The day after Madonna performed at the Super Bowl's halftime show, much of the conversation concerns a single wayward digit.
When M.I.A. flipped the bird to the 150 million or so people watching the game, she ignited a Twitter and media frenzy. NBC and the NFL have been trading barbs all morning about the incident, with NFL blaming the network's delay system for failing to censor the gesture and NBC blaming the NFL for hiring M.I.A. and producing the show. It should come as no surprise that the Parents Television Council is also irate (because kids have never seen a middle finger before!).
Meanwhile, no one's talking about Nicki Minaj, who performed with M.I.A. and Madonna on the latter's new single, "Give Me All Your Luvin'." And it's not because Minaj is averse to attracting attention via controversy. From her always wacky outfits to her rapping style (half aggressive, half cupcake sweet), Minaj is as much of a provocateur as M.I.A. She's just not as good at it.
M.I.A.'s name recognition is vastly disproportionate to the number of people who can name a song of hers other than "Paper Planes," the 2007 single that featured prominently in Best Picture-winner Slumdog Millionaire. And while Minaj seemingly puts out new music every week, she has diluted her brand by playing her speakers at full blast, all the time (speaking of which, here's her new song).
If Minaj wants to achieve real staying power, she needs to slow down to M.I.A.'s pace. Every year or so, the London-born singer does something that's provocative enough to gain exposure but not obnoxious enough to alienate her fans. (And for those who think last night's display will hurt M.I.A.'s career, let's get real: she made an obscene hand gesture. During an event where men turn their bodies into projectiles to send one another to the hospital. America will survive.)
Think of Truffle-Fry-Gate, when M.I.A. tweeted the phone number of New York Times Magazine reporter Lynn Hirschberg after Hirschberg mocked the singer for her taste in haute fast food. Or the time she performed in a sheer top while nine months' pregnant, at the 2009 Grammy Awards. Or the time she released the video for "Born Free," which was swiftly -- and noticeably -- censored by media outlets. Or her complicated support for the Tamil Tigers, a violent Sri Lankan rebel group.
Recognizing M.I.A.'s strength in branding is not the same as endorsing her career. It would be great if she could build a reputation on the strength of her music and her philanthropic work in Liberia. But Minaj seems hellbent on going down the same path, so she might as well do it correctly.
What moments in Nicki Minaj's career have any lasting intrigue? Whether one finds M.I.A.'s actions foolhardy at best and grating at worst, her career is punctuated by memorable moments -- something Minaj can't claim. At least not yet.