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Apr. 26 2010 - 9:53 pm | 8,461 views | 0 recommendations | 8 comments

Finding meaning in M.I.A.’s ‘Born Free’ video

The video for M.I.A.’s new single, “Born Free,” has been online a little more than 24 hours, and it’s upped the stakes for NSFW videos. The video was banned by YouTube and is causing quite a ruckus across the Internet.

A lot of the online conversation is focused on the video’s meaning. Some think it has a daring political message about police states. Some find it “possibly meaningless.”

What’s the real answer? Well, here it is:

It’s whatever you want it to be.

What’s so brilliant about the video is that, while it’s got a fair share of graphic violence, you can deem it whatever you like. M.I.A. and director Romain Gavras just let the video speak for itself without hitting the viewer over the head with their idea of the exact meaning of the story. In a sense, it’s fairly ambiguous.

You can take a peek at the video below. And yes, it’s really “Not Safe For Work.” Just warning you:

Well, I’ve certainly got my own spin on the video. I’m tempted to agree more with those who believe the video’s got it’s fair share of political meaning. Let’s take a little peek at some screenshots, shall we?

The video opens with a set of SWAT teams preparing for some type of show-off.

The atmosphere: Foreboding.

One of the team members appears reluctant, even anxious, at the start of the video. We’re given the impression that the actions of these individuals are part of a hive mind, that whatever will happen in the rest of the video, individual choice may very well be left by the wayside in the sheer moment of it all. In many ways, the vehicles rolling through town mirror movie depictions of helicopters flying into battle during the Vietnam War. The scenery in passing is almost too calm, as if waiting to explode when the armored men arrive at their target.

And it does:

Without warning, residents of the nameless apartment building are brutally beaten, sometimes for merely being an obstacle. Images of residents doing… well, private matters brings an almost paranoid thought to the forefront: It hardly maters what you’re doing as much as it does where you are. The images are meant to remind us of aggressive tactics taken by police everywhere in the name of whatever reasoning is doled out. Basically, no matter what reasons are given for aggressive force, that will seem foreign by those affected by the actions in the moment.

The hunted is revealed:

A redhead.

Specifically, redheads in general:

This may be one of the more powerful moments of the video. It’s a twist on a familiar theme. But rather than the hunted being an “other,” those chased by the police state are part of what we consider the “majority.” Yet, redheads are also famously made fun of with the term, “gingers,” for reasons I still cannot quite understand: This video has an ingenious twist on the teasing nature redheads may encounter as children.

In these terms, the very nature of singling out members of our society for how they look seems downright silly. Being able to express this so spot on is a feat that none too many have achieved in these heady “fear of terrorism” times. Yet, this video gets the nature of paranoia, and flips the script.

Moreover, it also happens to deliver a solid critique of the fashion-focused hipsterisms in Western culture:

This scene provides another awkward turn in the ever-evolving nature of glocal culture. In many ways, it questions the “rebellion” of dressing “alternative” without having any other “revolutionary” urges outside of the realm of clothing while confronting the very meaning of the rebellion apparel. The clothing in question: The keffiyah. In the video, the symbolism of the cloth is transplanted back to its original status: As an icon for Palestinian rebels. By doing this, it challenges the very nature of re-fashioning items of clothing into a subcultural style when the original nature is still easily accessible.

The video echoes many of the sentiments Thursday frontman Geoff Rickly mulled over when keffiyahs first became “all the rage” in 2008:

We have been attacked repeatedly as a generation and as a demographic. We have been derided because of our looks and attitude. At the end of theĀ Adbusters article, the writer, Douglas Haddow, tellingly concludes, “I take a look at one of the girls wearing a bright pink keffiyah and carrying a Polaroid camera and think, ‘If only we carried rocks instead of cameras, we’d look like revolutionaries.’ But instead we ignore the weapons that lie at our feet –oblivious to our own impending demise.”

Seeing this idea re-imagined and spun in a new light makes the Western fashion-based obsession with the keffiyah seem, well, silly.

