As the media, and presumably a few prudes, get all a-twitter about M.I.A.’s flipped middle finger during the Super Bowl halftime show, it’s easy to forget why she was up there in the first place.
Yes, she was an invited guest, but Madonna is no, well, madonna. Madge has repeatedly tried to maintain late-career relevancy by co-opting cool, and the guests she assembled on the Super Bowl stage were simply the pop succubus’ latest victims. (See also: Britney and Christina, Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, and that MTV VMA tribute to Michael Jackson that turned out to be mostly about herself: “Michael Jackson was born in August, 1958. So was I.”)
LMFAO were up there because they rule dance-pop like Madge once did, and Cee Lo and Nicki Minaj were brought on board because they could add her old combo of critical and commercial cred. And M.I.A. was there because, again like our Material Girl, she always courts controversy.
Her flipped bird is the equivalent to that fable of The Scorpion and the Frog, in which the former convinces the latter to carry him across a river, only to sting the frog partway across and explain “it’s my nature.” Is this a killing sting? Of course not. But for a person with an ego as large as Madonna’s, the fact that M.I.A. became a trending topic and overshadowed the pop diva’s own performance has got to hurt.
But controversy is in M.I.A.’s nature, and it’s arguably about more than personal publicity. Let’s remember that she’s a Sri Lankan refugee whose father was involved in the Tamil Tigers and M.I.A. rose to fame by rapping “Freedom fighting Dad bombed this pad/Called him a terror put him on wanted ads/Daddy M.I.A. missing in action/Going to start a revolution.” She also boasted “Like PLO, I don’t surrendo” and, in her biggest hit ‘Paper Planes,’ she rapped about “third world democracy” while boasting “Some some some I some I murder” to the sound of gunshots and cash registers.
Sure, she’s been off the radar for some time, after having a kid, delivering a poorly-received record and being savaged by the press for hypocrisy — again, arguably, because she got engaged to a super rich dude (but is reportedly separated) and lives a privileged lifestyle but still raps about the poor people in the Third World.
So it was disappointing to see the ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’ video — and it’s Super Bowl recreation — with M.I.A. (and Minaj) reduced to literal cheerleaders chanting the chorus “L-U-V Madonna/Y-O-U You wanna.” The fact M.I.A.’s verse ends with a halfhearted “I don’t give a s—” was initially a bummer considering how much she actually used to.
But maybe M.I.A. was using Madonna, too. The same day that ‘Luvin’ dropped, M.I.A. released her own video for the Bhangra-based mixtape track ‘Bad Girls,’ another tour-de-force by Romain Gavras, who had previously directed her controversial ginger-killing video ‘Born Free.’ So when people google M.I.A. about her middle finger or new Madonna single, they’ll also stumble across ‘Bad Girls.’
In this one, M.I.A. leads an all-female street race across the Moroccan desert, the burkha-clad ladies waving their AKs, shaking their hips and driving their family sedans across an apocalyptic landscape while the men watch from the sidelines. The imagery becomes a powerful rebuke to the fact that women in Saudi Arabia aren’t legally allowed to drive.
That, of course, is far more offensive than a middle finger and the same kind of socio-cultural critique a woman named Madonna used to engage in back when her ‘Like a Prayer’ partner was a black Jesus, not Cee Lo…