M.I.A gives America the middle finger

Video still from Super Bowl broadcast
M.I.A. has never shied away from speaking her mind — and when the singer got the biggest stage in the US to express her views on Super Bowl Sunday, she didn’t hesitate to make the most out of the moment.

One of the singer’s latest videos showing a SWAT-style raid carried out by US flag-clad combatants against civilians caused so much outrage that it was banned from televisions in the United States — and even from YouTube. But this time, M.I.A. knew all eyes would be on her as she performed live during the Super Bowl half-time show. So when she shared the stage with Madonna this weekend, the singer used the opportunity to finally be heard without a censor. And her message: “I don’t give a shit,” punctuated by extending her middle finger, occurred during one of the largest broadcast events of the year.

Musical icon Madonna’s performance in-between halves invoked debates of its own, but the middle-finger salute supplied by British singer M.I.A. has raised questions itself, even before the second half of the big game could be underway. In a debate that is quickly escalating to Super Bowl obscenity status unseen since the now notorious wardrobe malfunction that made Janet Jackson outshine even the athletes during the big game back in 2004, M.I.A.’s questionable hand gesture has many people asking why.

The answers, however, should be more than obvious.

M.I.A., born Mathangi Arulpragasam in South London, has never neglected to be outspoken with her politics. She has jokingly called herself a terrorist and was investigated by the United States Department of Homeland Security at one point. Although she has seen her share of success on the American music charts, never before this weekend’s Super Bowl has she been the subject of so many millions of sets of eyes. Given the incredible exposure and practical guarantee that her performance alongside headliner Madonna would be one for the record books, why M.I.A. chose to flip off a worldwide audience of football fans is really a question that could be answered by simply looking at her past.

“Paper Planes,” a 2008 hit for the pop-singer, was written about the performer’s grievances with the United States’ travel policies. The singer’s shot at obtaining a visa to record in the States before the album’s release was denied and she was not shy about taking shots at the US government in response. Even though the government had attached a red flag to her name years earlier after releasing a bevy of politically-charged songs, she attacked the US for denying her visa with words that are rare for a big performer in post-9/11 America.

"I was having this stupid visa problem and I didn’t know what it was, aside from them thinking that I might [sic] fly a plane into the Trade Center — which is the only reason that they would put me through this,” the singer would say to Fader magazine.

“Paper Planes” would go on to crack the top-ten on four separate Billboard charts in the US and earn the singer a Grammy nod for Record of the Year. Even with newfound fame in the States though, M.I.A. didn’t stray from speaking her mind. When explaining to Fader her motivation of the song — which includes a chorus punctuated by gunshots, then a cash register opening — she said she was just trying to create something that Americans could relate to.

“People don't really feel like immigrants or refugees contribute to culture in any way. That they're just leeches that suck from whatever,” said the singer, whose family was targeted during the Sri Lankan civil war. “In the song I say 'All I wanna do is [sound of gun shooting and reloading, cash register opening] and take your money.' I did it in sound effects. It's up to you how you want to interpret. America is so obsessed with money, I'm sure they'll get it,” she would explain.

In a controversial interview that appeared in the New York Times years later, M.I.A. explained that she would not hide her heritage and use her surge in success to draw attention to the civil war that was ravaging Sri Lanka.

On the topic of going to the Grammy’s, M.I.A. told The Times, “I wasn’t trying to be like Bono. He’s not from Africa — I’m from there. I’m tired of pop stars who say, ‘Give peace a chance.’ I’d rather say, ‘Give war a chance.’”

“The whole point of going to the Grammys was to say, ‘Hey, 50,000 people are gonna die next month, and here’s your opportunity to help.’ And no one did,” she added.

The singer would go on to explain in the same article, “I don't want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I'm a terrorist." In response, author Lynn Hirschberg tried to discredit her attempt at being political minded, writing off her latest video at the time as “exploitative and hollow,”“designed to be banned on YouTube” and “at best, politically naïve.”

She responded via Twitter after the article appeared with a micromessage for the newspaper: “Fuck the New York Times.”

“I'm not coming at it as a politician, it's my own personal experience,” she explained to the Boston Globe later that year. “There aren't more people standing up and telling their personal experience…if a normal civilian comes up and says ‘Hey, this happened in my village and I'm not happy about it,’ we're not allowed to talk about it. You have to follow this bureaucratic bullshit to get any sort of action, and it's all part of this cycle.”

“Like back in the day, we had ideals of revolution and fighting back, and most of the time that shit starts with individual people having personal relationships, these experiences. And now it's so disconnected and the media can paint a picture for you…they make so much bureaucracy and politics, and I think taking away the personal aspects, the human aspects of these political issues is really wrong. Whether it's the floods, or starving people in Africa, or whatever. It's all funneled through this channel, you really are not getting it from the horse's mouth, you know?”

Now after acclaiming a spot in the annals of outrageous Super Bowl moments, the media is already responding with that disconnected message that M.I.A. extended to millions on Sunday. Minutes after the incident, the blogosphere was brimming with critique. There were “LOLs” and “WTFs” and by Monday, the National Football League even responded. "The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing and we apologize to our fans," Brian McCarthy, spokesman for the NFL, told the Associated Press.

But as critics come after M.I.A. for making a minuscule hand movement during Madonna’s performance, more people — as always, as she has said — are missing the message. Never mind wardrobe malfunctions or Madonna’s medley of hits performed on Sunday. There was more to M.I.A.’s mannerism than a silly pseudo-statement. This time it was a “fuck you” to America, and once again the media is missing the message more than ever.