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Deconstructing M.I.A.

As her Super Bowl digit malfunction reminded everyone, Maya Arulpragasam is?one of the most polarizing figures in pop today

M.I.A.’s only hit began to bubble up just as the global economy started to tank. “Paper Planes” was built around a sample of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” and its refrain (“All I want to do is [boom boom boom] and take your money”) circled a nexus of capitalism and nihilism, the rallying cry for the AIG gangstas torching our 401(k)s.

Like everything about her, M.I.A.’s own connections to capitalism are complex. This year, she turned down licensing offers from Coke and Pepsi, and recently said, “Money is the enemy of music.” Yet, in 2008, she told this magazine she was “polluting the mainstream” by licensing “Galang” to Honda. It’s a measure of M.I.A.’s heart-tugging power over leftoid music fans that this engendered debates about the nature of selling out and quaintly harkened back to the early days of punk. Reflecting a less tortured impulse, her own actions, and those of her fiancé, Benjamin Bronfman, suggest a positive relationship between wealth and power; Bronfman used seed money from his father, Warner Media Group CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr., to cofound Global Thermostat, a sustainable-development firm. M.I.A. gives extensively, though quietly, to a number of charities.

She claims that if she does license her music, it will only be to help her protégés. M.I.A. has signed several young artists to her boutique label, N.E.E.T. (based on the acronym for “Not in Employment, Education, or Training”), bankrolled by Interscope. “Record companies don’t have the money to pay A&R people anymore,” says Diplo. “They give these labels to everyone. A lot of people don’t do anything with them. She has.” M.I.A.’s big score is punky, crunky Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells, this year’s buzziest New York band. She’s also played Henry Higgins to 19-year-old Baltimore rapper Rye Rye and oddball producer Blaqstarr, who lent his dark, grimy beats to /\/\/\Y/\. She sees N.E.E.T. more as a media company than record label (one signee is a photographer, Jaime Martinez). And while her role varies — she was very involved in Rye Rye’s forthcoming debut but less so with the Sleigh Bells album — it all enhances the sense of M.I.A. as an arbiter of boundary-busting possibility.

“I’m all about hip-hop and R&B,” says Rye Rye. “She introduced me to other genres, tribal stuff. People thought a couple songs sounded more like hers than mine. We compromised.”

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“When i met her, she was silk-screening her own covers for the 12-inch for ‘Fire Fire,’?” Diplo recalls of the pre-Arular M.I.A. “I was amazed. It was hand-painted, with these Molotov cocktails and her tiger prints and stuff. She always knew this was the angle.” Before the candy-colored images of guns, war planes, bombs, and tanks that decorate the Arular CD booklet caused controversy, they won her acclaim as a visual artist. In 2002, she was nominated for a prestigious Alternative Turner Prize, and early profiles of M.I.A. often noted that Jude Law was among the early collectors of her work.

The mix of hyper-bright and vaguely insurgent is a thread she’s followed in making the now-standard pop-star move into fashion design. M.I.A.’s own look can run from futurist-aerobics instructor to new-wave pirate to dancer in an old X-Clan video to queenly candy raver. Early-’90s photos of African slum kids carrying AK-47s and wearing Michael Jordan jerseys donated by American charities goes a long way toward explaining this.

The clothes she sells are pastiches, radiantly bright and button-pushing, not exactly the kind of thing you can expect to see trickling down to Filene’s Basement. From a bomber jacket ($210) resembling a hodgepodge of African flags (like the cover of Bob Marley’s Survival) to a sleek hoodie festooned with watermelon slices, her music’s themes of commodification, appropriation, and noticeability-at-all-costs (including a $65 tank top) are all there.

“She samples styles and mixes colors and prints the same way she constructs music,” says designer Carri Munden, who has worked with M.I.A. since the “Galang” video. “It’s chaos. But the end result is unique, and she is one of the only female artists on her level to be completely in control of her own style.”

Indeed, in an era in which music occupies an increasingly thin, crowded cultural bandwidth, being a “multi-platform” operation is essential. “Even when we were working on tracks, she’d be putting pictures together and getting images off Google,” says Rusko. “She was always thinking about the whole package.”

M.I.A. smartly gives this strategy its own global-revolutionist cast. “The Kala artwork and sound and clothes are all about being worldly and representing the idea of the whole world being mashed up into one,” she said in 2008.