This Sunday, Maya Arulpragasam is going to the Super Bowl, which is like Harold Bloom going to Disney World. It’s hard to imagine M.I.A. having much fun at America’s premiere chauvinist orgy of consumption, and her recent interview with BBC’s Radio 1 suggests she was still trying to psych herself up for the event. “If you’re gonna go the Super Bowl,” she told Zane Lowe, “you might as well go with America’s biggest female icons.” And indeed, it’s somewhat gratifying to think of M.I.A., Nicki Minaj, and Madonna unleashing the hot pink stinker that is “Give Me All Your Lovin’” on the most hallowed ground of American masculinity, during a halftime show typically dedicated to the geezer-rock pantheon. Ultimately, though, not even M.I.A. can make playing the Super Bowl sound badass or defiant. Walking into the epicenter of the American media to sing and dance between millions-per-minute car commercials with two thoroughly mainstreamed pop stars can mean only one thing, and that’s that you yourself must also be a pop star.
Each member of this trio has struggled to maintain her reputation for transgression in the face of overwhelming, and not particularly discriminating, public enthusiasm. This is probably least true for Minaj, though someday soon she’s going to have to thin out that closet of characters: There’s not enough room for the Nicki who wants to trade X-rated bars with Eminem and the Nicki who wants to pal around with Taylor Swift and Ellen. But even Madonna’s mercilessly prolonged career contains few episodes to rival the meltdown that ruined M.I.A.’s make-or-break year. In a 2010 that should’ve boasted her triumphant follow-up to “Paper Planes,” the single that threatened to make her as big on the charts as she’d always been with music critics, we instead got an interminable PR disaster. The unnecessary swipes at Gaga, the conspiracy theories about Google and the C.I.A., the painful-to-read New York Times interview that painted her as a vapid and ill-informed brat (which she dutifully confirmed when she leaked the writer’s phone number in retaliation), and finally, the album.
Maya was no kind of follow-up to Kala. It was, instead, a predictable exercise in art-school nose-thumbing, proudly touting its difficulty and cluttering out its considerable pop smarts with eye-rolling provocations both sonic and political. Better received was the Vicki Leekx mixtape M.I.A. released at year’s end, but in part because it was taken by most to be a concession that she had botched pretty much every decision she’d made in writing, producing, and promoting her third album. Or was it M.I.A. proving that she could make a pop record in her sleep? Less “Sorry,” more “Here’s the damn dance mix you wanted.” Either way, “Bad Girls” was by far the mixtape’s most successful moment, and while its a little disappointing to think that we’ll have to wait a little longer to hear anything new from her forthcoming album, there’s really no other reason not to enjoy this stunning return to form.
Of all the producers who worked on Vicki Leekx, Danja is certainly the one with the most cache in Top 40 circles—and also, notably, one of the few who played no role in making Maya. He’s assisted with some of Timbaland’s most distinctive post-Missy output, and pumped out some perfectly forgettable material for Keri Hilson, Pink, and Madonna. His “Bad Girls” track sounds almost exactly like it did on Vicki Leekx, though its been polished so that its Banghra-inspired riffs and eclectic percussion ring out with more clarity than they did in the original mix. The result sounds massive, equal parts Boi-1da banger and turbulent Timbaland funk. And yet it doesn’t wholly abandon Maya’s labored intensity. Even as a party jam, “Bad Girls” sounds the slightest bit claustrophobic, summing up the entirety of Lana Del Ray’s lyrical persona with the mantra “Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.” You can dance to it, but M.I.A.’s dissociated delivery suggests desperation—her own, obviously, but maybe also that of the people dancing to it. Escapist pop music frequently tells us that we should dance even if we fear the world might come crashing down around us before the party ends. For M.I.A., we dance because we hope that it does.
That’s what appears to be going on in the video for “Bad Girls,” a high-adrenaline clip that ups the ante on both Jay-Z and Kanye West’s car-smashing/wealth-flaunting “Otis” fantasy and the high-fashion desert dance-off that Beyoncé used for “Run the World (Girls).” And that’s without even mentioning any of the four or five OMG-inspiring looks that M.I.A. rocks over the course of the video. It’s sort of a Bay Area car expo relocated to Morocco, complete with scenes of traditionally attired Arab men doing stunts you wouldn’t see if you watched three Fast and the Furious flicks in a row. Before you even try to speculate about whatever message might be animating the clip, give yourself two or three playthroughs just to drool over the visuals.
In the same way that Vicki Leekx seems suspiciously contrite coming from a woman known for recalcitrance, M.I.A.’s party-girl turn in “Bad Girls” suggests that she’s come around to giving pop fans what we’ve been asking for in a way that’s still not completely untroubling. For one thing, the video was directed by Romain Gavras, who was responsible for the polarizing “ginger genocide” clip that accompanied “Born Free,” and like that one, it’s shot in a desert. But “Bad Girls” is giddy and superficially entertaining where its predecessor was hard to watch; the contrast between the hedonism of “Bad Girls” and the blunt topicality of “Born Free” is too direct to not be intended. Backup dancers wield rifles, glamor shots of M.I.A. strutting and posing in characteristically chic outfits are peppered with explosions, and I suppose it’s also worth pointing out that all of the mind-blowing car stunts also look dangerous as hell.
Compared to some of M.I.A.’s other videos (in particular, the disastrous “XXXO” comes to mind), this is a relatively focused visual statement that doesn’t mistake the mere juxtaposition of cultural signifiers for an interesting statement about them. Amid the usual array of bedazzled burkas and vague evocations of political violence, the perfectly drab-looking cars featured in the video end up being one of M.I.A.’s most fascinating, multivalent symbols. When she raps, “I’m coming in the Cherokee/Gasoline/There’s steam on the window screen,” she acknowledges the car as liberator of American teenage sexuality; pulling up in her own vehicle at the beginning of the clip, but leaving all of the stunt driving to the traditionally clad Arab men, she acknowledges that the ability to drive has also been the object of political struggle for Middle Eastern feminists. The various shots of M.I.A. leaning out of the passenger’s side (in one shot, while the car has tilted diagonally, she hovers over her audience with regal swagger) or leading a parade of revelers through the streets, depict her in positions of varying power, but she always projects her inimitable attitude.
In one of the final scenes, M.I.A. sits next to a white, redheaded boy (one of the only white people to appear in the video) that strikes me as a pretty clear nod to “Born Free.” Is this the utopian, permanently culture/gender/border-fucked vision that balances out that video’s dystopia? A sequel, where M.I.A. smuggles one of the survivors from the ginger roundup into her swagged-out refugee camp? In that case, the glimpses of weaponry that add a small measure of anxiety to the proceedings might be wielded against the anonymous totalitarian thugs who proxied for all types of real-world oppressors in “Born Free.” If she’s going to take up the pop-star mantle, she might as well wear it on behalf of the outcasts and freedom fighters, her own shadowy global counter-culture that exists only because its members don’t fit in anywhere else. M.I.A. might be a star now, but that doesn’t mean she has to be an ordinary one, and it’s exhilarating to watch her figure that out.