Tuning In: M.I.A.'s "Born Free"
Monday marked the release of the music video for M.I.A.'s "Born Free," the lead single off the British rapper/singer/visual artist's forthcoming third album, and yet another clip from a female pop star this year that caused quite a stir. Continuing the discussion begun by the open thread Kjerstin started yesterday, I thought I'd share my thoughts.
Anticipation for new material from M.I.A. has been high in the wake of 2007's Kala, which catapulted her from indie darling to pop star. She performed with mainstream hip hop's male elite at the Grammys on her son's due date, had her music featured in the trailer for Pineapple Express, and worked on Slumdog Millionaire. She also launched her label N.E.E.T., covered Tom Waits's "Way Down In the Hole" signed Rye Rye and Blaqstarr, and evaluated the artistic merit of Lady Gaga. Earlier this month, she made a big splash at Coachella by advertising the release of her next album on a blimp during Jay-Z's set. The album version of "Born Free" leaked online last Friday.
But few seemed prepared for the incendiary clip, which was met with heated debate and taken off YouTube within hours. Directed by Romain Gavras, the nine-minute epic documents a militia breaking into civilians' homes, terrorizing the inhabitants, rounding up redheads in hiding, and executing them at gun point. It's grisly stuff, to be sure. Frankly, I'm not sure if I like the video. I certainly haven't enjoyed watching it, though I'm not sure how one could.
However, I was surprised at the tweets I read about it, especially from feminist critics. Some folks seemed put off by the depictions of heavy-set people being brutalized. The most notable example is a heterosexual couple interrupted while making love. Frankly, I didn't find the depictions insulting or grotesque. If anything, they were candid and provided some humanity, particularly when the couple reach for each other following the break-in. I'd also note that the man in the relationship is naked, thus providing the clip brief full-frontal nudity. I might even go so far as to say that it momentarily shifts the power dynamics Jessica Grose called out in her critique of Greenberg, arguing that director Noah Baumbach used the unadorned sexuality of mumblecore to the benefit of his movie star lead.
I was particularly struck by Ann Powers's tweet that M.I.A. is a female pop star whose politics don't place much emphasis on gender. Though I respect Powers a great deal, I must disagree with her opinion here. M.I.A. has written songs about sex trafficking, capitalism's influence on sexual politics, and patriarchy's control over women and girls. I believe that she doesn't ignore gender so much as constantly engage it in an uneasy dialogue with race and ethnicity. She is not a Sri Lankan-born Brit first and a woman second. Rather, she is at once a woman, mother, third-world refugee, first-world traveler, and politicized pop star who uses the medium to stage an ongoing critique against capitalism. This makes for tense dealings. But then again, first world feminism's relationship with women of color exists along similar fault lines.
Some, including Powers, noted that the use of redheads in "Born Free" may be an allusion to South Park's "Ginger Kids" episode, as well as an acknowledgement of England's contentious relationship with Ireland. I'll point out that in the DVD commentary for that episode, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone mention a move by organized English redheads toward categorizing themselves as an official race separate from other white people. Much of this seems to be in response to gingerism, a nation-specific form of racism.
I'm also inclined to read "Born Free" as something of an analogue to M.I.A.'s own experiences as a Sri Lankan refugee. Maya Arulpragasam fled her home country for London as a child because her father, a member of revolutionary group the Tamil Tigers, was considered part of a terrorist organization that was put on several watch lists and under intense government surveillance. Great Britain colonized the country in the late 1700s and maintained control of the region until after the second world war, perhaps placing the pop star's unfavorable attitude toward nationhood in a sociohistoric context.
I'd also like to point out that M.I.A., while talked about at length, is not in her own music video. As a matter of fact, she's little more than a disembodied voice falling in and out of audibility. Many female pop stars are central to video spectacle, and the fashion-forward M.I.A. has been no exception in the past. Thus, her absence is intriguing. Is she playing through a radio or an intercom? Are we hearing her through a member of the militia or one of their victims? Is she already dead? Wherever she is, she's not providing her audience with a new dance routine.
Furthermore, we cannot overlook the use of Suicide's "Ghost Rider" which is sampled extensively. As M.I.A. often employs samples from musical acts associated with punk, the inclusion of "Ghost Rider" is in keeping. But note that the original contains the lyric, "America is killing its youth." This line was just as poignant in 1977 in a country still traumatized by the Vietnam War as it is today with American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. These actions are also just as damaging to citizens in developing nations who are trying to live amidst the spoils of capitalism. As a result, the song seems to negate itself, suggesting that no one is truly free under this system of authority.
Finally, I'd also like to mention an astute comment Jessica Hopper made in relation to Gavras's clip for Justice's "Stress" which featured young men of color terrorizing people and is similar in its depictions of power and violence. Hopper pointed out that no one assumed that the clip's political message came from the Parisian dance duo and wondered why folks assume that "Born Free" is M.I.A.'s statement instead of the director's.
I'm inclined to believe M.I.A. and Gavras worked together on this one, at least to some extent. They made many people uneasy as a result.
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