Predictably, but ludicrously, NBC has already apologized for M.I.A.’s bleeped use of the word “shit” in a verse during last night’s Super Bowl halftime show and for her flipping the bird in a gesture so fleeting it barely registered during the sound and the fury and the chariot bearers and the church choirs. I profoundly wish they hadn’t. The incident was so fleeting that to argue it impacted innocent children doesn’t just strain credulity but snaps it. And groveling to the forces who are massing to make hay of a minor slip gives unfortunate credibility to decency mavens everywhere, who are complaining that it violates Madonna’s promise to have a clean show (a promise she essentially kept in her own performance) and to argue that it’s clearly a legitimate controversy because lots of people have written about it in a scramble for post-Super Bowl page views.
I’ve always thought M.I.A. could be sort of irritating in her striving to be controversial, but I also assume that combination of pop-culture it-girl factor and rebelliousness is precisely why she ended up on the bill with Nicki and Madonna. Flipping off a fairly distant camera in a busy shot during a performance with a lot of pelvis bumping seems entirely consistent with that image. NBC got what they paid for, a well-executed performance with a frisson of danger, and I’m not sure why they should be sorry for that.
And NBC shouldn’t take seriously the idea that artists shouldn’t be allowed fleeting obscenities, or that obsessive monitoring outweighs creative and mildly risky programming. The publication of articles about the fact that M.I.A. did something entirely in character is not the same thing as demonstrating that harm came from her performance. In the absence of any remotely compelling evidence to the contrary, I seriously doubt that millions of American families are going to have to have tough conversations over their orange juice this morning about what that thing that lady did on stage means and why we don’t do it in polite company.
If they do, part of that conversation should include the fact that sometimes people gets excited or overwhelmed and act out, and that self-control is an important thing, whether you’re Meryl Streep getting overcome during the Golden Globes and letting an obscenity slip or M.I.A. on a Super Bowl stage getting caught up in the excitement. Humanity is a rough, obscene thing, and this is one of the gentlest possible ways of dealing with it—certainly much more gentle than the New Yorker story about the sexual assault and murder of toddler James Bulger by two ten-year-olds, which I read not knowing what I was getting into when I myself was ten, and which left me gravely shaken for months. By the time children are old enough to understand obscenity and indecency in all their forms, they’re also nigh-impossible to protect entirely. The issue is not preventing them from seeing anything, but giving parents the tools to discuss whatever their children might encounter in a meaningful and supportive way.
And frankly, if parents are going to take on the futile quest of establishing a zero-tolerance policy against anything that might potentially get obscene, it makes no sense that they’d allow their children to watch the halftime show in the first place. Justin Timberlake’s exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast (something for which she was unfairly pilloried) was, to at least half of that duo, a shocking and unexpected accident. Prince may not have gotten naked, but his guitar-and-groin silhouette made a sexual statement on a vastly larger and clearer scale than M.I.A.’s finger against a busy background. Bruce Springsteen, who may be extremely sexy but is hardly a legendarily lewd performer, crotch-slammed a camera. The Super Bowl halftime show has a well-established reputation for being a place where people like to get a little controversial and even if they don’t plan it, do so by accident. And the game itself is a violent spectacle in which men are sometimes injured in a way that’s uncomfortable to watch and to discuss, even for adults.
If I were worried about my kids, promises or no, I’d keep them away, particularly in a year that featured performers famous for taboo-defying performances that suggest oral sex; a singer with a blow-up doll persona; and singer famous for being a a global-citizen authority-bucker who has been criticized for her praise of the Tamil Tigers, all of whom were announced in advance and all of whom are exceedingly Googleable. Kids who are young enough to be damaged by their first exposure to a fleeting obscenity or gesture probably shouldn’t be up late enough on a school night, and if kids are staying up because they’re already passionate Madonna, Nicki Minaj or M.I.A. fans, nothing in that performance was something they wouldn’t have absorbed from the music.
Whether it’s Prohibition, SOPA, or efforts to crack down on Janet Jackson’s nipples, policies that try to get to zero on things that most of adult society is either not horribly offended by or rather invested in having access to are doomed to failure. In particular, in a world with wildly differing standards, you’re never going to get society to protect you or your children from everything you find harmful—that’s work you have to do on your own, even if it means opting out. Whether you’re really willing to do that is a good test of how far your commitment extends.