M.I.A.: Best Video of 2012

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You know you’ve got a great music video on your hands when, two days after its premiere, you flip the nation the bird during a Super Bowl halftime performance and the main media discussion about you remains how cool you look atop a moving car. Honestly, 10 months later, how many of us even remember M.I.A. was at the Super Bowl? If Janet Jackson had dropped her own “Bad Girls” around the time of 2004’s Nipplegate, would the term “wardrobe malfunction” even be a part of our lexicon today?

The general concept behind the “Bad Girls” video is hardly unique. “Cool-looking people do cool-looking things in cars” can summarize any number of hip-hop and pop videos. As Popular Mechanics noted, “Second only to hot women, hot cars have been a staple of the music video since the medium’s early days.” And while “Bad Girls” is a thrilling spectacle that features plenty of both of those things, what makes it truly great is the way it manages to—quite literally—turn those music video tropes on their head.

Shot in Morocco and directed by Romain Gavras (who also helmed the rapper’s contentious “Born Free” video), “Bad Girls” features a stunning display of “drifting”—underground stunt driving, the Arab world’s answer to ghost-riding the whip, apparently—where drivers balance their moving vehicles up on two wheels and passengers ride on top of the tilted cars. In between the car tricks, M.I.A. gyrates and poses in front of a burning oil field and leads a group of dancing, gun-toting locals through the streets.

Like anything Maya Arulpragasam does, it is not without controversy. Some critics complained that the video relies on tired Arab stereotypes, depicting the people as mysterious, dangerous Others and seeking to exoticize the culture. But, according to M.I.A., the video—like the song it accompanies—is about empowerment, not exploitation.

In a behind-the-scenes video released shortly after “Bad Girls,” she explains that her inspiration was a YouTube video of “this one Iranian chick driving a truck,” adding that “she was wearing like this crazy outfit, loads of gold and amazing nails and super feminine, but she was like all covered up and she was a trucker.” Although filming took place in Morocco instead of Saudi Arabia (because, as M.I.A. jokes in her YouTube comments section, “I didn’t want to go to jail”) the video’s powerful imagery is a declaration of support for the Saudi Women to Drive movement, as women in that nation fight for the right to operate vehicles.

The female drivers in “Bad Girls” actually play against Arab stereotypes; they’re not subservient or oppressed. They’re strong, flashy and, well, pretty badass. Likewise, the men in the video don’t seem to be holding onto any antiquated beliefs about women—no, here at least, they’re cheering them on in the streets.

By picking up the car video theme and dropping it into a new setting—a dusty, Middle Eastern road instead of a glowing cityscape, with older family cars being driven by locals instead of shiny sports cars operated by pop stars and stuntmen—“Bad Girls” plays with our perceptions of Arab culture and hip-hop iconography alike.

Take, for example, M.I.A.’s very presence in the video. As usual, she oozes swagger, whether she’s whipping around her gold chain or casually filing her nails while balancing precariously atop a moving car. There’s a strong female sexuality to “Bad Girls,” as she dares boys to “pull me closer if you think you can hang” and warns that “when I get to where I’m going, gonna have you trembling.”

But for all the sexy posturing, she’s remarkably covered up. Her wardrobe in the video is all hoodies, pants and long-sleeved shirts. Even a shiny boustier-like top goes over a longer, more modest layer. M.I.A.’s outfits are bold and sometimes tight, and they prove that female artists don’t need to show a lot of skin to be attractive. In “Bad Girls” (and in nearly everything she does), she’s empowered and in charge of her own sexuality, rising to the top of the rap game without resorting to exploiting herself.

Is all her sneering and general badassery part of a calculated, carefully crafted image? Sure. Her swing-and-a-miss of a Super Bowl performance is all the evidence you need to prove that point. But that image—a powerful, strong woman who’s unafraid to challenge authority—remains an extremely important one. Live fast, die young, create intelligent and action-packed music videos under the desert sun—bad girls do it well, and the world could use more of them.

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