician, you just have to be a little bit open to the elements. I was good at surviving just because of my lifestyle and my life's story. I think the combination of that with the people I knew and the people I met and the music I liked, if you put all those together, you got this weird thing. It wasn't controlled, it was because I didn't have any control, but I was happy with whatever I had.

Your second album was less instinctual.
Yes, the second one was more controlled. But the thing that I didn't control is my circumstances, again. I couldn't get in the U.S., and all my stuff was either already moved out to Brooklyn, like my equipment, my demos, my lyrics, things I'd collected. I was like, "The first album's a sketchbook, and the second one is going to be my album." But the day [to record] came, and I never got access to all the things I'd collected and put away to be my second album, so I was making it on the fly. But then I embraced it, I said, "This is what it is," you can't record in America, OK, let's go and explore the rest of the world, and how easy is it to put together music through found objects and stuff, and people, and ideas and certain electricity, certain environments.

You also flipped the idea of world music. You appropriated plenty of American and English pop music, and also took from all over the world making a whole new way of combining sounds and cultures.
It's important for communities to be put together on a different basis. It's really shitty that we're taught to be really patriotic when 99 percent of the shit that we wear and we use and eat and everything comes from everywhere all the time, and musically, it's the same.

"Paper Planes" had its second life and became an actual pop hit — how much does that change the game for you, the way you have to think about things going forward?
I think it's amazing, because if you can make a song with gunshots and cash registers... 50 percent of the world is like, "Hey, this is really funny," because the timing was really right when it came to what was going on politically and stuff, and 50 percent of the people were like, "Yeah, this shit is awesome, because what I want to do is fucking take your money."

What do you think the next decade will look like for you as an artist?
I don't know, we'll see. Every time I make plans, totally the opposite happens. I'm not going to say anything, because last year I said, "I'm going to quit, I'm going to go and have a baby and make a movie," and here I am, I'll have my next album done soon, so I'm not saying anything this time. I feel like what sums up the next decade, the world philosophy is going to be, "Are you tough enough?" Survival of the fittest, which is what it's always been, but that's what we have to be prepared for. Maybe it's not bad being super-tough.

More M.I.A.

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Song Stories

“Money For Nothing”

Dire Straits | 1984

Mark Knopfler wrote this song with Sting, and it wasn’t without controversy. The Dire Straits frontman's original lyric used the word “faggot” to describe a singer who got their “money for nothing and their chicks for free.” Even though the slur was edited out in many versions, the band, and Knopfler, still took plenty of criticism for the term. “I got an objection from the editor of a gay newspaper in London--he actually said it was below the belt,” Knopfler told Rolling Stone. Still, "Money For Nothing," undoubtedly augmented by its innovative early computer-animated video, stayed at Number One for three weeks.

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