I used to live just a few blocks from the Brooklyn home of Maya Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A., the Sri Lankan artist who tore up the charts with her 2007 single "Paper Planes," a mockery of immigrant stereotypes built upon a sample from The Clash's "Straight to Hell" and lyrics from Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rump Shaker." In fact, the video for the song -- filled with gunfire, American Apparel leggings, the ching-ching of cash registers, and the artist's hilariously snotty sneers -- pretty much sums up my opinion of the city's raging inequalities.
Since then, "Paper Planes" has had an interesting trajectory. After being featured in the trailer to the 2008 stoner comedy Pineapple Express, it emerged in a more serious role within A.R. Rahman's soundtrack to the 2008 Golden Globe-winning drama Slumdog Millionaire, which also features M.I.A. on its opening track, "O … Saya." "Paper Planes" works in Pineapple because both the film and the song are violence-themed parodies, but it works even better in Slumdog because both take aim at the racial discrimination and conspicuous consumption that make poverty so painful for so many.
Arguably this political message is the heart and soul of the "Paper Planes." In 2007, shortly after it was released on her second album, Kala, M.I.A. performed the song at the Siren Music Festival, prefaced by a fantastic rant about how the U.S. government had denied her visa application. It was one of the most politically charged concert experiences I can recall. So, when I discovered that my new neighbors -- Madison's Pale Young Gentlemen -- were covering the tune for Cokemachineglow's "Fantasy Covers" podcast, I scoffed a bit. What could a bunch of corn-fed white kids with violins and acoustic guitars possibly add to a song about identity politics by someone Chuck D has repeatedly described as "the future of music"?
It's a difficult question, but the Gentlemen do manage to make the song their own. Unlike the original, which sounds a bit like a naughty jump-rope rhyme, the PYG version uses classical chamber music and the airy indie of Death Cab for Cutie as its foundation. Drums replace guns and cheery bells take the place of cash registers. In other words, it's probably the only version of "Paper Planes" I could imagine my parents listening to, which is quite a feat in its own right.
Matt Reisenauer, the band's percussionist, says the inspiration for the cover was a bit more rebellious than you might think. When Cokemachineglow told the band it had to remake a Top 40 hit for the podcast, they opted for Joe Strummer over Ashlee Simpson. Well, sort of.
"We chose 'Paper Planes' because it samples 'Straight to Hell' by The Clash, which my brother [bandmate Mike Reisenauer] and I have been singing since he bought Combat Rock in the eighth grade," he says.
Despite the Reisenauers' punk-lovin' ways, the band made a conscious decision to remove some of the angst from the song. Why? To beef up the melody, the band says.
"In the [original], M.I.A.'s voice is thin, hiding behind a lot of production and samples of gunshots, so we thought we'd go the other way and make it more organic, honest maybe," Reisenauer explains.
Whether you think this approach is a brilliant about-face or an ill-fated effort to whitewash an uncomfortable statement about culture wars, it seems to endow the song with a new story, one that's less about a tussle with immigration officials and more about the loneliness of a cross-country train ride. And while it's hard to imagine the Pale Young Gentlemen as a posse of "bona-fide hustlers [with] pre-paid wireless," both are stories that deserve to be told.
An MP3 of "Paper Planes" is available in the related downloads section at right. More songs by the band may be found on its MySpace page. Pale Young Gentlemen is playing this Friday, January 16 at Café Montmartre.
MadTracks highlights and provides MP3s of songs performed by local musicians. All tracks here are provided with permission of the artist. If you are a musician based in the Madison metro area and are interested in sharing your work as a MadTrack, please send a message.