In Praise Of MIA, Queen Of The Anti-Brand

Between Oscar noms, Super Bowl provocations, and Julian Assange collaborations, MIA shows us that infamy is way more awesome than fame.


“If you’re making music, don’t talk about politics. If you’re talking about politics, don’t wear lipstick. If you’re dancing in a club, don’t talk about Sri Lanka”: these are the music industry commandments that MIA has built a career out of inverting and juxtaposing: her kaleidoscopic psych-rap blew up in 2007 with her accidental hit “Paper Planes,” a song about tourist-murdering, passport-counterfeiting thieves.


All of a sudden, she had fame. She had what creative industry types call platform: that is, the power of many people’s attention, including the powerful: with Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Madonna seeking her out as a collaborator. As you might recall, she had the world’s attention at the Super Bowl–and promptly flipped it the bird.

Or did she?

As she tells NPR, the hand gesture wasn’t a profane one, it was sacred. Born Mathangi Arulpragasam, the artist recently learned that her first name is the same as a Hindu goddess–who, appropriately enough, is the godddeess of the outward expression of inner thoughts, music, and marginalized people. As Hindu goddesses tend to do, she has a sacred hand gesture, a mudra.

As she tells NPR:

Well, you know gang signs–in America you have gang signs, and people throw up initials and stuff like that. Well, 5,000 years ago, there was a thing called a mudra, which is your sitting position when you do yoga or you’re meditating or praying or whatever. And you have different ones based on what you’re meditating over. There’s not a lot of them that are named after gods and goddesses, but the middle finger is specifically named Matangi–the Matangi mudra.

Upon reflection, it was pure MIA: gleefully confrontational, confrontational individualistic, and individualistically gleeful. Juxtapositions, all in one.

Appropriately enough, her new album is named for the goddess and for herself: Matangi, out now. For those following along, her first album, Arular, was named for her father, while her second, Kala, was named for her mother. The disc has gotten positive reviews: Spin said “Matangi is flawed, frustrating, and occasionally confusing, but it’s also intermittently brilliant and completely unique,” Consequence of Sound said it cuts to the bone, even at its most lush, and Pitchfork, predictably, was aloofly unimpressed. However, Pitchfork does provide insight as to how MIA has remained one of the most relevant of the past decade’s pop artists:


She aestheticized deadpan cross-cultural juxtaposition before Tumblr was even a thing, she predicted the controversy surrounding the N.S.A.’s surveillance program, and professed that a pop star might be more like a fashion designer than a musician back when Kanye West was still wearing a bear suit.

So for all her cutesiness, she’s also cutting: she helped Madonna named her last album MDNA, which may or may not have been a reference to drug use, and “aTENTion,” is a standout concept track. Noting that tents are a symbol of refugee philosophy–since that’s where refugees tend to live–she sought to have all the words be filled with the letters tent in them. So, of course, she called on Julian Assange, who pulled 4,000 such words out of the Internet.

This, then, is the way she’s continued to build her anti-brand: provocation has fueled popularity, and popularity has fueled further provocation. It’s a vicious, or virtuous, cycle of mish-mashed, hyper-juxtaposed politico-pop art. Which, to Fast Company‘s ears, sounds good.

The question remaining, then, is if all the provocation is on purpose. NPR asked MIA if it was.

Her reply is our Bottom Line:

The thing is, is that a thing about them or is it a thing about me? I don’t intentionally go, “What is provocative?” and try to do that. I just do stuff and people go, “That’s provocative.” Maybe because sometimes I’m super-ignorant–and sometimes they’re super-ignorant.

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.