British pop artist M.I.A. is responsible for her share of thought-provoking music, but her new video may be the most challenging piece yet. The clip, for “Born Free,” is a short film by Romain Gavras, soundtracked by M.I.A.’s song. In it, a military team enters a housing project, violently raiding individual apartments and brutally beating terrified residents. The team rounds up all the project’s redheaded residents, throws them on a bus and drives them to the desert to be executed. The clip’s graphic and extreme violence found it banned from YouTube and has brought much attention to the singer and the video. Is the video sensationalistic? Is it legitimate commentary? Was YouTube right? Here to discuss are Press Director of New Media Michael Conforti, Editor Brad Pareso and Editor-in-Chief Michael Patrick Nelson.
Both yes and no, to all questions. The video is sensationalistic, but of course it’s legitimate commentary. After all, she is an artist, one with a background in art, film, music and political activism, so what do people expect? YouTube should have simply age-restricted it, made it the equivalent of being “Rated R,” and left it at that. “Banning” it probably fueled the controversy as much as the content would have on its own.
Let’s look at what has happened since M.I.A.’s last album, 2007’s Kala: George Bush left office, she married the son of Warner Music Group’s CEO and licensed a song she wrote about the perception of immigrants as threatening and the profits made from selling guns to be used in Pineapple Express. I’m sorry, but the shtick is getting old.
Maybe you’re getting old. With all the complaints about the vapidity in music, I’m all for someone saying something.
Couple things. First, the video itself is really disturbing. It’s tough to watch. Deliberately so, obviously, but just the same, I watched it because I had to write a story about it—had I not been assigned to do so as part of my job, I don’t think I would have chosen to view it. Second, I think it’s a very legitimate commentary: Police- and military-enforced intolerance is commonplace both throughout history and today. The imagery in the video brings to mind events and places like the Holocaust, Apartheid, Rwanda, Cambodia, and much of the Middle East. Heck, look at what’s going on in Arizona right now. This is an artistic vision, yes, and it is disturbing, yes, but it’s not empty sensationalism. It’s not shock for the sake of shock. But it is shocking.
I’m all for music with a purpose; I find the message in “Tik Tok” of a social gathering not beginning until Ke$ha arrives to be of the utmost importance. But seriously, M.I.A. loves politics, and George Bush gave her some great material to get angry about. Now, the best she can come up with is telling Barack Obama to give back his Nobel Peace Prize. Stretching a four-minute song to back a nine-minute video that seems to criticize soldiers’ treatment of people with red hair? Don’t give me that “It’s a metaphor! Don’t be a sheep!” BS. She’s beating a dead horse.
I don’t think you can call it a dead horse when intolerance and fascism continue to be alive and very real. These things exist, and persist, and they lead to oppression and violence and death. To say that artists should move on from such topics because, I dunno, George Orwell said it all already seems to be kind of myopic and reductive, not to mention ignorant.
I agree with Nelson. At the end of the day, someone like M.I.A. seems to want to talk about, or effect change, or at least, discussion. The topics she is touching on, and the way that she is doing it, may not strike a chord with someone in particular, but may be very real to someone else. We, here, in America, in our particular lives, can hardly say we’ve seen or heard what she’s seen or heard, so I for one won’t try to be one to judge the legitimacy of her expression.
Intolerance exists, fascism exists, racism exists. Making a song with echoing drums covered in static hiss isn’t going to change any of those things. If she wants to organize rallies, if she wants to speak to our leaders, if she wants to raise money, do that. That’s the kind of stuff with the power to effect change. But let’s stop pretending a controversial video is going to make the world a better place or send a message to our government.
I don’t think the message, such as it is, is intended for any government—if anything, I believe it’s for the people, who sometimes need reminding that intolerance is a violent and serious assault not just on human rights, but human beings. Does the video achieve that result? I can’t speak for everyone. I can say that for me, it did. But I’m not going to watch it again. It’s pretty jarring, and scary, and given all that, I don’t hold it against anyone who chooses to look away entirely.