Tuning In: M.I.A.'s “Born Free”

Alyx Vesey
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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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17 Comments Have Been Posted

I Love This

Your analysis is the best I've seen so far, touching on just about everything I thought as I watched the video, however fleeting or concrete.

While "Paper Planes" made her more visible, I would hesitate to call M.I.A. a mainstream or pop artist. What I love about her is that her music and style defies classification, and is confrontational to the point where you either love it or hate it; kinda demanding of you to make a stand. Keeping in mind what I know about M.I.A. and Romain Gavras, I know that the video isn't a cheap gimmick trying to garner attention for it's own sake, and was well thought out. I find it interesting how that the actual "Born Free" song seems to serve more as a sountrack to the video rather than the video emphasizing the music as is usually done.

Great analysis!

I Love This

Thanks very much, Alexia. There's so much going on here, and plenty more to talk about . . . like the actual song independent of the video. ;)</p><p>I take your point about M.I.A. not exactly being a pop star. I think she uses cult of personality and popular music to make larger political statements about pop stardom and its ties to capitalism. She likes to play with celebrity, and sometimes casts herself as one (Converse/Marc Jacobs spokesmodel, T.I.'s hook girl, many folks' go-to musical sound-bite for various projects). </p><p>But it's never an easy fit and I think that's an exciting aspect of her public persona. I'd argue that some other female musicians fit into the category of the almost-pop star, particularly as file sharing, blogging, and advertising's ubiquity have collapsed conventional definitions of stardom. Björk is always an early go-to example for me, as is Santigold, Erykah Badu, Beth Ditto, Karen O, and perhaps even Joanna Newsom.   </p><p>I do wonder if M.I.A. would consider herself a pop star or what that term means to her. I seem to recall an interview she did with <i>BUST </i>circa <i>Arular</i>. She was asked how people in Sri Lanka perceive her. If I'm remembering her response correctly, it was interesting. I recall that she said something to the effect of "oh, I'm the devil to them. I'm a <i>pop star</i>."</p>

I was wondering when you

I was wondering when you would write about this video, and I'm so, so glad you did. Some of the responses to this video -- even those from feminist media critics -- have been appallingly simplistic, and not a little sexist, in my view. Thanks for voicing your insights, and doing so with your characteristic depth, sensitivity, and great writing!

I was wondering when you

<p>Oooh, Jamie. As soon as I heard the single was released, my fingers were itchy to type about the video. :) Would've gotten it up sooner, but it was released right after I turned in Monday's entry.

</p><p>I agree with you about some of the response the music video has received. I just really wanted some context and nuance to some of these arguments. Also, I found the privileging of gender over race in some critiques to be troubling. But just as texts don't get created in a vaccuum, they shouldn't be interpreted in one.   </p>

The Sad Commentary

I've been looking at other critiques of the video, and I was shocked that so many critics were under-minding it and calling it "this little piece of entertainment." http://bit.ly/dyTC6Tn Maybe that's true for most videos now, but it's important to recognize and celebrate a video when it leads to a larger conversation.

I'm so glad that MIA has made such a mark on mainstream music, and still manages to be thoughtful and relevant, unlike most female artists now.

I was just talking about

I was just talking about this video on Facebook! I was disturbed because I have red hair and it was really easy to identify. I love M.I.A. and what I basically said on my Fb was that I wish that there was more warning than I had. I knew that it was violent, but was taken aback by it. But I think as a political video it really opens your eyes and makes you think... It kind of bursts the bubble that shelters Americans. I really like your take on it! It was very good.

Hi Alyx, This is a great

Hi Alyx, This is a great post and definitely one of the better interpretations of the video I've seen out there. I would, however, question the literalness of interpreting the use of redheads to be limited to post-colonial discourse of the UK's involvement in Sri Lanka. I think it's telling the soldiers are wearing (what appears) to be American flags are their armbands--if that's the case I would suggest that the redheads here are stand-ins for ethnically oppressed groups, especially those oppressed by the U.S. government(s) e.g. Iraqis, undocumented workers, etc. I think white men were used in this case because the average viewer brings no connotations to the white body. That is to say white, male, bodies don't necessarily connote a stereotype of criminality.

I think, however, you're spot on to point out that feminism doesn't have to come solely wrapped in issues that obviously relate to women. M.I.A is showing that oppression is generally targeted at clearly identified groups--if that isn't a feminist message then I don't know what is.

Kudos on the amazing work!

Overall, the video moved me.

<p>Overall, the video moved me. It's raw and full of humanity. The graphic body explosions weren't even necessary for me to feel horror at what I was watching (I was already tearing up long before that point). Still, I think it's a powerful, incredibly thought-provoking short film. </p><p>Thanks for your thoughtful analysis. </p>


It seemed straightforward to me that using the relatively neutral category of red-headed males as the group rounded up for execution was a way of pointing out that race is a label that can be moved around at the convenience of those who want to control people and justify that control. But you touched on that by pointing out the connection to gingerism. I loved the video for creating an alternate world and an alternate narrative. It was able to make me feel cold and troubled in a way that news reports about systematic violence haven't for awhile. It was a science fiction short in a way.


I hadn't thought about the video as science fiction before you mentioned it. Very interesting, Bev.

Lauded or locked up?

I'm not sure if we should be congratulating her on her progressiveness or locking her crazy ass up. Honestly, i get that she's trying to make a point, and i understand it- but sometimes, there is just a line that you don't cross, and i think she pole-vaulted over it around the time the little kid's brains explode.

Yeah- I'm gonna go with NO.

re: Lauded


I really don't think locking anyone's "crazy ass up" is warranted here. Arresting artists for making surprising, emotional, or even offensive statements doesn't sound like a good idea for anyone involved. When trying to make a statement about genocide (which I presume MIA is doing here) sometimes it's necessary to cross the line.

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

I found this very

I found this very reminiscent of Israeli/ Palestinian relationships actually. I thinks that it's worthwhile to note that the redheads have their own violent massage (our day will come painting) and that the redheads throwing stones at the bus were wearing red scarves similar to the colored scarves varies terrorist and political groups in Israel wear. I also would like to point out the inequality of weaponry which is also similar. I really liked your critique though those weren't what I had thought about but once reading them they made sense.

Men and boys

I really appreciate your commentary on this video, and I agree with your views of M.I.A. and this video. I am also hoping that you could say something about the fact that only boys and men were loaded onto the trucks by the military. I wonder why they would have made that artistic decision to have only men/boys being shot. There was not a shortage of female victims though- the woman in the sex scene was clearly traumatized by the soldiers. Thoughts?

Great read!

I really enjoyed this analysis. Indeed the video is disturbing, but with a definite purpose. I tend to agree that Gavras was influencing the message and, along with MIA, they are attempting to present the absurdity of police states/terror/genocide/racially-motivated round-ups, etc. By showing us an inverted reality where a seemingly more privileged class (white males, albeit red-heads), the video shines a light on how ridiculous racially-motivated acts of genocide are.

I don't think the clips with

I don't think the clips with political message should be published!

luv m.i.a.!

ohh love M.I.A.!
espesially this song from slumdog millionaire!
"i fly like paper get high like planes'....

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