When the video for "Paper Planes" premiered on MTV in late 2007, the gunshots were censored, replaced in the mix—against M.I.A.'s wishes—by what the artist herself unhappily and somewhat incoherently called "this fucked up mess with double-tracked bulls--- mess." M.I.A., livid at the unexpected alteration of her work, before eventually convincing her label and MTV to restore the original sound. Something similar happened when M.I.A. performed the song live on the David Letterman show; she when her gunshots came out of the set's speakers sounding like nothing more than some kind of funky electronic banging.
"Paper Planes" became an unlikely hit single largely due to its usage on the silver screen. The song was released as a single early in 2008, but failed to crack the Billboard charts until it appeared in . The song was then used—twice, in two different mixes—in , which ultimately won eight Academy Awards and helped "Paper Planes" crack the Billboard top ten.
M.I.A.'s choice to use a youth choir specifically from Brixton was surely no accident. Brixton, a working-class suburb located just south of London, played a leading role in late-twentieth-century Britain's struggles over race, immigration, and urban decay. (Brixton has the same symbolic importance in the UK as, say, or has in the US.) In the 1950s, Brixton became a mostly-black enclave as thousands of immigrants poured into the area, especially from British West Indian colonies like Jamaica and Trinidad. By the late 1970s, the city had become the scene of ferocious tension between black residents and white authorities. In 1981, heavy-handed police efforts to crack down on street crime on Brixton's main street, Railton Road, touched off widespread rioting. Hundreds of people were injured and dozens of buildings were burned. Railton Road became known as "The Frontline," with the rest of the country. Rioting erupted in Brixton again in both 1985 and 1995; today, the city remains the heart of London's Afro-Caribbean immigrant community and ground zero in Britain's struggle to reinvent itself as a multiracial society.
Even before the first Brixton riots occurred in 1981, the city's widespread racial tension, poverty, and social discontentment were evident enough to inspire The Clash to record which borrowed a reggae beat and the iconography of the cult-favorite film from Brixton's predominantly Jamaican culture. The song's grim message, recorded in 1979, sounded prophetic when the riots erupted just two years later: "When they kick out your front door / How you gonna come? / With your hands on your head? / Or on the trigger of your gun? / When the law break in / How you gonna go? / Shot down on the pavement? / Or waiting in death row? / You can crush us / You can bruise us / But you'll have to answer to / Woe, Guns of Brixton." The Clash, as flag-bearers for a certain engaged left-wing political sensibility within the British punk movement, became revered icons for many progressive musicians… like M.I.A., who uses a looped sample from another Clash song, "Straight to Hell," to provide the musical backbone for "Paper Planes."
"Straight to Hell" was perhaps the most downbeat song The Clash ever recorded, both lyrically and musically. The song moves thematically from the shuttering of British industries, to the abandonment of half-American children and their Vietnamese mothers at the end of the , to the discrimination meted out to Puerto Ricans in New York… the common thread throughout is the alienation suffered by immigrants throughout the world. The song ends with a bleak verse: "Can you cough it up loud and strong / The immigrants they wanna sing all night long / It could be anywhere / Most likely could be any frontier, any hemisphere / In no man's land / And there ain't no asylum here / King Solomon he never lived round here / Straight to hell boy / Go straight to hell boy." For M.I.A., a childhood refugee and immigrant who self-identifies as a citizen of the global Third World, the song may have had special significance; "Paper Planes" might even be heard as a kind of delayed response to questions raised by The Clash in "Straight to Hell."
Lyrics to the 1992 booty-rap version: "All I wanna do is zoom a zoom zoom zoom / And a poom poom / Just shake ya rump." The Wreckx-N-Effect song peaked at #2 on the pop charts, held out of the top spot only by Whitney Houston's spectacularly popular "I Will Always Love You." M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" maxed out at #4.
was prevented from entering the United States; it's hard not to imagine that this experience colored the first verse of "Paper Planes," with its lyrics about evading the border police, using phony visas, and selling fake IDs.
suggested that this meaning was what she had in mind while writing "Paper Planes": The song, she said, is "about people driving cabs all day and living in a s---y apartment and appearing really threatening to society.
But there's more than a little irony in holding up "Paper Planes" as representative of "Third World democracy." One of the leading factors in turning democracy in many Third World countries into little more than a cruel joke has been the destructive power of a worldview that sounds a lot like "All I wanna do is [blam blam blam] and [ka-ching] and take your money." Since the decolonization movement spread across the world in the 1960s, far too many Third World governments have come to be dominated by rulers willing to use violence to increase their own private riches.
(While the Sex Pistols were screaming about "Anarchy in the UK," The Clash were rallying to the defense of Jamaican immigrants, condemning police brutality, and naming records after Nicaraguan guerilla fighters.) M.I.A., trodding through much the same cultural territory, surely is familiar with The Clash's progressive politics; she almost certainly meant to send a very specific message by using a sample from "Straight To Hell" as the foundation for "Paper Planes."
In fact, "Paper Planes" might be seen as an immigrant's frustrated response to the unwelcoming attitudes of native-born Brits and Americans captured in "Straight to Hell." In this version, the lyrics of "Paper Planes" might be viewed as an immigrant's nihilistic daydream, a fantasy vision of turning to gangsterism to attain an American Dream too often denied by the grim reality of minimum-wage employment.
Videos and pix borrowed from Youtube and various internet sources. (Videos include: M.I.A. "Paper Planes" & "Jimmy", live performance on the David Letterman Show, and MSNBC Countdown "Skull & Bones Connection"; Images include: Apple Sauce, Buddha, Pa Kua, Putin, Turntables, Yab Yum, Yin-Yang, Yoni-Lingam, and Zen monk)
M.I.A., a British citizen whose non-stage name is Maya Arulpragasam, was prevented from recording the album (upon which "Paper Planes" appears) in the United States because she couldn't get a legal work visa to enter the country throughout much of 2007.
herself had to survive a war somewhere—in Sri Lanka, in her case—and then endured the hardships of life as a refugee before becoming an international pop star.)
As powerful as this explanation for the lyrics of "Paper Planes" may be, there are other potential meanings at play here as well.