Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Song To Woody: “Paper Planes”

The following is an adaptation of a section from my book, Keep on Pushing. The passage concerns the legacy of protest music and American hero, Woody Guthrie.  The people’s singer was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912 on July 14. This weekend, all over the world, people gather to sing-out,  in honor of his 100th birthday and centennial year.  

“Paper Planes,” M.I.A.’s irresistible and ubiquitous alternative hip-hop track from 2007-08 combines her riff on the lyrical threads of the Clash classic, “Straight to Hell”, as well as a sample of it, alongside her own insouciant rap style and insistent and poetic verses. Punctuated by percussive pop, pop, pops and ka-ching sounds, the songs roots roll deep—from British punk and black empowerment, to American topical protest, in the mode of Woody Guthrie. Five years later, Maya Aprulgasam’s “Paper Planes” endures as music with a pointed message, a high-tilt boogie down production taking in immigration reform, ongoing war, and economic disrepair, though at the time it was released, it was largely misunderstood.  It was also a hit record, the likes of which Woody Guthrie would not enjoy or ever know in his lifetime. But safe to say, he was the first contemporary singer to take on the dignity of the immigrant as the subject of a song: In 1948, Guthrie wrote “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” It is performed here by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

The song concerns the treatment of 28 migrant farm workers, their deportation, and accidental demise in a plane crash as they were being returned to Mexico from Central California. Guthrie was struck by the facts: The immigrants were not mentioned by name in news reports (the vitals on the American flight crew got full coverage) and they were buried in a mass, unmarked grave. He wrote the unidentified departed what started out as a poem: “Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita, adiós mis amigos, Jesús y María.” Ten years later, schoolteacher Martin Hoffman set it to music. Popularized by Pete Seeger, it is still sung and recorded, most famously by the Byrds, Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, and Bruce Springsteen. “Deportee” remains standing not only as a eulogy, but as a statement on the lack of rights and the poor conditions faced by immigrant farm workers to this day.
The Clash, and Joe Strummer in particular, were known the world over for covering the common man’s concerns, as well as the human cost of empire-building in song.  Opening her immigrant song with four bars of “Straight to Hell”, M.I.A. tells us where the song is going and what it’s about before singing a word. Among Strummer’s most celebrated lyrics, its verses are devoted to the plight of the dispossessed. Not exactly sung (perhaps inspired by his new friend, poet Allen Ginsberg, who sat in on the Combat Rock sessions), “Straight to Hell” is a song to the outsider. It signifies where she stands in so-called “polite society,” whether cast-off North of England or in Vietnam: It could be anywhere… any hemisphere… no man’s land and there ain’t no asylum here, in the words of Strummer, or as Guthrie plays it, They chased them like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.  
Guthrie’s Some of us are illegal, and others not wanted, ring out in Strummer’s … There ain’t no need for ya. Go straight to hell, boys…..  The Clashman said he wrote the song while staying at the Iroquois Hotel, a home away from home for workers on the road to rock and roll.

“‘Straight to Hell’ was one of our absolute masterpieces. But the band had to shatter after that record,” Strummer said. Success contributed to hardliners the Clash giving up the ghost, but what they lost, 25 years later, was found when London called again in the form of M.I.A.

Originally appearing on her 2007 album, Kala, “Paper Planes” pushed ahead in 2008 when it was featured in the trailer for the stoner movie, Pineapple Express, as well as in the musical montage sequence to Slumdog Millionaire (the latter film arguably introducing a portion of mass American audiences to the multi-dimensionality of India at the time of its emergence in the world economy). Downloads of “Paper Planes” soared and an uncensored video became a YouTube sensation; to date the single has sold over two million singles in the US and has topped countless best-of lists and polls, receiving more royalties and accolades than Woody Guthrie or even Joe Strummer ever saw. The artist said her song’s success surprised her; she reckoned few would ever hear it, given her indie status at the time of its recording. Though on her way to hitsville, the song took some hits and stuck in some craws; critics thought it thuggish and hard and found ways to put down the singer’s tone. And while Arulpragasam dubs it a satire, “Paper Planes” also fits the categories of protest or empowerment anthem, reclaiming racial stereotypes.

“I don’t think immigrants are that threatening to society at all,” she said.  “They’re just happy they’ve survived some war somewhere.”

As for the gunshots and cash register ring: “You can either apply it on a street level and go, ‘Oh, you’re talking about somebody robbing you and saying I’m going to take your money.’ But, really, it could be a much bigger idea: Someone’s selling you guns and making money. Selling weapons and the companies that manufacture guns—that’s probably the biggest moneymaker in the world.”

“Paper Planes” is commentary; an alternative point of view of the hardship of immigrant life and reconsideration of  stereotypes leveled at those arriving from the developing world.  When M.I.A. was put into the position of having to explain her song, the truth emerged in the light:  The majority of immigrants are hard-working people. Many recent arrivals from far off shores have second and third jobs, driving cabs, working in restaurants, supporting families at a distance, while living multi-generationally in cramped rooms. When they die, their lives often go unacknowledged, by strangers in a strange land.  That the M.I.A. song was ill-perceived speaks largely to the idea that there isn’t  much familiarity or empathy for the subject of immigrants in our land, in the media, or among what used to be called “the record buying public.”  It may also serve as an example of how unsung people and stories can be great motivators for songs and dialogues on a theme. Certainly the Guthrie, Strummer, and M.I.A. songs share a common message, and a common form, a heart-worn song.

Guthrie, Seeger and Paul Robeson were branded communist sympathizers and put out of work when they sang songs about forgotten people from other lands. Bob Dylan sang of the injustices met by the poor and black at home, though when he famously retreated from rigorous protest music, he was criticized and lost a portion of his audience in return for his trouble. He sang “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” and people hardly noticed it among the tracks on John Wesley Harding. When Bruce Springsteen sang “Born in the U.S.A.,” the story of a discarded veteran, he was almost universally misunderstood to be singing a patriotic song.  This business of protest music has been known to be a hassle and a bit tricky; and while on one hand its more potent and pointed songs often get relegated to the underground, occasionally a white-hot blast like “Born in the U.S.A.” or  “Paper Planes” strikes a chord with the mainstream, which is when there’s a chance for a real public discussion about it.  Further distinguishing “Paper Planes” from much of the music on the popular charts: There is something to discuss in its content.
The additional touch of a child’s chorus in M.I.A.’s song (“All I wanna do”) was a precedent set by another important artist with an anthem: James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

The depth of Brown’s message song catapulted him to a front seat in community leadership; M.I.A. has also become a symbol for young people of color, especially for women’s empowerment across the world, from the subcontinent, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, to Hollis Queens, and East LA. Surely that is a good thing, though there are those who have designated her work as dangerous as they did Brown’s; what these misguided souls seem not to get is that both James Brown and M.I.A. are artists.  Although M.I.A. hails from London, she was raised partly in Sri Lanka and in India by activist parents associated with the fight to liberate the Tamil region of their native country. Today, she makes her home in Brooklyn. Confusing? Not if you consider that Maya Arulpragasam, the person behind the artist M.I.A. is  a refugee from a war-torn country, looking for a home in this world. The spirit of Woody Guthrie is alive and well in her and in all artists who use their voices, guitars and pens to fight injustice where they see it, recording it in a song.

[post-publication, it occurred to me that there is an undeniable link binding “Paper Planes” to Althea and Donna’s 1978 UK hit, “Uptown Top Ranking,” but that’s an extrapolation that will have to wait for another occasion].

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Filed under: anti-war, cross cultural musical experimentation, , , , , , ,

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