The middle finger is making a comeback. I know what you’re thinking. Who knew it ever went away?
But the bird — specifically the flipping of it — has managed to make worldwide headlines twice now in the past month. First, there was M.I.A.’s apparently unscheduled additional choreography during her appearance at the Super Bowl halftime show, a move that occasional finger-giver Madonna “wasn’t happy about.” M.I.A.’s off-book version of double dream hands swiftly proved the power of a gesture to shock, as NBC – the same network that features “penis cleavage” gags on “Are You There, Chelsea?” — hastily issued an apology and lamented that “Our system was late to obscure the inappropriate gesture.” The NFL similarly decreed that “The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing and we apologize to our fans.”
And now, just as the world has begun to recover from the shock and horror of seeing the longest finger of a woman’s hand standing apart from its fellow digits, along comes Adele.
After cleaning up with six Grammy awards and making a triumphant comeback after vocal chord surgery, the British chanteuse and object of Karl Lagerfeld’s derision came back to the U.K. a hero, picking up album of the year and best British female solo artist at Tuesday’s Brit Awards. But in the midst of her emotional speech, just as she was declaring that she was “so, so proud to be British and to be flying our flag and I’m so proud to be in the room with all of you,” the show’s mortified-looking host, actor James Corden, appeared onstage to whimper, “I’m so sorry…”
“Are you about to cut me off?” she replied, “Can I just say then, goodbye and I’ll see you next time round?” Then she gave him the one-finger salute to thunderous applause. Seriously, Brits, you were in that big a hurry to bring out Blur? What, was this the 1998 awards? You’ve got the biggest singer in the world right now, basking in the glow of hometown glory. Blur can freaking wait.
The finger is a powerful gesture – its origins go all the way back to a throwdown between Greek philosopher Diogenes and that punkass hater Demosthenes. The finger says, succinctly, “My penis!” and with it, all the power it wields and all the things that you, the object of said gesture, can do with it. Actual penis not required. The bird has been famously flipped by almost every public figure you can think of who doesn’t have the words “His Holiness” in front of his name – by everyone from George W. Bush to Katy Perry and Rihanna to most iconically, Johnny Cash. It is, in short, the most “obscene” a person can get without removing pants.
And in flipping off James Corden and all he stands for, Adele, who devoted a portion of her Grammy acceptance speech to a bit of rogue snot, achieved something that M.I.A. and her Super Bowl shenanigans could not. She gave the gesture context and meaning, proving yet again that under all that hair and eyeliner and singular cool is an artist who can really rage. Later Tuesday evening, she explained, “I flung the middle finger. That was for the suits at the Brit Awards, not my fans. I’m sorry if I offended anyone but the suits offended me.” Adele’s finger wasn’t a random moment of naughty provocation, calculated to get attention. It was, as a good flip-off should be, a wordless expression of genuine irritation, a thoroughly rock ‘n’ roll gesture that predates rock ‘n’ roll itself. Amazingly, one finger can still stun the world. And sometimes, the suits need to be reminded of that.
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.