The almost-nine-minute mini-movie for M.I.A.'s single "Born Free" came out today and it's already been taken down from YouTube in the U.S. It's definitely NSFW, but it's also her latest attempt to drum up some attention.
First of all, the track kicks ass. The Bed-Stuy by way of Sri Lanka musician takes a break from her usual hip-hop/world beat sound to make something that's basically a hard-driving rock track—full of heavy guitar hooks and a driving, dismal beat—and adds her signature spoken-style lyrics. How that fits into a video that's about a ginger genocide complete with children being shot in the head and bodies blown up by landmines, well, we're not quite sure.
As the video starts, a group of soldiers ransack an apartment building, bypassing an old man smoking crack and barging in on a couple having sex. When the soldiers find a young man and start hauling him out of the building, it seems like it's going to be another tired video about the brutality of war. Then the young man is thrown into a bus and we see that it's full of other red-headed young men. Ah, a twist. As the bus pulls away, some ginger militants can be seen throwing bottles at the bus in front of a mural that depicts red-headed men holding guns aloft.
When the bus arrives at its final destination, a dusty minefield, the military men tell the carrot tops to run across a minefield. When they don't budge, we see the officer in charge shoot what appears to be a 12-year-old in the head at point blank range. It is graphic and shocking. As the men run across the field, the soldiers pursue both on foot and in an armored van while shooting at their prisoners. One of the runners hits a mine and we see his body explode. Finally the soldiers catch up with the initial man from the apartment building and they beat him, presumably to death. There is no happy ending or redemption here. The movie just ends.
M.I.A.'s video has already been pulled from YouTube for both its sexuality and violence, and she tried to kick start the controversy engine by blaming Universal Music Group for barring the video from YouTube, redirecting people to her website to watch. (She soon recanted without further explanation.)
Controversy sells, though, and in these cases we often remember the stories around the videos long after we remember the songs or videos themselves. Which might be why M.I.A., who has a history of milking her violent past for attention, is courting it so closely. Ironically, the video comes on the heels of an attention-grabbing interview in which M.I.A. blasted Lady Gaga—who can be thanked for the resurgence of 9-minute video as an art form—for being a mimic rather than progressive.
M.I.A's sci-fi dystopian vision is certainly startling. It can be seen as a comment on the senselessness of genocide or the state of immigration in the U.S. Closer to M.I.A.'s home, it can been viewed as an analogy to the Sri Lankan civil war and the government's crackdown on the Tamil people, a subject she's tackled—controversially—on numerous occasions and a cause she's used her fame to draw attention to. But she's no longer the daughter of a penniless "freedom fighter": Her husband is Benjamin Brewer, the son of billionaire mogul (and Warner Music chairman) Edgar Bronfman, Jr.
Is the video too violent? Probably. The imagery is not for the squeamish, and personally I'd find it hard to watch that young boy get shot in the head again. But it's no worse that what one can see in most rated-R movies or even on some prime-time television shows (24 can be downright gory!). And is this little piece of entertainment—a music video, for heaven's sake—worse than what the people who have actually survived immigration nightmares, police brutality, or genocide had to witness in their actual lives? Certainly not. I can't fault any artist for creating something that's designed to spur debate, but for those who don't want their summer jams tainted by a helping of questionable-politics, it's going to be a turn-off.