There’s a certain irony in taking to social media to bemoan the loss of privacy. Exploding that paradox, though, is a big part of what M.I.A. has signaled through her music in recent years. As SPIN’s Charles Aaron wrote in a rave review of 2010’s Internet-obsessed MAYA, “Despite M.I.A.’s fervor to engage the world’s battles, even she can feel overly connected.”
That review didn’t specifically address “The Message,” a jarring electro clash that basically insists everything is connected to the Internet and therefore “to the government.” But plenty of other critics savaged the song’s political content as politically jejune, and M.I.A. has now posted a collage of those pans on her Tumblr. “Who said this three years ago?” she wrote.
The unmistakable catalyst for her post would have to be the recent reports by the Washington Post and London’s Guardian detailing the National Security Agency’s huge, rightly controversial cell-phone and Internet information-gathering program. But it shouldn’t be any surprise that her three-year-old song might seem prescient. After all, USA Today reported the basic gist of the NSA’s program in 2006 and the Post followed up with more details in 2010.
In a fascinating New Yorker piece, Harvard history professor Jill Lepore links the current, welcome NSA debate to “a centuries-long historical transformation: the secularization of mystery.” In other words, our notions about privacy, publicity, secrecy, and mystery have all evolved rapidly in the modern era, having less to do with changes in technology than with more fundamental shifts in culture. If M.I.A.’s take on this historical pattern can seem contradictory, well, maybe that’s only appropriate.