M.I.A. may have apologized for flipping 111.3 million viewers the bird at the Super Bowl, but she meant that middle finger. It’s easy to write off her behavior as just another instance of musicians being rebellious. But, throughout her career M.I.A. has shown that she puts a lot of time and effort into her image. More than spur of the moment bad behavior, that finger had a higher purpose on game day: to tell the world that M.I.A. is making a comeback.
M.I.A. was a critic and hipster darling when she burst on the scene with her debut album Arular in 2005 and Kala in 2006 – her music and image an energetic mash-up of hip-hop and her Sri Lankan Tamil heritage. She left the limelight shortly after the success of her crossover hit, “Paper Planes” to get married and have a baby. However, her third album, Maya, failed to meet expectations. Its experimental sound alienated critics and audiences, and her follow-up mixtape failed to generate buzz. Then came that brutal profile in New York Times Magazine.
Once the smoke cleared, pop culture had moved on and the internet started to overflow with independent, rebellious artists making experimental hip-hop. For her next album to be a success M.I.A. needed to breakthrough to new and old audiences in a cluttered market. She needed to make a big impression. She needed a strategy.
Step 1: When presented with an opportunity, maximize its benefits
If you listen to her song with Madonna, “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” without knowing its context, it is baffling why M.I.A. even participated. Granted, it is Madonna. But, disco pop isn’t exactly M.I.A.’s specialty. And she’s featured on the song for 10 seconds. She’s regulated to playing cheerleader, the polar opposite of her image.
But, the video has a football theme for a reason. Madonna is staging a splashy comeback of her own, complete with Super Bowl Halftime Show. The pop legend uses guest spots from Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. to keep her image current. In exchange, M.I.A. receives the legend’s seal of approval and gets some buzz of her own. But, even performing at the Super Bowl can be a spectacle people forget the next day.
Step 2: When you have attention, keep them engaged
The video for “Bad Girls,” M.I.A.’s new single, was released within hours of the video for her song with Madonna. It plays like a flashy CliffsNotes guide to who she is as an artist – a rugged, stylized marriage of urban and Sri Lankan culture. M.I.A. played her part for Madonna, but made sure audiences were given a stimulating taste of who she truly is as an artist.
Step 3: When given the stage, steal the show
There was a lot going on, on Madonna’s halftime stage. Spartans. Marching bands. More dancers than you can count and more guest performers than you can name. Four costume changes. And the next morning all anyone can talk about is M.I.A. She may have offended the FCC, but she caught the attention of countless viewers. If they didn’t know who M.I.A. was before, they know now.
Cortney Cleveland is a public relations practitioner and freelance culture & business writer working in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @CleveInTheCity.