M.I.A., a British musician, has stirred up controversy with her latest music video, the nearly nine-minute "Born Free", which features nudity, drugs and the ruthless execution of redheads at the hands of apparently American soldiers. What's interesting, however, is not the way it has divided media and her fans (YouTube apparently pulled it off its site owing to its brutal content), but that it highlights a growing trend in the way music is promoted.
Not so long ago, the music video was dying. Opportunities for broadcast on television were limited, label revenues were falling and the video was a luxury many couldn't afford. Broadband internet has given the format a new lease of life. But where before videos remained in thrall to the song's subject matter or sensibility—such as with Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes"—the connection between video and music has become more tenuous than ever. Indeed, the song is nearly incidental: the closest M.I.A. gets to her video's content is a declaration that "I got something to say". What that is remains inconsequential.
Music videos are now back for several reasons, from the rise of the meticulously stylised pop icon to the fall in video-production costs. But the internet has made videos an increasingly powerful marketing tool for a band's brand, particularly as social-networking sites increase a video's viral potential. The M.I.A. video represents the latest example of a disturbing trend, whereby music labels cravenly chase eyeballs by creating ever-more shocking content.
Initially this happened by accident: OK Go's charming dance routines on "A Million Ways" achieved millions of viewings in 2006, but charm is hard to replicate. Imposing Hollywood values on lengthy videos is a more established and effective method: Lady Gaga and Beyonce's gaudy "Telephone" reached millions of viewers thanks to its glossy, high-tech and indulgent eccentricity. But such levels of investment are a gamble that requires low odds, and its hints of hot lesbian prison sex no doubt helped the cause. Sex and violence, you see, are sure-fire hit generators, and a slew of music-video nasties has clogged up the broadband pipes in recent months. Rammstein broke taboos last September by pursuing traditional titillation to its logical extreme: though still thematically linked to the song, their "Pussy" video featured graphic sex acts. (It was first uploaded to an adult website, gaining enviable notoriety in the process.) More recently, critics' darlings Health released "We Are Water", a gory horror short featuring an explicit beheading. In "Foolin", Devandra Banhart, a kooky singer-songwriter, is seen engaging in bloody S&M, while Erykah Badu appears stripping naked in Houston, filmed voyeur-style, for "Window Seat", before she is apparently shot where JFK was assassinated.
Music videos were always about sexy image-making, but this latest crop of unbridled sensationalism is indicative of increasingly cynical attempts to court publicity. The internet still provides a platform for aspiring filmmakers, freed from the constraints of broadcast regulators, but record companies are using this freedom to pander to our lowest common urges. The rules may have all but disappeared online, but the illusion that they're still being broken remains seductive. Whether this will last remains to be seen: taboos lose their power when there is no fear in breaching them. Furthermore, while M.I.A.'s sensational video may have generated headlines, one wonders whether anyone can remember the song.