Monday, April 26th, 2010

M.I.A.'s "Born Free" Video: More Faddish Political Pastiche

So on the plus side, we're living in a new golden age of the music video! It makes sense, because we all decided about four (six?) years ago that TV was the new cinema. (Then "The Sopranos" ended, but.) So I guess music videos are the new TV? This is a great thing, overall! Fun for everyone. Erykah Badu's "Window Seat" on the heels of Lady Gaga's "Telephone"…. They're all political, or politically-tinged, or exploitatively political. ("Window Seat," at least, was rooted pretty well in history and allegory; "Telephone" was mostly about play… mostly.) But this new thing from M.I.A.? This just reads like pornography to me. And uber-violence. Or maybe I'm missing something about the non-story of a goon squad chasing down a bunch of redheads. IS IT ABOUT NEOCOLONIALISM? Or, I guess, the OLD-FASHIONED ORIGINAL BRAND™ of colonialism? It's about as politically coherent as an ad for Axe Body Spray.

60 Comments / Post A Comment

Tuna Surprise (#573)

As I redhead, I was profoundly moved by the portrayal of anti-Ginger sentiment. Who will rise up with me? I'll bring the spf 100.

irishbreakfast (#4,123)

You've got to admit it raises an intriguing question–who involved with this mess first said "I know: redheads! The symbolic oppressed everyman we've been searching for is redheads!!" Someone has personal issues.

riggssm (#760)

I love you, Choire, fanning the flames.

(Can you please add a tag called GINGERS?)

(Also, is this like part II of Trent Reznor's Survivalism video or what?)

I think this also falls into the category of "starting the conversation", no?

riggssm (#760)

Somehow I don't think the conversation we're having is the conversation that was intended.

camelface (#4,600)

first they came for the redheads…

Freddie (#4,189)

I guess I reject the notion of political coherence as a necessary attribute of political music. The first job of political music is to inspire through traditional means of aesthetics, beat, melody and harmony, grooviness, let's-take-our-clothes-off-iness, etc. It's hard to do that while singing intricate political messages about taking control of the means of production/the perfection of markets/the vicissitudes of the welfare state/whatever.

Remember that no less than the Beatles song "Revolution" was criticized on these grounds, that it didn't deliver a coherent political message. John Lennon replied that the first step was to record a good song, and that perhaps that will inspire people to get educated with real political philosophy. Or you can look at the example of Rage Against the Machine, who were regularly criticized on those grounds. You can feel however you like about their music or their politics, but they were fairly consistent in interviews in saying that the point of the music was to get some tiny portion of the people who liked it on purely auditory grounds to then check out the links and references made in album liner notes and similar. It's just hard to make a really strong political case in 4/4 time, I think.

That's not to say that you shouldn't criticize political music that you don't think meets certain standards, of course, and I agree that it's hard to know what direction MIA is taking here. But I think we should be careful about how talk about political coherence in a song or music video.

irishbreakfast (#4,123)

Well, if we're holding the political coherence of MIA's video up to works by Lennon/RAM I'll quote Lennon right back at you: "to record a good song." This isn't a good song. It isn't a good video. Combing them doesn't help. There is political music; I would argue that this is music intended to be political, made by earnest but misguided artists.

saythatscool (#101)

I don't know if it's coherent, but I think the video can be seen as a metaphor for the Tamil Tigers and their current situation. Certainly given her family history, that's the first thing that popped into my noggin.

So to that end, it's no Eddie Grant's Electric Avenue.

The hunting of Tasmanian aboriginal peoples, and of bushmen in southern Africa, examples from early european settlement in America and from WWII, rumors of posses along the US/Mexican border (also the new 'immigration' law in Arizona and the eternal debate on racial profiling) all came haphazardly to mind as well. Stories from internally displaced Sri Lankan tamils last year fit too: this video may not be particularly subtle as a statement of how humans are shiteous to eachother, but does saying it badly make it any less worth saying out loud?

andj (#1,074)

She's expressing her dissatisfaction with … something.

I sort of feel like if you want to have a message, then have a message. I don't really like music that is "message-y." The explanation of "Well, it's true that I haven't got much to say, but I inspire people to check out my links or read something" is sort of self-serving, because it frees the musician from the responsibility of having something to say in the first place. (Am I being too harsh? Maybe.)

Maybe I would be less of hard-nose if I didn't seem like being "political and stuff" was also kind of fashionable and desirable and ego-driven?

