Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #30. “Sometimes I Think Sitting on Trains…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 11, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

Sometimes I’m still not sure if Mathangi “M.I.A.” Arulpragasam actually existed, or if she was just the manifestation of the collective will of every pop-oriented music critic on the planet (or at the very least, the internet). There was nothing about this woman that was not scientifically bred to blogger specifications. She was exotic, she had political activist (and some would say terrorist) ties, she mixed and matched from various musics, languages and cultures, she at least co-wrote and co-produced all her stuff, she collaborated with hip musicians running the gamut from Timbaland to Justine Frischmann of Elastica, she quoted from both pop and indie musical history, and she was attractive without being overly or distractingly glamorous. 99% of music writers were salivating over her before they ever even heard a song of hers. Then they heard her first single, the block-slaughtering “Galang,” and it seemed to justify everything that critics wanted M.I.A. to be capable of. Clearly, great things were on the horizon. Probably.

For me at least, it didn’t really pan out. Maybe the hype was just too much for Maya to ever live up to, but despite all the endless hosannahs that debut album Arular received, a lot of it felt more like wishful thinking than anything else. The rhetoric and attitude were there, but the songs weren’t, and most of it felt more abrasive and exhausting than exciting. Kala wasn’t all that different, but it came with M.I.A.’s best pop moment–“Paper Planes,” a song that maintained her cross-pollenating inclinations and confrontational edge, but did so with an absurdly inspired sample choice and a great, great chorus hook. It was inevitable that it would become the de facto party anthem for my senior year at NYU, but the song was too good to stop there, and it eventually broke in a way not even the critical hivemind could have predicted.

As previously mentioned, Maya knew her shit when it came to providing links to the past in her ostnesibly forward-looking music. The most noticeable example in “Paper Planes,” of course, is the main sample, that of The Clash’s Combat Rock album track “Straight to Hell.” The song easily could have coasted to success just on the strength of this sample, really–“Hell” was such a great song, and had such a haunting, deceptively funky groove to it that it’s hard to imagine any way a song riding it could fail. The sample also pulled off sounding laid back and breezy when removed from context, but also connoting the bitterness and devestation of the Clash original for those that knew of the song, simultaneously maintaining its radical vibe and allowing it to pass through to an unsuspecting top 40 radio audience.

Then, there was the “Rumpshaker” quote. Not many songs could or would borrow from both The Clash and Wreckx-n-Effect without sounding awkward, and it’s also highly likely that listeners who recognized one would have no clue about the derivation of the other, but that was probably the best and most natural thing about M.I.A.–she was a born party-uniter, drawing few lines between genres or demographics for what she decided worthy of pilfering. So she borrowed the unforgettable “All I wanna do is —- —- —- —-” hook from “Rumpshaker,” threw in some gunshot and cash register sound effects, and came up with a hook that became the singalong hook of the summer of 2008, despite being throughly impsossible to actually sing along to. (Apparently, people enjoy throwing gun-pantomimes into the air as much as they do shouting on the top of their lungs–fair enough).

With a hook and sample like that, M.I.A. didn’t really need to do all that much else to make “Paper Planes” a classic. Points to Maya, then, for not completely phoning it in, filling in with quickly iconcic lines like “M.I.A. third world democracy / Got more records than the KGB,” “No one on the corner has swagger like us / Hit me on the burner, pre-paid wireless” and of course, the titular “Fly like paper, get high like planes / If you catch me on the border I got visas in my name.” M.I.A. keeps the mainstream/underground dichotomy through most of these lines, defining herself with obvious outlaw, near-militant imagery, but delivering them in surprisingly soft, lyrical tones, almost sounding wistful a lot of the time. It’s all, well…very innocent for such nominal rebel music.

“Paper Planes” was a critical smash right off the bat, but it took a little time to reach crossover status. All it ended up needing, though, was a little push from Pineapple Express, whose all-too-logical use of the song in its previews ended up doing both song and movie a huge favor. From there, the song exploded into the mainstream, reaching the top five on the pop charts, appearing in smash flicks Hancock and Slumdog Millionaire and being co-opted by the Los Angeles Dodgers for their 2008 NLCS run. Coolest of all, the song also spun off a second smash hit, with one of its key lines getting sampled by Kanye West for a top ten single from him, T.I., Lil’ Wayne & Jay-Z entitled “Four Enormously Popular Rappers Phoning It In Over an Awesome Beat Because Why Not” (officially listed as “Swagga Like Us”). Ultimately, the song became positively unavoidable in2008, emerging as one of the most thankfully unlikely smashes of all the Naughty Oughties. No one seemed to mind, except possibly for Maya herself, who seemed a little uncomfortbale at the newfound exposure (“”I always took pride in being a little underground,” she explained–whoops).

In all likelihood, “Paper Planes” will be the last the top 40 sees of M.I.A., as she retired (from performing, if not from all of music) after playing Bonnaroo in 2008–before the breakout of “Planes,” ironically, although it’s doubtful that would have made much of a difference. If so (and probably if not anyway), Arulpragasm will doubtless go down as one of the weirdest one-hit wonders in history, in rareified air among Radiohead, The Flaming Lips and Lou Reed as legendary underground artists that future American audiences may be shocked to learn had more to offer than their signature radio hit. And though I don’t think that M.I.A. really had nearly as much more to offer as some would have you believe, “Paper Planes” was one of the songs that demonstrated that there really was something there behind all of the buzz. If she never releases another album, she should be proud to leave it as her pop legacy.

(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far (Now With Links!):

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
90. Cassie – “Me & U
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It
81. 311 – “Amber
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite
79. Nas – “Made You Look
78. Royksopp – “Eple
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!
67. Incubus – “Stellar
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic
43. Kings of Leon – “Sex on Fire
42. Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule – “I’m Real (Remix)
41. Lifehouse – “Hanging By a Moment
40. Plain White T’s – “Hey There Delilah
39. MGMT – “Kids
38. Gym Class Heroes f/ Patrick Stump – “Cupid’s Chokehold
37. Franz Ferdinand – “Do You Want To
36. Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head
35. Vertical Horizon – “Everything You Want
34. The White Stripes – “Fell in Love With a Girl
33. Jay-Z – “Takeover
32. Maroon 5 – “This Love
31. Silversun Pickups – “Lazy Eye
30. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes”

One Response to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #30. “Sometimes I Think Sitting on Trains…””

  1. ZD said

    I am kuh-razy about this song. It’s such a delightful mix — the awesome flows + the hip-hop feel (without the near-omnipresent misogyny/profanity) + the sweet Clash sample + the great sound effects.

    Incidentally, my first exposure to it was due to…a Ken Jennings Tuesday Trivia email from about a year ago. One of his questions mentioned Paper Planes and one other song from around that time (which I’d also never heard before) both featuring samples from a particular band (which ended up being The Clash, obv.). Kudos if you can name the other song.

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