In the summer of 2010, M.I.A. was suffering through a public-relations headache that—it’s difficult to believe now—actually involved a contentious dish of truffle fries ordered in the presence of a writer from New York Times magazine. This was the climate surrounding her third album, which sharply divided critics.
But just as she released Maya, she appeared on Letterman with a performance seemingly designed to shut everyone up. Even Pitchfork, which had given the album a scathing 4.4 review, admitted “M.I.A. can still pull off pretty amazing things.”
She wisely selected for her appearance the album’s first single and standout track: the raging, Suicide-sampling “Born Free,” backed by Suicide’s Martin Rev himself—that's the way to own a sample. More visually impressive, though, she was also backed by nine women dressed exactly like her, all also holding live microphones on stands. The message seemed to be that people can try to displace or imitate her, but there is still only one M.I.A. She sings the song with the casual cool of someone who’s never heard of Lynn Hirschberg, much less tweeted her phone number, all as her army of M.I.A. impersonators vaguely mimic her moves—except when she moves to the vanguard to air-hump one of the monitors. Letterman is as pleased as he always is whenever anyone does something truly unique on the show. After the song, he walks over chuckling and says, “Seriously, Happy Halloween!”