This is America: Subversion, Authorial Intent, and the Potential of Popular Music

by Evan Phillips

Evan Phillips unpacks Childish Gambino's riveting latest release.

You can say what you like about Donald Glover, but the man does like to keep busy. At time of writing, Glover (AKA Childish Gambino, from here on referred to as the former) is jetting around the world doing press for his latest film, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Atlanta– the television show that he co-created and stars in- had its season finale a few days ago and he dropped a new song while hosting Saturday Night Live. It’s called This is America. You’ve almost definitely heard it and you’ve probably seen the video at least once. Why am I reiterating all this? Because This is America is one of those rare cases of an artist using their medium and their platform do deliver a multimedia piece that is equal parts provocative, shocking, nihilistic and razor sharp in its satire. That’s a lot of praise to lay on one song from a popular artist and I need to justify it, so get comfortable, grab a gallon of coke and a silo of popcorn and reach for a copy of introductory film theory. This is going to be heavy.

First, however, some numbers for the more quantitative minds out there: 111 million- total views of This is America’s video on YouTube (at time of writing); #1- the spot the song currently holds on the Billboard chart; probably hundreds- of video responses and articles discussing the song and the ‘hidden messages’ of the video; and 17- seconds of silence before the last part of the video, considered to be a reference to the victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida in February. That last point tells you all you need to know about the level of discourse surrounding the song’s video; I don’t use the phrase Kubrickian very often, but I think it absolutely applies here. Everything from the costumes to the camera movements have been examined in detail and, while there will always be some tenuous links, most of what has been revealed seems to be intentional on Glover’s part. From his movements early on that mimick Jim Crow caricatures to the careful handling of guns while ‘black bodies are not being handled with as much care as the weapons that are used against them’; hell, some people have even seen the red cloths used to carry these guns out of the frame as indicative of Republicans lauding over the second amendment.

So the video’s symbolic but you didn’t need me to tell you that, there is so much going on in the majority of shots that it warrants multiple viewings just to take everything in. This is America’s genius is not its heavy symbolism but its use of an inherently popular, inherently consumerist mode of expression- i.e. the music video- to challenge the viewer and the listener. Yes, those two really do go hand in hand here. The extreme contrast of jubilant, afrobeat rhythms and a gospel choir in the intro and interludes versus dark, trap percussion, a rattling bassline and ice-cold ad libs from the likes of Young Thug and Quavo coinciding with two on-screen shootings not only critiques the instant gratification mindset that the video’s use of viral dance routines also represents, but in Glover’s dead eyed stare into the camera, it’s as if he’s daring us, the viewer, to be shocked or disgusted when moments ago we were enjoying the sunny melodies and the smiling kids and their dance moves. You can almost hear him say, ‘You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?’

If I may throw yet more theory into this discussion, Marshall McLuhan famously stated ‘the medium is the message’; essentially meaning any message or viewpoint expressed by a piece of art is enshrined by the medium in which it resides. In this case, the music video. It is worth remembering that music videos started out as a means to further promote songs to a prospective audience, nothing more. Much has changed since the glory days of MTV however, now A-list Hollywood directors have their hands in the music business and the music video has become an almost disparate part of the marketing behind a song.

With This is America however, director Hiro Murai has embraced the tropes of the modern music video (sweeping camera movements, multi-layered choreography, special effects) to subvert the excess and ham-fisted symbolic concepts of your average top 100 video. For instance, take the setting of an abandoned warehouse that may or may not be a prison of some kind is unglamorous and exudes a coldness and an indifference to the chaos that starts to unfold within.  Or instead, SZA’s brief appearance towards the end of the video that prompted a skip-back from myself, proving perhaps just how expectant we are of a celebrity presence in videos, and how they, like all the other trappings and finery, detract from the real ‘message’ of the piece.

The fact that This is America has topped the Billboard chart (the first time Glover has managed this under his Childish Gambino moniker) makes me both hopeful and uneasy, much like the video itself. Uneasy in the slightly pessimistic feeling that the video’s point about ‘ignorance is bliss’ and our readiness to move on from tragedy as soon as something new comes along may be being ignored, and that maybe people really are watching it for the dancing. I choose at present, however, to err on the side of cautious optimism. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (yes this is the last film reference, I promise) was praised by many not just for its visual marvels but for its three-pronged narrative that respected the intelligence of its audience enough to not point out the obvious every ten minutes and let them follow along. That sums up my feelings towards This is America, really. It shocked me, and I’m not sure I am willing to say I ‘enjoy’ it, per say; rather, I applaud its creator for making such a bold statement because he had something he wanted, or perhaps, he needed to say.

In short, it’s the most important record of the year so far and I’m actually delighted that Donald Glover has refused to discuss the song so far because it only adds more fuel to the fires of debate surrounding the song, and we owe it to ourselves to keep listening.