Madonna and the M.I.A. Backlash

Dear 4/4 Europop House (c/o a hopeless place): Last summer was amazing and I will treasure it forever, but it’s February now, and I seriously need some space. This is kind of awkward, but I’m seeing a new chick named Lana Del Rey. She is mumbly and spooky and brutally hot and all we do is smoke pineapple blunts, have weird sex, and play video games. Happy Valentine’s Day. Please don’t contact me ever again.

The face-palm in Madonna’s mostly awesome halftime show was when she brought LMFAO onstage to perform “Party Rock Anthem,” a song that could take the honor of generational sequel to “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” if “My Humps” had not already claimed that lady-lump chilling crown for life. Microtrends must flame out, and it can be pretty painful watching them flail around (see last night’s Grammys). People love to be first (or FIRST!) on something, but they also hate to be the last one in the witch house DJ chat room when everyone else has already moved on to seapunk.

If there are 36 views of Mount Fuji, there are at least as many viable viewpoints on any given album. With any subject there can be multiple contradictory viewpoints that are all equally correct in their own way. The conversation evolves, and multiple facets of things you thought were fairly 2-D/shallow can emerge. The Lana Del Rey conversation, both stagnant yet somehow endlessly fertile, has morphed into a much-needed public discussion of the weird way we tend to talk about female artists compared to how we talk about men, giving us Maura Johnston’s instant classic four-point style manual on the subject. “Womansplaining” is when a woman tries to explain to men, with as little ire and condescension as possible, What It Feels Like for a Girl.

Music is not an objective science. Rankings are subjective and personal, owing to wherever you fall on a musical MBTI. Not everybody likes avant-garde hip-hop, or sunshine pop, or drone music. Even someone with exceptionally broad taste will occasionally encounter something she seriously dislikes. It would be incredibly boring if everyone had the same taste, which is why it’s a folly to attempt to reach a public consensus on artists, and why awards shows are ultimately meaningless. What is really being awarded with Grammys and Oscars is usually the lowest common denominator, the least divisive candidate. Crowd-pleasers tend to triumph over true discomfort, and pure mediocrity often beats all.

You can easily take that David Lee Roth chestnut about how rock critics like Elvis Costello because they look like Elvis Costello and replace it with James Murphy or The Hold Steady. Everyone is entitled to their specific personal preferences. Those preferences often tend to reflect a listener’s narcissism about their own (perceived/idealized) traits and all kinds of media/behavioral cultural influencers. We are then obligated to at least interrogate that narcissism and the conditions under which we develop our taste, and the audiences we look up to for validation. In the old days it might have been a record store clerk or a cool music magazine; now it’s just more likely to be a coveted mp3 aggregator spot, a respected blog’s endorsement, or a Twitter ranking.

Musical genres and styles reflect different choices, but that doesn’t necessarily make them oppositional. What is seen at worst as cultural imperialism, magpie-ing from “cool” sources and then discarding them can be viewed through a half-full glass as a reasonable reaction to the realities of cultural globalization. There are no longer subcultures, only the Internet — through which all subcultures immediately lose their classification as “sub.” The constant creation and subsequent exploitation of trends is the hinge of cultural production.

For M.I.A. to depict Tafheet in her “Bad Girls” video seems in keeping with her general obsession with outlaws, misfits, and the fringe-dwellers of society. She is a provocateur, and not primarily a sexual one. Like Toby Keith, she has the uneasy associations of a blatantly political artist whose motivations seem unclear or obscured. While some critics blasted “Bad Girls” for exoticizing the Arab world, I thought it portrayed the worldwide penchant for street racing as a great unifier, an equal thrill in any country, the way the Fast and the Furious movies do. The Romain Gavras-directed video shows Morocco as another lonesome place with the same itch for freedom and stimulating acceleration that is the cornerstone of all-American classics like On the Road, American Graffiti, Bruce Springsteen’s car-heavy catalog, and low-rider culture.

If “Bad Girls” exploits the concept of the Arab Spring, it also delivers it in a viral, digestible form to a broad mainstream audience who might not even know there is an Arab Spring. At best, it provokes people to do some easily Googled research. Like Kanye West, M.I.A. both hates and thrives on creating media controversy. She is always looking for a bigger platform, a louder megaphone. A chorus of trolls always wants to know what M.I.A. — who is not a teenager, but a 36-year-old mother — is still so angry and worked up about. Can’t a person just be mad about injustice? So mad that she can’t contain herself?

The subsequent backlash, in which the British press viciously attacked Arulpragasam’s parenting skills and general character, was short-lived and snuffed out by tweets from M.I.A.’s son’s father, Ben Bronfman, praising her as a mom. Response to the middle finger has ranged from a bored sigh to a muffled tut-tut. It is possible that one might be able to be both a bitch AND a mother at different times (I thought we covered this in the ’90s). Just because M.I.A. or Madonna or Nicki Minaj might come across as a domineering bitch in a song lyric or video doesn’t mean they are the same way in real life. (And, honestly, so what if they are?) A sensitive artistic person might even wish to reinvent herself onstage as cool and completely invulnerable. Why do you think Lou “Pale Blue Eyes” Reed and Bob “Don’t Look Back” Dylan were always being pricks in interviews and wearing those super-dark sunglasses in the ’60s? OK, that was drugs. But also, sensitive!

M.I.A.’s combination of intense passion for her work, refusal to apologize, and appearance of not giving a shit about what anyone thinks is exactly what people object to and have always objected to about Madonna. Having finally thrown public “reductive” shade at Lady Gaga recently, it wasn’t too surprising (although a little, considering it gives her that relevance she wanted) that self-proclaimed strict mother Madonna would chastise and then publicly forgive M.I.A. for her “teenager” gesture even if M.I.A. was only following the logic of “Express Yourself.” It’s not that Madonna was offended by the crassness of it — she flips birds during her own stage show — it’s that obviously the first and only rule of Madonna Club is YOU DO NOT UPSTAGE MADONNA.

Filed Under: Hater's Guide, Madonna, Super Bowl

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert