Wednesday, May 12, 2010

M.I.A. Messes Her Message with 'Born Free' Video

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key comes an interesting reflection on a music video that’s been pulled by YouTube:

‘I got something to say’

“Born Free”
Video directed by Romain Gavras

By Santiago Ramos

When I encounter something shocking—or something that wants to shock—in the media, I often transfer it to other peoples’ eyes. (I myself am young and jaded.) I wondered, for example, as I was mid-way through songwriter M.I.A.’s controversial new music video for her single, “Born Free,” how shocking it would be for other people. Those “other people” are sensitive, staid, stuffy and older than me. They would be shocked by something like this video, and M.I.A. wants to shock them. But by the end of this song, I was shocked myself.

M.I.A., the stage name of Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, British-born and of Sri Lankan extraction (her father was on the losing-end of the Sri Lankan civil war), is a multifarious talent—graffiti art, film, fashion, and songwriting are all in her background—with a marked interest in violence. She is the synthesis of Madonna and gangsta rap. She doesn’t sing about love. She sings about war and guns and she aims for political seriousness—her father fought in a civil war, and she is a witness to a sort of social chaos which the majority of her first-world audience has not experienced. (That’s not something you can say about Lady Gaga). Even if her lyrics are simple and sometimes frivolous (and frivolous about violence), she wills a serious purpose for her work. She wants to give voice to indignation.

That word—indignation—is the key to understanding the blood-soaked video to “Born Free.” The song is played softly in the background—the focus is on the images. The story begins at dawn, when a heavily armed (American) military convoy drives across a city and raids an apartment building. The soldiers search through every apartment, breaking in on a man smoking marijuana and a couple making love. Nightsticks fly, people are beaten and cry. The soldiers find their man—a redheaded teenager. He is dragged outside by two soldiers, and pushed into the back of a bus—where he finds that vehicle full of other redheaded teenage boys, all frowning but resigned to their fate. Their fate is annihilation. They are driven far away from the city, to a minefield. They are lined up and told to run onto the minefield. One boy—this is the scene that prompted YouTube to pull the video from their site—is shot in the head. Another is blown up by a mine, his severed hand flying before the camera along with other bits of flesh. The video ends abruptly, with the face of two angry soldiers who have just finished beating up a boy who managed to elude the mines.

I was shocked for the obvious reason that seeing a child shot on camera is still shocking. It is one of the few things which still cause revulsion because it is still relatively rare to see it on the screen. But after overcoming the revulsion, I realized that M.I.A. is aiming for more than inspiring revulsion. She aims to express indignation. The redhead ginger genocide sounds funny to those who’ve seen that episode of South Park, but the video’s more serious conceit is to expose the arbitrariness and senselessness of racism. M.I.A. wants to shock her comfortable first-world audience into the recognition of the horrible things that happen in other parts of the world. “I throw this in your face when I see ya/ I got something to say.”

The initial revulsion is not the ultimate flaw in the video. It doesn’t betray its message. The flaw is that the message itself is changed by the images used to convey it. Someone who suffers from indignation implicitly believes in human dignity. To believe in human dignity is to believe something special about the status of human beings. George Orwell puts it well in his definition of tragedy: “A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.”

Nobler than the forces which destroy him, because there is something within him which cannot be destroyed. We don’t need to get metaphysical about this. It is enough to note that a burst of bits of flesh, and limbs flying everywhere, implicitly communicates something degrading about the human form—communicates that it can degrade, totally, completely, to nothing. A soul overcome with revulsion at such a spectacle is too distracted to feel moral pity and outrage. The people who run YouTube are discomforted, but not in the way M.I.A. wants them to be.

This is not to blame M.I.A. The task she chose for herself is difficult. The audience can still be shocked. The art of revulsion can be renewed. But it’s much more difficult to shock an audience into the recognition that a certain way of looking at the human person leads to violence and murder—to that which is already shocking without the help of the artist.

Santiago Ramos is pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College.