If you’re a dedicated follower of pop, you’ve no doubt heard about M.I.A.’s shocking new video for “Born Free,” the lead single from her upcoming album. After a few runs through Lucio Fulci’s gore-drenched filmography and half a lifetime on the mean streets of the Internet, I’m a tough dude to shock. But this video shocked the hell out of me. How could M.I.A., one of the cleverest and most creative artists of the past decade, put her name on something so dumb?
If you haven’t mustered the will to watch it yet, it’s a 10-minute short film in which military types bust into a housing project and terrorize and truncheon the fat, nude, crack-smoking denizens in search of their quarry: a redheaded teenager. The kid is shoved into a bus full of his fellow Petes & Petes, and the unfortunate gingers are driven to a desert, subjected to further thrashings and murders, and then made to run across a minefield, where they’re gorily blown to slow-motion smithereens.
The point of all this is tough to miss: military brutality, racial profiling, and genocide are ugly, and they’re not always perpetrated by faceless Bad Guys in far-off countries — the conceit of using redheads as a stand-in for the oppressed “Other” reminds us how absurd and arbitrary ethnic cleansing can be. There are parallels to be made with M.I.A.’s Sri Lankan heritage, with Iraq and Afghanistan and Arizona’s immigration reform. It bears mentioning that the neck-stomping oppressors are wearing US flags, in case you weren’t picking up the allegorical significance of all this — in case, in other words, you’re the world’s dumbest human being, since the video never stops jabbing you in the ribs and shouting, “GET IT?”
As a political statement, it’s got all the nuance of a seventh-grader scratching an anarchy symbol on his Trapper Keeper. It’s ruined by obviousness even before it has a chance to be ruined by its deeper flaw: lazy hyperbole. Even for a dude like me — a super-liberal, anti-military pacifist wuss who harbors no illusions about the altruism of our adventures overseas — the bloody redhead cleansing by fat Yankee jocks is a bit of an eye roller.
So how’s it going to play to the non-choir? I don’t think it’ll make any converts of the Support Our Troops crowd. Anyone who needs convincing of America’s moral failings might be better swayed by subtlety — something that makes him think, rather than doing the thinking for him (and very little of it). I suppose what I’m describing is good satire.
A few reviews have chosen the word “unflinching” to describe the video’s relentless brutality and gore, but that implies bravery. What we actually have here is a smirk — which is twice as craven as a flinch (and I should know, since I’ve got one permanently plastered on my cowardly face). If all its violence and nudity were played straight and stoic, it would be a pretentious failure — on that level, it reminds me of the 2008 Rambo sequel, in which the Burmese genocide was rendered in pornographic detail. (*One advantage of Rambo: some great names in the credits. Animal wrangler: Songporn Musikadilok.) Instead, with its undercurrent of gory exploitation, it fails double. It’s a combination of Serious Message and perverse, pitch-black comedy, and it sucks twice for the same reason: the Serious Message is dudes blowing up, and the black comedy is dudes blowing up. That’s as deep as either one goes.