Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, known to the music world as M.I.A., is no stranger to controversy. Whether she’s playing coy with revolutionary politics, self-releasing electro-rap-pop mixtapes, or flipping the bird at the most-hyped national sports event of the year, the British/Tamil/Sri Lankan indie-starlet knows the easiest way into the headlines is through D.I.Y scandal. The self-proclaimed “refugee” rap star’s latest video for “Bad Girls,” debuting after her ethnic-cleansing video commentary, “Born Free,” once again flirts with crowd-riling as she, quite literally, sets the desert ablaze, all the while giving Western conceptions of Saudi gender dynamics a rather raucous four-minute slot in the spotlight.
The video for “Bad Girls” is a classic example of the shallow nature of Arulpragasam’s work as a “revolutionary” hip hop artist. Although shot in Ouarzazate, Morocco, the video tempts international censors by depicting (presumably) Saudi women, bedecked in streetwear-inspired print burqas and a harem of gold chains, “drifting” down sparse country roadways lined with gawking Saudi men. Apart from the drifting cars and the copious, Technicolor hip-gyration by Ms. Arulpragasam, the scene is rife with Western-conceived Arab stereotypes: statuesque Arabian horses, a stretching desert landscape, big, chunky Jeeps cutting through the shifting sands.
“Bad Girls” will not change anything for women in Saudi Arabia, who still may not drive, and who still remain under arguably the most ferocious patriarchal system that exists today.
As is customary with M.I.A’s aesthetic, the medium is far more important than the message. While giving life to the rarely-depicted Saudi pastime known as tafheet or hagwalah, in which Saudi men “drift” their cars across an empty road, Arulpragasam uses the exoticized Arab backdrop to depict Saudi women doing something they are not permitted to do in their home country: drive.
Is this radical? No. Is this righteous? Maybe. Do we Western viewers want a flashy music video from a predictably alternative non-American popstar? Oh, hell yes.
In many ways, the video—directed by Frenchman Romain Gavres, who directed Arulpragasam’s appalling previous video “Born Free”—is a perfectly pleasing reversal to her genre’s objectifying and tired aesthetic. Sure, there are the customary fast cars, gorgeous women, and excessive bling of rap video cliché, but in “Bad Girls” the trio is flipped on its head. Here, dark-eyed women are draped toe-to-iris in rich fabrics and gold, and it is they who are driving the cars with reckless, at times terrifying prowess. It is this aspect, coupled with memorable costuming and a steely-confident, ravishing Arulpragasam, which makes “Bad Girls” a success. Human rights, in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, have nothing to do with it.
After all, this is a music video, an art form meant to provide visual bolster to a previously exclusively sonic experience, and in that regard, it’s a smash hit. M.I.A.’s banal lyrics (“Live fast, die young/Bad girls do it well”), given life decades before by countless original “bad girls” like Etta James, Janet Jackson, and Madonna, are bolstered by the visual alley-oop of glitzy and purposefully jarring images. It’s a refreshing departure from the common derriere-and-décolletage-centric rap videos by female pop artists, some of which prove enjoyable despite the obvious and over-the-top displays of gender performance (see: Nicki Minaj’s “Stupid Ho,” Ciara’s “Ride”).
But those, even when viewed as outlandish and male-oriented displays of femininity, are still music videos. If they give vibrant, new life to a song, they have achieved their express purpose. And although it toys with such hot-button issues as feminism, patriarchy, and the supremely un-Western Arab experience, “Bad Girls” is no exception.
After all, Arulpragasam’s project offers nothing more than rote Occidental typecasting of the Arab world, set atop a parade of glittering images and pop clichés. It is clearly a big-budget project, one meant to offer the guise of social justice commentary from the safehouse of a swagger-laden, Western rap video.
“Bad Girls” will not change anything for women in Saudi Arabia, who still may not drive, and who still remain under arguably the most ferocious patriarchal system that exists today. Arulpragasam and Gavres made an inconsequential video filled with flash, freshness, and intrigue, a four-minute vignette of color, bass, and burnt rubber.
My suggestion? Do as the burqa’d women in the video: Ignore the signs. Enjoy the ride.