M.I.A. Picks A Fight With The New York Times on Twitter

Alberto E. Rodriguez

The singer-rapper-provacateur M.I.A. has had one of the rarest commodities in the splintering music marketplace: an unassailable brand. For a time, even the London-born, Sri Lankan-descended artist's setbacks could be turned into distinct advantages. When MTV banned her early single "Sunshowers" because of its sympathetic reference to the Palestine Liberation Organization, M.I.A. didn't get picketed in the indie world, but was instead admired as a courage-of-her-convictions truth-speaker. When her pregnancy's due date fell right smack on the date of the 2009 Grammys telecast—during which she was scheduled to appear alongside Jay-Z—M.I.A. scored a marketing coup by showing up, performing and flaunting that third-trimester belly via a sheer blouse. Her message to the world in both cases was: there's no barrier you can throw up that will keep me from doing my art.

But how quickly a brand can start to unravel. In April, M.I.A.s "event video" for her new single "Born Free" (Warning: NSFW) commanded a lot of attention, though mostly of the WTF? variety. Its gratuitously violent depiction of a future dystopia in which redheaded children are singled out for government extermination looked like it was maybe trying to say something—though it also looked as though most of the conceptual effort had gone into making the video look so damn stylish.

Feeding that emerging CW this week is Lynn Hirschberg's profile of the singer for the New York Times Magazine. In the piece Hirschberg suggests more than once that M.I.A. is all fluff and no consequence. The sharpshooter-precise kill-shot comes when M.I.A., supping on some fancy-sounding food, seems insufficiently self-aware to realize that it's a bad time to be expounding on the virtues of David in his battle with Goliath. "'I kind of want to be an outsider,'" Hirshberg quotes M.I.A. as saying, before adding that she was "eating a truffle-flavored French fry."

Today, M.I.A. has responded with the insurgent tactics ... of a fifth-grader, by writing Hirschberg's phone number on the bathroom wall of the Internet. On her Twitter account, M.I.A. purported to give out her own phone number to anyone who wanted to talk about the Hirschberg article. Of course, the digits weren't M.I.A.'s, but Hirschberg's—whose phone was soon slammed with calls. In a further update, the singer wrote that she will be releasing an "unedited version" of the Times interview on her website over the holiday weekend. For her part, Hirschberg told a reporter that the Twitter-attack was "infuriating and not surprising."

For M.I.A.'s fans, it's something of the reverse: both surprising and, well, more confusion-making than infuriating. For people who like actual music more than trendspotting-about-music, M.I.A. can still satisfy. Less talked about during the controversy over the "Born Free" video was M.I.A.'s strange achievement in being as compelling as she was over a beat that was straightforwardly ripped off from a classic track by the band Suicide. When M.I.A.'s basically unpronounceable third album is released later this summer, there will be a strong urge to forgive her for these and other marketing sins—as long as the music keeps its danceable integrity.

Meantime, it's interesting to note the role played by another musical tastemaker in this week's M.I.A. marketplace stock plunge. Her erstwhile producer (and love interest) Diplo gave Hirschberg some of her profile's more damning fodder, including the revelation that M.I.A.'s father might not have been as much of a Tamil Tiger rebel as the singer once claimed. But that's not all. Diplo, along with his production partner Switch, is also out with a new, free (and therefore must-download) mixtape—one that features a different up and coming female dance singer: Elly Jackson (who is part of the dance duo La Roux). Similar to the way Diplo helped break M.I.A. in 2004 with their own free-to-the-public mixtape collaboration—so may this be Diplo's little reminder to us that he can still do it today, without her help. Whether you're up or down, the branding never sleeps.