It does seem to make a difference how enfranchised the musician is, and maybe that's not fair. Like, maybe now that MIA is married to a Bronffman, I take her less seriously. The response to music like this is always: Why stop here? Why not start an armed resistance, since you seem to think it's a really good thing to do?

andj (#1,074)

On second though, I hope I never have a platform.

David Roth (#4,429)

"She's expressing her dissatisfaction with … something." I think that's exactly it.

I think it's a decent enough song, but the video… I don't know if it's possible for something to be a calculated mess, but I think that's what we're looking at. Besides the (unintentional, I imagine) LOLlery of the ginger factor you throw in some child-murdering shock troops with American flags on their arms and Northern Ireland-style resistance graffiti and you get what? Another affirmation of MIA's determination to Stand With All Resistance Movements Everywhere? Good for her, I guess. But this video — and I think a lot of MIA's back catalog, too — is proof that you can be "political" without actually having any politics, and to be strident without actually ever addressing exactly what your argument is.

'"political" without having any politics'
Thanks: that's just right. I withdraw my vague waffle above.

KarenUhOh (#19)

I think she's commenting on how EMI screwed over Malcolm McLaren.

And is that the guy from Gummo? Plus, that other fellow is going to need a LOT of Axe.

saythatscool (#101)

My takeaway was if you're a ginger and dressed like you're in a Wes Anderson film, you're gonna get blown up.

roboloki (#1,724)

so, this was an ad for axe body armor spray?

MIA is a twit. Also, she married "up", so it kind of makes her agitprop posturing seem especially bogus.

Khurzad (#4,595)

The British just hate gingers. I have no idea why they do, but it's a major prejudice there. Perhaps it has something to do with hating the Irish.

Matt (#26)

I only accept political commentary from Bono and I generally enjoy music profiles in Paste magazine.

Brad Nelson (#2,115)

I heard indie rock was dead. Can you confirm this?

Wrapitup (#975)

All ye whose carpets don't match your drapes, heed MIA's cautionary tale.

sharilyn (#4,599)

hey, um, it's only UNNATURAL, feigned redheads whose proverbial carpets and drapes are mismatched. For what it's worth, the targets of this particular genocide appear to be ginger natives.

City_Dater (#2,500)

Yet another millionaire popstar standing strong in protest of… well, something VERY bad!!

Murgatroid (#2,904)

This makes District 9 look like a Malick film.

sharilyn (#4,599)

I don't really go to music video for my trenchant political commentary, but as a (natural) redhead, I'm absolutely scandalized.

djfreshie (#875)

I prefer the M.I.A songs that don't blatantly rip-off/use the best part of obscurish songs that had potential making it my entire lifetime without anyone spoiling. Suicide was sacred…now I'll never be able to hear Ghost Rider without thinking of this. Fuck you, MIA. Fuck. You. You and Jay-Z. Stick to samples that have already been oversaturated or that I personally have never heard before. Thanks.

BadUncle (#153)

FWIW, "Telephone" really made me reconsider contemporary rehabilitation strategies in women's prisons, as well as hats made out of phones.

Bittersweet (#765)

Don't forget the epidemic of sandwich-making at diners and other eateries…

Ron Obvious (#351)

If you have to constantly remind your audience that you got something to say, aren't you kind of obligated to follow through with some tangible statement? Okay, force-marching GAP models to run through minefields is wrong. I don't think anyone, however, is likely to disagree with that sentiment, except psycho Ginger-haters. M.I.A. doesn't have anything to say here and she doesn't have a particularly interesting way of not saying it. She's copping an attitude, not saying anything profound. So, M.I.A. = the 21st Century's Melanie. Kudos to anyone under 50 who gets that.

Dave Bry (#422)

Lots of good points. But in dissent, how about this: the video gets to something about how scary is must be look a way that gets you hunted by well-armed forces. Granted, that's a broad, barely political "point." ("Don't hunt and kill people just because of the color of their hair!") But as was noted before, I'm so sure how much responsibility a music video has to work on any level beyond emotion. (Or, really, any level at all. But then you'd just have a big waste of money…) Confused and/or confusing? Maybe. But when I watched it, I thought of "Children of Men." And it gave me an effective little shudder. But also, I'm ginger. And you know how sensitive we are to sunlight and depictions of graphic violence.

