The Non Music Fan's Guide to M.I.A., from Truffle Fries to Her New VideoS

Last night, a young British woman who goes by M.I.A. flipped the bird to 111 million Americans. Revenge for the Revolutionary War? Punk rock gesture? Involuntary muscle spasm? And who was that woman, anyway? We answer all your questions.

Who is M.I.A.?

M.I.A., born Mathangi "Maya" Pragasam, is a British rapper, singer, producer and artist. She grew up in Sri Lanka and London before studying film at Central St. Martins College of Arts and Design. After graduating, she roomed with Justine Frischmann of the band Elastica, and started recording demos on a Roland MC-505 keyboard; in 2003, she released her first single, "Galang." Since then, she's released three albums — 2005's Arular, 2007's Kala and 2010's /\/\ /\ Y /\ — dropped two mixtapes, Piracy Funds Terrorism and Vicki Leekx; been nominated for an Oscar and two Grammys; and given 111 million people the finger on live television.

Whoa, the finger? Sounds pretty intense.

During last night's Super Bowl halftime show, while performing with Madonna, M.I.A. flipped the bird to the camera at the moment in the song when she raps "I don't give a shit." It was a very traumatic experience, for the six or seven people who actually noticed, and traumatic to the rest of us the next day when thousands of internet people insisted on having strong opinions about it.

Do I need to have an opinion about M.I.A. flipping the bird?

Let me be absolutely clear about this: no. You are under no obligation to form, and in particular no obligation to share, your opinion about M.I.A. giving the camera the finger during the Super Bowl. Indeed I might recommend against it.

Does she have new music? It would be silly of her to give the finger on national TV if she didn't have anything to promote.

Funny you should ask: just last week came the official single and video release of "Bad Girls," which you can see to your left. It is really good, and also "problematic," about which more later.

Is it cool to like M.I.A.?

I would estimate that M.I.A. is in around the 95th percentile of "cool," which means that, basically, if you have to ask this question, yes, she is cool as far as you are concerned.

To whom was she giving the finger?

It's unclear: The Man, possibly. Or maybe to Your Outdated Notions of Decency or to Squares Everywhere.

Ohhh, is she, like, political?

Yes.

How so?

Well, her dad was a leader of a militant separatist group in Sri Lanka working toward the creation of an independent state for the minority Tamils. And so she talks about the Sri Lankan civil war a lot — her first album takes its name from her father's nom de guerre — but it's also that her image and music also tied up in the politics and aesthetics of what I think we're now supposed to call the global south. It's a sort of blanket left-wing militant anti-colonialism that is compelling if not particularly nuanced. The kind of politics that people might call "incoherent" if they wanted to be snooty and dismissive.

"The politics and aesthetics of the global south"?

So, the M.I.A. "thing" is basically "intentionally cheap." Especially on her first two albums, her songs tend to be loud and sort of garish and made from a deliberately limited sonic palette, to better echo the sound of necessarily cheap dance microgenres like Brazilian baile funk or Angolan kuduro; her fashion and staging and music video concepts all come out of that same general concept — hybrid hip-hop influences, bright patterns, homemade graphics.

Is this what you meant by "problematic"?

Well, yeah. This is the part where your liberal arts education is supposed to kick in: what does "representation" mean? Does M.I.A. have "the right" to "borrow from" or represent scenes, causes and cultures that she isn't a part of? Isn't that, like, cultural imperialism? On the other hand, isn't she providing a voice and visibility for ignored and marginalized peoples? Is her "Bad Girls" video a powerful statement for the right of Saudi women to drive, or is it a tired retread of Orientalist signifiers and tropes that treat people not as human beings but as decoration?

I read that video was filmed in Morocco.

Oh. Well, whatever. You know what I mean.

So is that it, with the "problematic"? Grad-school circle-jerk bullshit?

There are also a lot of people out there who don't love the fact that she espouses left-wing politics while being really rich, and engaged to the heir to the Bronfman fortune, and living in Brentwood, and modeling for Marc Jacobs, and rapping in a Super Bowl half-time show. And I guess in order to be authentically left-wing you have to, like, refuse to use money and wear a beret or something? This was the dynamic that animated the fight between M.I.A. and New York Times Magazine writer Lynn Hirschberg over a profile Hirschberg wrote where she, like juxtapose M.I.A.'s political pronouncements with M.I.A. eating "truffle fries," which are Capitalistic or whatever.

M.I.A. fought with a Times writer?

Yeah, I don't know; it seemed really funny at the time. She tweeted Hirschberg's phone number and stuff.

Maybe she was giving the finger to Lynn Hirschberg.

Yeah, probably.

So what's she been up to since the truffle fry thing?

Well, in 2009 she had a kid, Ikhyd Edgar Arular Bronfman with her fiance Ben Bronfman (scion of the insanely wealthy Bronfman family). She performed at the Grammys that year while nine months pregnant, remember? She released an album, /\/\ /\ Y /\, that no one really seemed to like, and a mixtape, Vicki Leekx, that had a more positive reception but also featured the terrible lyric "Cause what I read on your blog story/Don't add up to what you told me." She also made this music video where a bunch of red-headed kids got killed, summed up by the video's lead actor as " for all the adults and people in different countries who are... doing the genocides to whatever — Italians, Africans, wherever it's from, it's still genocide."

Is there a really well-written, intelligent and judicious essay about M.I.A. and representation and authenticity and the Hirschberg episode that I can read so I don't have to form my own opinion about it?

Yes, this one, by Nitsuh Abebe.

What's the absolute worst thing that's been written so far about the M.I.A. middle finger?

This.