A Tale of Two Fingers

Welcome to the topsy-turvy universe of the modern entertainment industry. It’s where parents’ groups are given the bully pulpit as they descend into conniptions over a finger, while nary a word is said about an artist running cover for crimes against humanity.

When M.I.A. flipped off the camera during her guest appearance at Madonna’s at last Sunday’s half-time show, it was the only exciting part of what had to have been the most overblown and lack-luster performance in Super Bowl history. That’s a bold statement when one considers that half-time shows have, in essence, become little more than an exercise in corporate spectacle.

This took the cake though. The costumes, the pyrotechnics, the backup dancers were all there, along with the sanctimonious end note for “world peace.” Just about the only thing that wasn’t intact was Madonna’s enthusiasm. For the majority of the show, we were simply watching a pop star go through the choreographed motions. In this tightly controlled yawn-fest, M.I.A.’s bird was a rare glimpse of spontaneous honesty.

The culture warriors are, predictably, in an uproar. Obvious and instant comparisons to Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” eight years go have abounded. M.I.A., alongside NBC and the NFL, apologized almost instantly. She shouldn’t have.

New Yorker music writer Sasha Frere-Jones nailed it perfectly when she wrote:

The outrage is tiresome and deeply hypocritical, in all the tiresome ways you’ve been tired out by before. M.I.A. was illustrating her line [“I don’t give a shit”], acting out the attitude of the words: performing. Fine, it may not be legal to flip the bird on television, but that’s simply a remnant of the fifties we haven’t shaken.

Anyone familiar with M.I.A. will know that this isn’t the first time she’s been attacked for simply being herself. Frere-Jones mentions in her article the infamous New York Times Magazine hit-piece in 2010, where author Lynn Hirchberg traded any actual music criticism for comparisons to terrorists. Add to this the censorship of her videos on MTV and YouTube, not to mention the death threats she got after standing up against Sri Lanka’s Tamil genocide, and we start to see that this latest moment is probably the mildest backlash that M.I.A. had endured thus far.

Now, even Madonna herself has turned on M.I.A., telling Ryan Seacrest that “It’s such a teenager, irrelevant thing to do… There was such a feeling of love and unity there. What was the point? It was just out of place.”

Apparently, Madge’s sense of “love and unity” means you can throw your erstwhile collaborator under the bus. Likewise, her idea of “world peace,” doesn’t include the Palestinians. Moments later, news broke that she will be kicking off her upcoming MDNA world tour in Israel.

This was also a middle finger of sorts. Only this one was directed at an entire people who have spent six decades under the boot of systematic violence and apartheid. Over the past few years, as official Israeli politics have swung steadily to the right, the brutality of its occupation has become ever more naked and apparent. So, then, has the support for the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions gained more and more support — including in artistic realms. In fact, with high profile artists like Elvis Costello, the Pixies, Gorillaz and, most recently, Cat Power pulling out of shows, the cultural boycott has arguably been the most visible section of the international BDS campaign.

All of this matters little to Madonna — who is willingly crossing this global picket line and, even amid her own hollow pleas for “world peace,” no doubt knows the cultural cover that her show will provide for Israel’s regional sabre rattling. As if to prove this, a Facebook page was recently started asking that the government’s top brass hold off on striking against Iran until after Madonna’s performance!

And yet, Madge is expecting none of us to see through the hypocrisy. Common sense might dictate that it is her actions — not M.I.A.’s — that are the true insult, the true offense. But then, if one really thinks about it, such rationale is perfectly at home at the Super Bowl.

This is a yearly event during which we’re somehow meant to think nothing of half-naked women being used to sell domain names, car commercials that fervently bang the jingoist drum or militarism out our ears. A few hundred protesters outside Lucas Oil Field bringing attention to Indiana’s anti-labor “right to work” laws is out of line, though.

So, apparently, are we intended to bask in Madonna’s sanctimony while M.I.A. — one of the few remaining mainstream artists who allows herself both principles and honesty — is pilloried. Was there ever a better reason to do away with our culture’s one percent?

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.