M.I.A.’s middle finger may currently be the most-discussed digit in America, dominating the post-Super Bowl chatter and earning swift rebukes from NBC and the NFL. But for those who’ve covered her career from the beginning, well, let’s just say this is basically par for the course.
Because ever since M.I.A. first broke through in 2004, she’s courted controversy, first for her outspoken support of the Tamil Tigers , the Sri Lankan separatist organization that engaged in acts of terror and has been linked to the assassination of Sri Lankan and Indian leaders. That support and her overtly political lyrics led to her being denied a travel visa by the U.S. government and earned her a spot on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s risk list in 2006. So, really, a middle finger is no big thing.
And over the past few years, she hasn’t exactly mellowed. In 2010, she raised eyebrows with the graphic video for “Born Free,” a clip that saw security forces (with American flags prominently displayed) round up red-headed citizens and summarily execute them in brutal fashion. It was a savage bit of socio-political commentary, though most missed that message entirely, focusing instead on the blood and guts, which earned the video a measure of YouTube ignominy and had critics howling.
Her outspoken ways also drew the ire of both Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber fans, after she called Gaga “a good mimic” and said the content of “Born Free” was no less offensive than anything Bieber had churned out.
And then, she launched a lengthy (and much-covered) offensive against New York Times writer Lynn Hirschberg, posting her phone number on Twitter and releasing a diss song called “I’m a Singer” after reading what she believed to be an unflattering feature in the Times. Though Hirschberg remained largely silent on the matter, the Times did eventually admit that a pair of M.I.A.’s quotes were rearranged in the piece.
Finally, earlier this month, she unveiled the video for “Bad Girls,” which re-teamed her with “Born Free” director Romain Gavras and is loaded with socially (and politically) charged imagery, like women cloaked in burqas doing stunts in expensive cars as men in keffiyeh look on, smoldering oil fields and assault rifles.
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