I kind of agree. It is entirely coherent. It has all the coherence of obviousness. The obvious is very coherent. And sometimes you can make an affective video from obvious things. Like about how love might be complicated and painful or something or how kids hate going to school and like to party. I don't understand all the hating on this. It's just heavy-handedly anti-racist! Geez!

Also the video is kind of a lot made by Romain Gavras (son of…) and not necessarily the parthenogenetic creation of MIA.

If you want a politically incoherent video by a Third-World Pop Superstarstress you have this from Shakira, which I think is awesome anyway:

This is a Tamil-style genocide that I could really get behind.

spanish bombs (#562)

M.I.A.'s lyrics, especially the political ones, have always been sort of dumb. If you're not in it for the beats, there's not much of a point. (This song doesn't seem to be very awesome anyway.)

flossy (#1,402)


SemperBufo (#1,849)

I agree- there's not much else to say about this, or her. If she really wants to address the struggle of the Tamil Tigers, we could talk about their strategic attacks on unarmed civilians, but I don't think she's interested in that level of detail.

Keith Talent (#3,874)

I think the bigger point that is being made is that redheads aren't very smart. Clearly the ginger community is aware of what is going on, witness the red power poster and the kids throwing rocks at the cops bus, yet the protagonist ginger meekly waited in his apartment for the goon squad to pick him up. He only put up the weakest of fights (which is what you'd expect from a ginger?) Why was he not holed up with an arsenal, you know the crack head would have been able to point him towards some firearms.

And I feel bad about my generalizations above. If any gingers want to hide in my attic they are welcome to. It'd be a good place to work on your memoirs.

camelface (#4,600)


Obviously this video is just a thinly veiled and well deserved allegorical attack on the deplorable practice of fox hunting. The layered metaphor became pretty obvious to me as the red heads began to emerge as defenseless auburn creatures ruthlessly chased by the aristocratic soldiers for sport.

SemperBufo (#1,849)

Watch it, Bryan Ferry's sons are coming after you.

ADRIAN (#1,676)

The most revolutionary thing about this whole video is that you can see a fat guy's erection. What!?

I think it's a pretty cool video, though.

moon (#4,606)

How can you guys miss the point so hard? We react strongly and viscerally to simulated violence against white people for a music video for a pop song, but people in the developed world ignore actual genocidal violence against nonwhite people that happens every day. Your review and the similar Gawker piece just help prove the point. Or maybe you're right and it isn't about anything. Movies don't just fall out of the sky though.

sharilyn (#4,599)

could not agree more strongly.

flossy (#1,402)

To be honest, if this had been nine minutes of stormtroopers hunting non-white people I don't think I could have made it through. The white people thing is so heavy-handed it undercuts the empathy a little bit.

flossy (#1,402)

(oops, @moon)

orlandoduran (#3,494)

Just because this video (and MIA in general) is a manifestation of the commodifcation of political activism doesn't mean can't be culturally catalytic. That this video doesn't foist a specific interpretation upon the viewer doesn't make it politically incoherent.

In fact, the notion of coherence is a total red herring here. This is less a narrative than a snapshot of a pretty run of the mill genocide. That it takes place in an alt-universe dystopia where gingers are the victims and some vague totalitarian institution whose strong arm is mixed-race is nothing but Freudian distortion. If it'd been, say, a snapshot reenacting the Rwandan genocide, your gut reaction would have been even more violent repulsion. I'd say it's because you KNOW this video is going to help her sell records. This video is money in the bank for MIA and her label. That's what grosses you out.

But this video will jolt a few teenage ne'er-do-wells into a heightened sense of global awareness. Is this video superficial? Of course. Is MIA cashing in? Absolutely. Will more young Americans pick up and read the newspaper tomorrow because of it? I think so. For this reason, this video is, in some small way, a force for good. That some of these young Americans will end up buying a Che Guevara shirt from Wal-Mart is a separate issue entirely.

David Roth (#4,429)

Good points in here, but this isn't a "vague totalitarian institution" doing its ginger-slaughter dirt. Dudes have American flags RIGHT THERE on their uniforms, despite the fact that they're pulling Young Ging from what looks like a British council estate.

Vaguer might've been better there, but really the big problem, while we're talking about points missed or not, has little to do with context or anything else. The thing that's so wrong with the video, at bottom, is that the intense and ultraviolent unpleasantness of the whole thing is wholly unearned, cheap and glib. If she or the filmmaker wanted to make a statement — about American imperialism or sadistic militarism or totalitarianism or genocide (tough one to stand against, there) or whatever — then they should've made a statement. They made a fraudulent and self-satisfied lump o' torture porn instead.

