March 28, 2018 | by C.M. Crockford
Music samples can do strange things to an older song. Used out of context, the chord patterns and drumbeats change, are distorted, re-contextualized, resurrected. They are given new life and shape through sheer will; a form of magic. The use of “Straight to Hell” in “Paper Planes” is a perfect example of how pop music, like oral storytelling, endures through its retelling, the ways elements and ideas change yet “the song remains the same,” both coming to a bleak end point on the West and immigration, two roads that diverge but meet at the same intersection.
Appropriate for The Clash to be sampled by M.I.A. then. The Clash were obsessed with ska, reggae, and dub, stubbornly melding them together with punk rock and subtly suggesting in doing so that all the genres were more similar than separated in their anti-authoritarian themes, their obsession with a working class perspective. “Clampdown” existed side-by-side with “Guns of Brixton” on London Calling, the music all holding a spiritual ethos in common. With “Paper Planes” and “Born Free” M.I.A. would also interpolate hip-hop, electro, and punk, just as interested in breaking down genre and seeing what is universal. Her immigrant status was central to M.I.A.'s music, her image: “Paper Planes” is the music of someone who has heard every stereotype of immigrants, laughed at them, and made a song ripping them apart, where the very structure of the music shows Western and Eastern cultures dissolving into a single purpose.
What she and Diplo did, in a work of deranged genius, was use the opening guitar riff of “Straight to Hell,” the masterpiece of Combat Rock, and build it into a skeleton for the whole track. The guitar pattern as played by Mick Jones is an eerie, skittering, two-pronged thing, ringing out like weeping sonar as the heavy drum beat evolves into restless reggae percussion. And on the original, the chords are fuckin' sad, the heartbreak of the Vietnamese orphans internalized in the music. But as replayed in “Paper Planes,” the guitar becomes something else entirely. Mick Jones' shoegaze-esque siren calls are now menacing, bleak, and utterly badass (and become a satire of hip-hop gangsta badassery at the same time). It's the sound of the cool, mixed with finger snaps, stoned bass, and M.I.A.'s chilled out, casual vocals. It's a cultural dialogue now, a Westerner's version of Eastern melodies recycled by an Easterner.
And on that note, the tones of the songs are radically different but have the same focus: globalization, how Eastern immigrants in particular are perceived by Westerners, and a sort of quiet desolation. “Straight to Hell” is as sober and devastated as The Clash ever got — Strummer's vocals have a clarity and weight to them: “Lemme tell you about your blood, bamboo kid / It ain't Coca-Cola, it's rice.” It's cruel, yes, but it’s true, a man telling someone he cares about a brutal truth. The line doesn't work without his delivery, his flippant anger and flat disappointment. The center of the song is “Oh Papa san, please take me home,” and it just skirts the edge of sentiment and condescension (I'm never sure if Strummer is mocking racist tropes or using them), but instead settles into empathy and compassion.
Where “Straight to Hell” plays with stereotypes, M.I.A. gives them to you on a platter, her narrator a gangsta criminal gleefully using the system to murder, steal, and sell guns. The narrator is heroic, an underdog, just doing what the world expects of him — and what the world requires. M.I.A's sing-song chorus and delivery are as I've said: cool, casual, without judgment, the criminal at peace with themselves. Capitalism has people like this person everywhere, Western or Eastern, immigrant or not: intelligent, deadly, obsessed with profit, and able to do anything to keep surviving. It's an immigrant shoving stereotypes back into the faces of the audience: “You created this. This is the product of your world.” The (hilarious) children's backing vocals, the gunshots, the cash registers — this isn't an immigrant's dream, this is America's, the selling of guns for money, guns over children, money over people, money over everything. Hurrah.
“Paper Planes” was a huge hit for M.I.A., partly because of its glorious use in the trailer for Pineapple Express, and reaching a mass audience that probably took the song at face value (I know I had classmates who did). But songs like this cross over, because they tap into the universal, the collective feelings of their listeners. M.I.A. and Diplo had written a satire, a dialogue with another song, but “Paper Planes” became an expression of a growing exhaustion, with the American Dream as well, a venomous cynicism towards the free market that has increased in the past 10 years. It also unwittingly predicted that fears of immigrants would become entrenched, that the international right wing would use those anxieties and stereotypes to seize power. If someone remixed “Paper Planes” with Trump's anti-immigrant ramblings, they’d be a chilling addition to M.I.A.’s lyrics — the immigrant bogeyman, the person who'll take your job and do anything for a buck, is alive and well in the West's dark heart.
There's hope though in both “Straight to Hell” and “Paper Planes”: Not in the lyrics per se, but in the music, how both songs interpret Western and Eastern melodies and ideas and merge them into something new and vital. The two works find political division, yes, but also common themes, enemies, and struggles. And they do so with a single beautiful guitar phrase that strains and spirals on, as if to echo a desire, a need, a fear, forever.
Watch M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes"
Watch The Clash perform "Straight to Hell"