Meanwhile, readhead rebellion murals on the streets re-imagine the political murals of Belfast for the fictitious world:

The redheads are taken to a camp. Some are lined up, a la just about any war crime of the 20th Century.

Others are sent off to a field, given muted details the viewer – and, we assume, the persecuted redheads – can’t quite understand, and are made to run for their lives:

It’s a horror world where the redheads are hunted in a hybrid of real-life war and a vengeful game for the men in armor. It’s made to show the brutality of war and the weight some lives have in this world: Nothing but a few minutes of entertainment in some sick game.

It ends just as it began. Oddly serene, yet with a dreadful atmosphere lurking in the background.

Then again, this is all my spin on the video.

You don’t have to take my word as the ultimate authority (and please, don’t! Make up your own mind!), but the great thing about the video is it really reflects one’s thoughts on pop music and culture. It can be as vapid and pointless as you want it to be, but if you really want to give it a chance, the second viewing can be so much more rewarding.


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  1. collapse expand

    “In the video, the symbolism of the cloth is transplanted back to its original status: As an icon for Palestinian rebels.”

    I’m not totally up on the history of fashion, but I think it predates this (eg Lawrence of Arabia).

    I also doubt there’s any attempt here to criticize folks for wearing the thing… exploding children seem to imply larger concerns. As far as symbolism goes, you’ve got American shock troops (flags on their shoulders) rounding up folks based solely on their shared appearance with rebels and using them as tools (minesweepers) without paying any mind to them as individuals. Some obvious relation with the post-9/11 round-up that led to the detention of individuals for several years with little effort expended to determine innocence or guilt.

    • collapse expand

      The use of scarves in arid climates predates even Lawrence of Arabia, but the keffiyeh/kaffiyeh in particular has a long history with Palestinian identity:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/fashion/shows/11KAFFIYEH.html?_r=1

      Like I said, this is merely my interpretation… The part about the headdress is something I’ve come to notice.

      And yes, excellent summation to boot. I wanted to take a more ambiguous approach, one that didn’t necessarily focus on the specifics of, say, post-9/11 detention, but in regards to a history of such atrocities. In as much as it can fit the current state of affairs, there are themes from any number of big human rights issues events of the past two centuries (Northern Ireland, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Holocaust, etc.) You make a great point, but, as I said, I think it’s open to any and all interpretations that run the gamut of these atrocities.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Lots of folks on the Internet are throwing around the word ‘brilliant’ when talking about this video. But why? If there’s a coherent message in the video, it’s muddled as fuck. If M.I.A. scripted this, it’s a major mess on her part. Romain Gavras, the director, seems to have a lot of promise (his video for Justice’s “Stress’ was far more cohesive/engaging) — but he should do a feature film, and get a good screenwriter. But overall, good cinematography does not equate intelligent content. This video just seems like an exercise in pseudo-intellectualism.

    • collapse expand

      I personally love that any “message” in this video is “muddled as fuck.” What international tensions are ever so straightforward? Why should M.I.A., or Gavaras, be expected to give a coherent message? It’s a veritable “fuck you” to anyone looking to M.I.A. to lead them into the pseudo-political promise land.

      Like I said above, I genuinely enjoy that it’s so ambiguous. People pick and chose what they want it to mean, or pass it off entirely. The very idea that a 9 minute video with solid cinematography is even getting people to consider it’s meanings beyond the scope of pop culture is great to see. Even the reactions made in order to renounce it as nothing more than meaningless is engaging it as a work one would consider to be made with the intent of being meaningful. And I relish seeing that.

      Maybe I read a little too much into it, sure. But the “brilliant” thing is that more people are spinning their own idea on this thing, and in a greater density than the above-average music video gets talked about. If art/film/music/etc is about getting an emotional reaction, this video has seen a range of diverse interpretations and reactions unparalleled. That’s brilliant.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I write about music here at True/Slant. I'm also a freelance writer for the A.V. Club Chicago. I've previously written for The Boston Phoenix, Bostonist, Rock Sound and some school publications.

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