Whatever the motives, this is hardly the first time M.I.A. has gotten the public's hackles up. Her status as a lightning rod for controversy was satirized just a couple of months ago on "Saturday Night Live," when an actress parodying M.I.A. interrupted a spoof Christmas duet with Michael Buble by repeatedly firing a pistol in the air, mid-carol.
M.I.A. almost seemed to be satirizing her trigger-happy tendencies in her appearance in Madonna's new video, "Give Me All Your Lovin'," when she ended her guest rap by emulating a gun-firing movement with her hand, as the sound of a shot was heard in place of a censored S-word in her lyrics.
No doubt the NBC censors were expecting her to do the same miming during the live telecast, as she surely would have in rehearsals--only to have her replace the trigger finger with an emphatic upraised middle finger.
The motivations behind M.I.A.'s other controversial moments have usually (but not always) been clearer, given her political activism and outspokenness, often related to Sri Lankan concerns little understood in the United States.
Her videos for "Born Free" and "Sunshadows" have been blocked or censored at various points by MTV and YouTube, due to violent imagery that detractors dismiss as radical chic but fans take as pungent social commentary. She's been praised and ridiculed for supporting the Tamii Tigers, a separatist movement that stands in violent opposition to the government of Sri Lanka, which M.I.A. believes to be guilty of attempted genocide.
Because of her support for groups considered by some to be terrorists, M.I.A. once found herself on a Homeland Security risk list, and she was temporarily denied a visa by the U.S., complicating her attempts to record and do live shows circa 2006.
Yet she's hardly the poster girl for anti-Americanism when she's married to a prominent New York scion, Ben Bronfman, son of Seagrams heir and music mogul Edgar Bronfman. A New York Times Magazine article in 2010 made hay out of the supposed discrepancies between M.I.A.'s political radicalism and apparent embracing of a comfortable lifestyle in capitalist America.
M.I.A. didn't much care for the profile, and tweeted the journalist's phone number to fans, as well as releasing her own transcripts of portions of the interview and a song excoriating the reporter. Those who follow M.I.A. on social media have also been the recipients of graphic photos of Sri Lanka's alleged genocide, on top of the accounts of her allegedly being baited into ordering fancy food by the New York Times.
If nothing else, it's been evident that M.I.A. takes her musical mission very seriously--which made the seemingly depthless move of appearing with pom-poms in the Madonna music video, and again at the Super Bowl, a deep, deep mystery.
With the middle finger, at least some of that puzzle may have been solved: M.I.A. is using the notoriety of her Madonna moment as a platform. Whether the statement she intends to make on her newly elevated stage is any more complex than the one implicit in a middle finger remains to be seen.