First off, don’t misread me here. I love M.I.A., and Paper Planes is possibly my favorite song by her. Why wouldn’t I like it? The intro to one of my favorite songs by The Clash runs through the whole song, (Straight To Hell, from their album Combat Rock). Plus, the song’s definitely edgy, which is something I think just about all pop lacks recently.* When I heard this at the gym–that’s a different story.
Innocuous, banal techno/dancehall remixes of Billboard hits are about all the gym plays. I’m guessing gyms across the world are much the same. One of the odd things about the music is that often they’ll take songs that are already upbeat and full of synthesizers, then speed them up and add more synths. Such was the treatment I’ve heard of songs by The White Stripes and The Beastie Boys. That I can live with, although I often wish they’d play the songs in their original form. Intergalactic doesn’t need a remix. What the gym did to M.I.A.’s Paper Planes was much worse.
You probably know the song. It’s played on the radio a lot and has been in commercials. Here it is if you haven’t.
The version played at the gym was almost the same, but with one major difference: the gunshot sound effects were taken out. I can to some extent understand the censorship of language, but the song features no actual swear words (unless you’re old fashioned and consider “hell” ‘cussing’). In its original, unexpurgated form, the song is an interesting, if enigmatic, send up of our bureaucratic system and money-crazed culture. It’s hard to tell if M.I.A. is being sincere, or if the song is satire. There’s definitely a strain of jokiness through the lyrics, like the part about making visas in “a second if you wait.” To my mind, the gunshot noises aren’t threats of actual violence so much as they are seismic shocks to the status quo (symbolically speaking).
Now when I first heard the song playing over the gym’s PA I remember thinking, “Maybe this isn’t such a PC yuppie paradise after all…” But when I heard the gunshots taken out… Well, what does the song become?
The worst part is, they took out the gunshot sound effects but left the cash register ka ching. Where the gunshots used to be, there’s a pulsing techno beat. So now the song is “All I want to do is (pulse pulse pulse pulse) and ka ching.” This to me suggests “All I want to do is dance and spend money.” So they took an edgy song and made it a paean to how we’re supposed to be frivolous consumers and not care about anything and just dance and dance… To be cynical, that sums up at least some of the people who go to the gym, but made me feel suddenly like such a tool. That’s the problem with gyms; what starts as a wish to better one’s health slowly turns into conformity and vapidity…
I guess the lesson here is, don’t take your headphones off.
*Amy Winehouse definitely had edge, which is one of the many reasons she’ll be sorely missed. Coincidentally, M.I.A. has released a song partially about Winehouse called “27.”