The music video has gone from “I want my MTV” to “I want my NSFW.” As a song, M.I.A.’s “Born Free” is exciting, but in a way that’s boring to talk about. (M.I.A. ranting over crazy punk drums and a fantastic Suicide sample — so what?) Yet the video has fans buzzing. (People get killed!) “Born Free” is basically a nine-minute indie film where a little kid gets shot in the head. If you’ve ever seen an indie film before, you know right away this urchin is headed for a gruesome fate — if you saw his face on TV, you’d assume it was a PSA against drunk driving. It’s the old George Lucas formula for grabbing an audience: “Just show them a kitten, then wring its neck.”
“Born Free” isn’t much of an achievement, but it marks a new era for music videos. In the MTV era, videos were sexy productions, showering the star with glitz, designed for heavy rotation. Then MTV pulled the plug on videos, and stars scaled back. Beyoncé was the turning point: She became the most iconic megastar of the past decade, with little help from music videos. (Everybody on Earth knows “Crazy in Love,” but how many people remember the video?) But now pop stars are adapting to the small screen, where a video is something you watch once on a laptop.
Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat” clip is simpler (and a lot cheaper-looking) than M.I.A.’s: She goes to Dallas and takes off her clothes in public, to get tongues wagging and politicians complaining. Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone” video is different because it actually holds up on a second viewing, with funny visual details like Beyoncé driving the Pussy Wagon. Those sunglasses made of cigarettes? They probably cost more than Badu’s whole video.
In the old days, these clips would have gotten banned from MTV, and then maybe shown up after midnight on 120 Minutes — that was the PR hook for videos from Madonna’s “Justify My Love” to Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up.” These days, you can only get pulled from YouTube, which just requires fans to click around a little more — but these artists need their videos to be banned by somebody.
In a weird way, videos like “Born Free” evoke David Lee Roth in Van Halen’s “Panama,” where the cops lead Diamond Dave down the hotel hallway in handcuffs, clad only in sneakers and a towel. It’s a moment that creates an image (Dave is one badass hombre) even as it makes us laugh. “Born Free” works the same way, for a post-MTV world. Production values mean nothing when your competition is a YouTube clip of a cat jumping into a Doritos bag. Nobody’s getting airplay handed to them anymore — they have to scrounge for clicks, which requires a lot of old-school showbiz hustle. Kitten, protect ya neck.
This article originally appeared in RS 1105 from May 27, 2010. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via All Access, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about All Access.