Stripped of its YouTube permissions at least twice in its immediate afterbirth, but proliferating now like the illicit piece of footage it was always meant to be, Romain Gavras’s apocalyptically brutal music video for M.I.A.’s “Born Free” has disturbed a lot of people, perhaps most notably among them, the ginger set. (Full disclosure: I speak on their behalf. Though age has darkened what locks stand atop my scalp into burnt umber, rest assured that in my heyday, my head could have been illuminated and used to ward off ships at sea.)
On first listen, “Born Free” is a propulsive piece of punk-pop, a new primal scream from one of pop music’s most adept voices of dissent. With an accelerating snare roll-off, it electrifies a sample of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” with gutbucket rock drums that sound as if a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello surfer epic just ran up against a tsunami. Over it, bathed in viscous distortion, M.I.A. ruminates, “I was close to the amps staying under cover/With my nose to the ground, I found the sound.” No one listening will be the slightest bit surprised that introspection fuels something so unyieldingly hard, so BPM-addicted.
But “Born Free” the song submits to “Born Free” the video, a passenger-seat position that it will likely presume forever more as the Internet continues to hem and haw over the bloodshed. The intensity of the song keeps getting interrupted throughout Gavras’s video, which weaves in and out of the guitar riff and a newly scored, John Carpenter-esque synth pulse. Even some of M.I.A.’s lyrics get sacrificed (or executed) by the rampage of a fascist SWAT team as they raid a tenement somewhere in Los Angeles and smoke out a hiding ’fugee. Until they find him, the video is merely an uncommonly direct example of anti-police state propaganda, with a fucking fat couple thrown in for maximum freakitude. It’s when the goose-jogging militia reaches its target that the video arrives at its audience-diving point.
The police are rounding up redheads. Their track-jacketed hostage is thrown into a bulletproof bus filled with willowy, defenseless-looking young ginger men, some barely pubescent. They are driven out into the countryside. There, the troops—in a move seemingly inspired by Peter Watkins’s Punishment Park—order them to run through a minefield. When they hesitate, the youngest and girliest of the lot is unceremoniously shot thorough the head.
Some have dismissed Gavras and M.I.A.’s scenario as a shallow metaphor, one which obfuscates urgent and very real political genocides, one which focuses too much attention on the U.S. powers that be, one which buries its political potential the moment that CGI bullet traverses the span between Shaun White Jr.’s temples. Be that as it may, you’ve got to admit the video’s release amid the ratification of Arizona’s vow to racially profile anyone darker than your average Tea Party baby whiner is eerily well-timed.
While I fully admit that the attempt at sparking cognitive dissonance by making the targets of governmentally sanctioned race murders as lily-white as is imaginable is hardly groundbreaking discourse (unless, like M.I.A., you happen to live in the United Kingdom, where tabloids will tell you gingerism is about to reach critical mass), it did hit me at a purely irrational but still very personal level. It’s not like I was shocked and offended by the obliteration of the redhead prisoners. The clip’s much-advertised violence is so overly aestheticized and consequently anesthetized that it fails to burrow too far into one’s subconscious. (One shot seems directly lifted from the climax of Brian De Palma’s The Fury.)
No, what stuck with me is the furious dignity it accords the main tracksuit-wearing prisoner, and the amount of anger it allows him to deliver. Speaking subjectively, of course, I recognized within him and the band of rock-throwing dissidents that pelt the armored bus a sense of kinship relevant to anyone who occupies a minority class. (It’s the same sense of kinship I can’t deny I feel as a gay man, even when I want to call out flagrant foolishness.)
“Our day will come,” reads a militant wall mural. I think both Gavras and M.I.A. recognize how galvanizing it is to recognize yourself within an “our.” And even though I know the clip is but a metaphor, and not entirely successfully so, when the pitbull-faced, tenement-snatched redhead boy is slammed against an iron fence and still dares to glare into the eyes of his attackers, I want to be right there by his side fucking their shit up.