Childish Gambino’s This Is America falls victim to the culture it condemns
Remember when Kanye said that he and President Trump both had “dragon power,” or something? And then he agreed with that conservative Internet lady! Wasn’t that crazy?
Kanye made his slew of outlandish remarks two weeks ago, but it already feels like a lifetime. In the public consciousness, the details are already hazy. It was funny, and distressing, and maybe it meant something, but we weren’t really sure. So we did as the Internet does: we chewed it up and analyzed it and spit it out into oblivion, waiting for the next juicy piece of content to fill the void.
As if on cue, Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) stepped in, releasing the video for his new single “This Is America” this past weekend. Gambino’s video takes place entirely in a warehouse, where the rapper performs popular dance moves as chaos and violence break out in the background. It’s infectious and catchy in a deceptive way: the video makes you want to dance, even as it implicates you for caring more about Gambino’s moves than the violence that surrounds it.
“This Is America” strives to be equal parts Infinite Jest and Get Out, a sweeping criticism of our need to be constantly entertained so that we may ignore the systemic violence and racism all around us, even as the culture appropriates the entertainment trademarks of the race it suppresses. The video is rich in detail, imbued with imagery of Jim Crow and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Glover does not hesitate to provoke, donning confederate army pants and gunning down a church choir in reference to the 2015 Charleston massacre.
It’s lofty, but it largely succeeds: “This Is America” is a triumph. Glover has earned praise for his hit TV show Atlanta and his funk-infused 2016 album, Awaken, My Love!. With the release of “This Is America,” Glover has solidified himself as a critical darling.
I’ve always enjoyed Glover as Gambino, even when his act was just crude shtick over indie song instrumentals, a persona widely panned by critics. In a review of Gambino’s debut commercial release, Camp, Pitchfork declared the album “preposterously self-obsessed, but not the least bit self-aware...[Gambino] uses heavy topics like race, masculinity, relationships, street cred, and "real hip-hop" as props to construct a false outsider persona.”
Now, critics are rushing to anoint Glover as one of the preeminent cultural authorities on those same heavy topics. In a review of “This Is America,” Pitchfork sharply changed course on Glover’s wisdom, asserting “the video and song use the candor of trap to ground the rapture of black joy, and thus the ambivalence of the United States’ relation to blackness.” The New Yorker praised Glover for his sharp criticism of a culture desensitized to violence and distracted by media, declaring he “forces us to relive public traumas and barely gives us a second to breathe before he forces us to dance.”
They’re right: Glover’s video does do that. It’s a sharp piece of satire. The troubling irony, though, is that the video itself is trapped within the entertainment-Internet-culture complex that Glover is calling out as a distraction to real issues, and “This Is America” is already being eaten alive by the inevitable attention-deficit cycle of the web.
First came the praise, from sources like The New Yorker and Dear White People creator Justin Simien, who on Twitter called the video “a love letter” and said he was “grateful and alive because of [Glover's] work.”
Then came the counter-reactions, from all sides. Black writers and activists called out Glover for sensationalizing black trauma. Alt-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones called the video “emotional idiocy” and said Glover was doing a “voodoo dance.” K. Austin Collins in Vanity Fair argued Glover was selling false goods: “I’m wary of any claim that ‘We’ are distracted from black violence,” he writes, “because who’s ‘we,’ really? Every other day of the week, America’s complaint is that the blacks doth protest too much.”
Eventually came the memes, stripping the original video of any context it once had. Glover’s poignant message about violence and racism became this:
And it’s only been three days since "This Is America" dropped. The video swooped in and criticized our fleeting attention spans as it ironically strove to capture our attention. The video is the biggest piece of entertainment in America outside of the Avengers. And it probably won’t be relevant in a week.
At best, "This Is America" is a nuanced perspective on American society. At worst, it’s become part of the distraction machine itself. “This Is America” pleads with us: pay attention to the real issues. And so we debate for days whether that thought is legitimate at the expense of conversations on real violence. We spend more time arguing over whether Glover should have shot a church choir in his video than about the 76 wounded and 9 killed in Chicago just this week. Those conversations aren’t mutually exclusive, but when you produce entertainment that explicitly criticizes the public for not paying attention to real issues, the dichotomy has to be considered.
This isn’t entirely Glover’s fault, really. He’s calling out a destructive culture in the same way we all communicate now: on the Internet. It’s what I’m doing by writing this very article, and I’m not really sure how else to contribute to the conversation. Truly, the Internet is not a conversation: by equalizing every voice it effectively smashes them all down into some unintelligible, nihilistic cacophony of noise. With “This Is America,” Glover is delivering a pointed satire of American culture. But when it gets inevitably swallowed up by the very culture he is calling out, I’m not sure that it means anything.
Perhaps, as my wise friend Zoë said as we discussed the video, the radical thing to do is to talk to people in person. No criticism of the Internet can ever really beat the Internet. We don’t need better content; we need less content. Glover’s condemnation of our short attention spans is spot on. But ultimately, it just contributes to the noise.
Two days ago, Kanye posted a link to Gambino’s “This is America” video on Twitter, as if he hadn’t tweeted “we are programmed to always talk and fight race issues” five days earlier. It’s as if his screed on Donald Trump and Candace Owens and the delegitimization of American slavery wasn’t ever something to be taken seriously. Kanye knew his words wouldn’t last, because he knows how America functions: there’s always something new. As he tweeted yesterday, we’re all “hyper focused on the now.” At least, that’s what I think he said. It feels so long ago.