There’s a strange symmetry between British singer M.I.A. and pro-life activist Randall Terry. Both have dedicated their careers, to one degree or another, to raising awareness of genocide. In her songs and videos, M.I.A. (born Maya Arulpragasam) refers to the repression of her people, Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, at the hands of the nation’s Sinhalese majority. Terry might qualify as America’s most fervent and ubiquitous pro-life activist. After years of perfecting their respective brands of guerila chic, both struck Sunday at the Super Bowl — M.I.A. by offering her middle finger to the audience, Terry by airing a particularly graphic TV spot.
Each can claim a partial victory.
First, the lady and her finger. M.I.A. did not, as it turns out, violate any well-defined FCC regulations in flipping audiences the bird while sharing the stage with Madonna during the halftime show. Broadcast lawyer Harry Cole tells Hollywood Reporter that the agency would be more likely to come after M.I.A. for appearing to use the word shit.
Even that might not hold up. In 2010, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a strict 2001 FCC policy forbidding even “fleeting” and “non-literal” uses of profane language. Because the guidelines were “unconstitutionally vague,” they would likely have a “chilling effect” on free speech as broadcasters tried, uneasily, to interpret them, knowing that a misinterpretation could mean a hefty fine. Soon, the Supreme Court will rule on a larger question: Does its own justification for holding FCC rules to a relatively low level of scrutiny — that television is uniquely “pervasive” and accessible to children — still make sense, given the pervasiveness of cable TV and the Internet? The Court heard oral arguments from both sides this past January.
Next, the man and his video. Terry produced 30-second spots showing aborted fetuses along with the voiced-over comments: “The innocent blood of over 50 million babies cries out to God from our sewers and landfills” and “Christians who vote for Obama, knowing he promotes murder have blood on their hands.” Knowing that FCC rules entitled qualified presidential candidates “reasonable access” to the airwaves, Terry declared he was running for president as a write-in candidate. He introduced himself and his ads to TV-station managers with a letter that threatened: “If you deny me my rights as a federal candidate, you will be committing a willful violation of FCC law, and subject to FCC sanctions.”
When WMAQ, a Chicago station, rejected the ads, the FCC decided that Terry had campaigned too little in Illinois to invoke “reasonable access” rules. But television stations in four states did agree to air Terry’s ads — some during the game, some before it. Since the videos look to have been produced on someone’s laptop, Terry can’t help but realize an enormous return on his investment. Come 2016, Terry will be able to carpet-bomb America with his ads, provided he makes sure to get on the ballot in time.
It’s easy to see M.I.A. and Terry as representing opposite sides in the culture war. One affects a style described by the New York Times as “tomboy-meets-ghetto-fabulous-meets-exotic-princess”; the other compares himself to Churchill and Reagan. Be that as it may, the battle of the Super Bowl looks like a tie. Not only has NBC apologized for M.I.A., an unnamed source close to the singer has sworn she had succumbed to “an attack of adrenaline,” was “caught up in the moment” and is “terribly sorry.” Meanwhile, Terry continues to plug his videos, now armed with greater notoriety than before.
Popular music and politics have always shown a vulgar streak. (In the “Bully Song,” copyrighted in 1896, a white singer named May Irwin sang about a fatal razor fight in what would now be called Ebonics, anticipating Eminem by more than a century.) If it turns out that the FCC can no longer protect viewers from the vulgarest of each — well, we’ll just have to get used to it. For better or worse, we’ll end up developing a tune-out mechanism. Mine is already pretty robust: when I finally saw the Terry videos, long after I’d heard about them, my thought was, “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said about Obama all week.” M.I.A.’s middle finger did nothing to shock me, nor — in FCC-friendly terms — to make me give much more of a (expletive) about the Tamils than I’d given to begin with.
At this point, it’d be silly to ask, “Which would you rather see?” American Super Bowl viewers in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, among other markets, got see both. This modest sampler platter of jarring images may become a fixture of that most American of institutions. Call it the price of freedom.