Why MIA Was Right to Give America the Finger at the Super Bowl

As Nipplegate instructed us, the Superbowl halftime stage is seen in America as almost hallowed ground, a football altar where only our most sacred pop stars may tread. And if they desecrate it? They will be effectively excommunicated, even if their legacy in American music is as important as anyone’s.

When Justin Timberlake accidentally exposed Janet Jackson’s breast in 2004 (and promptly recused himself from blame or controversy, leaving her to deal with it on her own), she became the country’s pariah, a heretic whose long punishment only ended in November 2011, when the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC must pay back a fine it collected from CBS for the incident.

So for a young, rebellious pop starlet, the Superbowl halftime stage is the perfect place to drum up controversy. And controversy is what followed when the singer-rapper-artist M.I.A., during her guest verse on Madonna’s new single “Give Me All Your Lovin’,” looked into the camera and flipped the bird to 111.3 million viewers, while rapping the line, “Imma say this once/yeah/I don’t give a shit.” As a gesture, it certainly matched the sentiment of the line—but where the halftime censors were armed and ready to blank out the “shit” in her rap, they lagged on blurring out her middle finger, and so America got a huge dose of brown-girl disdain in the form of a beautifully rounded manicure and a traditional South Asian wedding bracelet.

As “obscene” gestures go, M.I.A.'s middle finger was no more shocking than, say, Usher’s pelvic thrusts during last year’s performance with the Black-Eyed Peas. Of course Madonna was reportedly “furious,” presumably because she “prides herself on professionalism,” but more likely because the act ciphoned the attention from the formerly boundary-bucking star. Madonna also called the M.I.A. finger “stupid and childish,” which, Madonna: you’ve made out with girls on television solely for attention, so you’re gonna have to sit down.

But Madonna’s reaction is less about attention and professionalism, and more about her ability to control her collaborators—which might illuminate why M.I.A. did it in the first place. When news first leaked that Madonna would be collaborating with M.I.A. and beloved rapper Nicki Minaj, fans were ecstatic—not just because the queen of pop was recognizing a new, innovative generation, but because Minaj and M.I.A., arguably the two most important young women in hip-hop and the surrounding world, would finally come together. But last week, when the video for the resulting song, “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” emerged, the overwhelming response was disappointment. First, the song itself is bland and soulless, with Madonna singing bad lyrics that don’t even make sense in a nonsensical pop sense. (Some also think it’s a mediocre ripoff of “Love Banana” by the Rio-based tropical bass producer Joao Brasil and CSS singer Lovefoxx, both of whom M.I.A. is certainly aware of.)

Perhaps more offensive than a ripoff, though, was the way Madonna underutilized Minaj and M.I.A. Both pop stars in their own right, she gives them each a token eight bars to knock out a super-quick rap and attempt to encapsulate their formidable personalities. It sounds wedged in, as though Madonna does not really care about their music so much as the cool cred they might garner her from the underground and younger audiences. Couple that with the fact that she positions them as her cheerleaders—both in the context of the song’s chorus, and dressed up as such in the official video and on the Superbowl performance—and it feels like the kind of familiar act of tokenism that Madonna has practiced since the 1990s.

Madge is very interested in co-opting black and brown “cool.” As bell hooks wrote years ago in her essay “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister,” “Fascinated yet envious of black style, Madonna appropriates black culture in ways that mock and undermine, making her presentation one that upstages.” In this estimation, it’s easy to see why Madonna was so angry at M.I.A. for stealing the spotlight.

And like Madonna, M.I.A. is notoriously self-motivated, anti-authoritarian and inherently subversive, albeit in a far more complicated way than the Material Girl. Her bird-flipping can be analyzed in two ways. First, the flip-off acted as a subconscious f-you to Madonna for relegating her and Nicki Minaj—the strong, important women of color—to understudy status. In addition to having them dress as cheerleaders in the “Give Me All Your Luvin” video, there is a scene in which they don her “Like a Virgin” era style—white lace dresses, boy toy belts, blonde Marilyn Monroe wigs—implying that they aspire to be like her when they grow up. In truth, each has her own distinct attitude that does not discernibly owe anything specific to the legacy of Madonna, unlike, say, Lady Gaga. Minaj’s “Harajuku Barbie” act is indebted to Japanese raver style, drag queens, and her background in drama, while M.I.A.’s persona is based on her experience as a Sri Lankan immigrant in London who went to art school as her rebel father fought for rebel groups back in the homeland. It is a clear facet of Madonna’s narcissism that this imagery showed up in the video with these specific people, and it makes us want to give up the middle finger, too.

But if the woman who once simulated masturbation on a world tour can’t understand the impetus for a provocative notion from a notoriously impetuous pop star, then it was clear the outside world was going to have a collective meltdown. And, of course, M.I.A. was effectively flipping off America, but not everyone in America—just what is perceived as America’s middlestream, the football-watching populace that traverses gender, race, class, age, and sexual orientation.

It’s telling that one of the main critiques of M.I.A.'s finger-flip this week had to do with the fact that she is “not even American,” as Republican Dana Perino groused, which is true (she holds British and Sri Lankan citizenship), but is also veiled code for “brown.” Let us not forget the role race played in Nipplegate, and how it corresponds—woman of color onstage with white pop star offends the country by will or by accident—and wonder if M.I.A. was white and gave the finger, how commentators would react. While we aren’t inclined to think a middle finger is all that interesting—we view it with something approaching boredom—it is somewhat subversive that a young brown woman rapping about her “uranium hits” did it.

And so, as the NBC and NFL play, and the FCC decides how much to charge, and who to charge it to (likely: around $50,000, and M.I.A.), this light controversy continues to rage, the country’s racial undercurrent runs through it. Meanwhile, M.I.A.’s got a new single to promote. It’s called "Bad Girlz," it samples Arabic pop, and the video features women wearing niqab and wielding A-Ks. Dana Perroni would love it.


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