And if the point was that the soundtrack was supposed to be great, they didn't totally deliver there, either.

orlandoduran (#3,494)

I guess what I'm getting at is that yes it's unearned, yes it's excessive, yes it's cheap, yes it's glib, but any idiot can and will make the connection to the salient real-world analogues.

She doesn't need to make a statement here. You pointed it out yourself: to take any sort of stand or make any sort of statement against genocide would be stupid because it's redundant, like saying "bad things are bad."

This video is vacuous in the same that the word "there" in "There is a sheep in the field" is vacuous. If all you're saying is that something exists, you don't need robust syntax. And I think that's all this video needs to accomplish: "Genocide exists. Watch this doe-eyed child get shot in the head. Looks like your little brother, don't he?" It could have been handled more intelligently. It could be less heavy-handed. But this video obviously isn't about subtlety, and it gets the job done.

Is it bad art? Arguably, yeah. Is it politically impotent? Absolutely not. What most bothered me about Choire's post was that, to my (extremely marxist) mind, his anxieties about how money plays into this equation got misdirected into a pretty flawed assessment of the art itself, which is a very common result of what happens when participants in capitalist ideology (myself included) butt up against something unsavory in capitalism: the money issue gets ignored. Attention gets directed away from the money.

missdelite (#625)

Will more young Americans pick up and read the newspaper tomorrow because of it? I think so.

Aw..your idealism is so cute!

Few points you missed here:
a) Young people don't read
b) Young people most certainly don't read newspapers
c) The vid is too damn long – I doubt half the viewers watched the whole thing
d) The vid will be forgotten by tomorrow
e) Old fat people having sex? Huge turn off.
f) The only thing this vid will inspire young people to do is play more World of Warcraft.

orlandoduran (#3,494)

I'm not saying that even a substantial fraction of the people exposed to this video will give a shit, but one or five per thousand will. It's not idealism, it's just statistics. & The more the merrier.

I get it. It's fashionable to be cynical; it's fashionable to be blasé. But if you and the rest of the cool-dude ironists had their way, fewer people in this world would be politically minded. And that's something even you don't want.

missdelite (#625)

First of all, you don't know what I want. Let's get that straight.

Secondly: Political awareness is meaningless if it isn't rooted in reality. In fact, you can't call it "awareness" at all. It's more like good intentions gone astray which lead to a whole heap of nothing.

Take my advice, dude: If you want to reach young people, get a clue about what they're into. That's Youth Outreach 101, and if it's not taught in your poli-sci class, it should be.

orlandoduran (#3,494)

Ha ha, made you mad.

It seems like the only thing people will get up in arms about these days is the misanthropy that makes them feel okay about doing so little.

I'm gonna go ahead and opt out of responding to the rest of your reply, since it's rhetorical nonsense. This was fun, though.

missdelite (#625)

"Misanthropy"? That's a strong word you made insignificant by its misuse.

And if you think you made me "mad", then you obviously don't recognize concision when you see it. No wonder you didn't understand a single word of my comment. It's impossible to debate with someone who folds so easily.

*pitter patter*

Hear that? That's the sound of your little feet running away. Good luck getting through to the knuckleheads out there. Your tenacity is underwhelming.

SemperBufo (#1,849)


balsa_wood (#465)

It's directed by the son of Costa Gavras.

Revolutionary AND nepotistic.

lbf (#2,343)

I'm gonna add "derivative" w/r/t the viral violence-porn strategy being exactly the same as for Justice's "Stress" video last year or whenever. Which, you know, totally opened my eyes about violence in France and shit.

Brendan Miller (#4,620)

"Born Free" some people are born free, others are born with a characteristic that makes them not free.

If you where born free, don't take it for granted.

Orka Borka (#4,625)

Frankly, I don't see what's so hard to understand regarding the political message…it's not vague at all: You could be white, black, Muslim, Christian… whatever, maybe even being redhead. Any excuse is fine when we want to take some sadistic pleasure in beating our neighbour.

arcadianhermit (#2,212)

What's the opposite of 'faddish' and 'pastiche'? Timeless, singular? Are these qualities you typically demand from your music videos? Also – is it possible that none of us are the audience the artists involved are trying to reach?

Be less stupid, Awl.

Post a Comment