Obviously we couldn’t have a screengrab of the actual video, so here’s an artist’s impression…
Frank Kogan: Starts with mile-long caverns of thud and tiredly weird loopiness played through a filter. Then, a minute and a half in, the refrain hits and this rearranges itself into rhythm and excitement, as if Blue Cheer The Brontosaur suddenly skated into visceral swiftness, Roxanne on vocals and Marley Marl on the boards. The crassest thing M.I.A.’s ever done, throbs from the crud mines and staticky counterbeats, where it’s good it has more in common with Britney’s “3” than with virtues that anyone associates with M.I.A., and it rocks.
Michaelangelo Matos: This was the best record I heard all year for a whole day before I saw the video, and I’m glad, because I can’t imagine how it would have altered the song for me. And since that’s how many of the people hearing the song will hear it, the video will be an inextricable part of the song. That may be what M.I.A. intends, but it cheapens the song: not because the video is misguided or simpleminded (at some level, it’s both), or because it’s brave and bold (ditto), but because just as a song this is such a hard left turn: it’s a lo-fi punk record, plain and simple, even without the Suicide sample, and I wish she’d let the damn thing be. But provocation is her gift, and that’s what she spends most of the song doing: I just wonder if “All those imitators, stick it” is aimed at Santigold.
Alex Macpherson: The week M.I.A. released her exceedingly stupid video to “Born Free” – claiming to find political meaning in it is tantamount to admitting you no longer hold any pretensions to intellectual adequacy – Amerie wrote a sequence of eloquent, smart and passionate tweets denouncing new immigration legislation in Arizona. Guess who got the publicity from supposedly serious news outlets describing her as a “revolutionary” “activist”? The attention paid to M.I.A.’s asinine, primary school-level politics has actually always galled more than the sloganeering itself; her knack for rhythmic hooks and irresistible beats means that they’re usually ignorable. That’s not the case here, though: “Born Free” is near-unlistenable, which means that M.I.A.’s idiocy suddenly matters a lot more.
Edward Okulicz: Ghastly as a tune (i.e. there isn’t a tune), risible as a “statement”, lame as provocation and just embarrassingly look-at-me as a video. Provocateur? Commentator? Even remotely coherent? No, jumped-up art student throwing signifiers together without any skill, who has ideas above her station and songs beneath listenability. Telling imitators to stick it is pretty big for someone who hasn’t had an original musical idea in her life, frankly.
Matt Cibula: Wow, annoyingly propulsive, rabble-rousing, great echo. I am not convinced of the whole “she’s irrelevant” thing, heard that line before and it was wrong then and it’s wrong now.
Martin Skidmore: I’m basically for M.I.A., but this rather annoys me. It’s built on a bed of “Ghost Rider” by Suicide, and her vocal over the top (sort of rapping, sort of singing, which I guess isn’t so far from what Alan Vega did) is rather lo-fi and incoherent, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot else added to the original apart from some fairly dull beats. The sleeve and the video seem to be claiming political weight and resonance for the track that I can’t hear in it at all.
Anthony Easton: Didn’t Dylan tell us not to intermingle our pop music with our global protest politics? This is just silly.
Jonathan Bogart: M.I.A. enters her exhausted period. The sample is notoriously from Suicide, but the aesthetics are pure Public Image, grinding paranoid dub. But the smeary, out-of-focus, delay-wired effects on the vocals also make me think Damon Albarn in recent years, whether with Gorillaz or Blur or anyone: a nagging repetition, not even dynamic enough to be called a hook, just insistence. I have an awful lot of affection for this kind of music; I would need to spend a whole lot more time with “Born Free” to be certain that she does it well.
Pete Baran: You don’t come to M.I.A. for complex political dissection of issues, though I can’t say I necessarily come to her for a Meat Beat Manifesto remix of a Fall track either. And yet this is lively in such a way that M.I.A. can seem to turn any old shit into something oddly banging.
Chuck Eddy: “Interesting.” And not in a bad way. Drum-circle moshpit start, dub disapperances, lo-fi cassette-tape disentegration, intermittent phrasing from Mark E. Smith, “I’ve got something to say” hook from the Misfits, title from Elsa the Lioness. Not clear on what it adds up to. Glad it exists.
Alfred Soto: I know some people prefer her agitprop subsumed by the beats, but I like it when her thoughts are of a piece with the commotion.
Mallory O’Donnell: No one should have to spend so much money to sound so dreadful. I suppose after the sample clearance fee and that ridiculous video, there was only enough cash for a Radio Shack mic and some shitty distortion pedals. All of which would have been fine if there was any substance at the root of it.
David Moore: It’s annoying, but is it Art?
Spencer Ackerman: How can someone sample “Ghost Rider” by Suicide and turn it into something more anxious and anxiety-inducing than the original? By the way, I’m reviewing this single from the press room at Guantanamo Bay. And it’s exactly what I need right now.