When M.I.A. flipped her now-infamous middle finger at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, Madonna called the act “negative.” But watch the footage again, and it seems anything but. The centurions, the cheerleaders, the dancer bouncing on his groin—this was a performance where everyone seemed 100-percent committed to delivering the biggest, most incredible spectacle possible. Maya Arulpragasam, reportedly spurred by “adrenaline and nerves,” delivered the irreverent lyrics she’d been hired to deliver—“I’m gonna say this once / I don’t give a shit”—while flashing the ultimate signal of irreverence. Isn’t that just awesome, on-message fun?
I’m kidding, but only a little. The best way to view M.I.A.’s many provocations—too long to list, but most recently including opening a New York City concert by having Julian Assange speak—really is as “awesome, on-message fun.” Since her start nearly a decade ago, she has mixed politics, art, and pop to create products whose best virtue is playfulness: She subverts expectations not just to make a larger point, but also because it's a blast.
Of course, her work has other important virtues as well. Usually, her globetrotting, infectious hip-hip looks to grab power for people the West often considers as lesser—women, artists, minorities, foreigners, the poor—by drawing attention to herself and then to them. Sloganeering, air horns, schoolyard chants, gunshots, punk rock: all effective tools, historically wielded by the disenfranchised, for attracting eyes and ears. An even better means to captivate audiences? Great pop songs. She's made a few of those.