Remember when Kanye West said that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice”? If you remember, West’s comment didn’t even warrant a smart quip from Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” — Michael Che simply said, with a poker face, “Pass.” You may also remember, on the same SNL episode, actor Donald Glover getting in his fair share of Kanye jokes in a short sketch called “A Kanye Place.” He was also the musical guest in his persona of Childish Gambino.
If you remember, Gambino used the opportunity to premiere his latest and instantly iconic single, “This is America,” While the song stands on its own as a piece of art, the four-minute video, directed by Hiro Murai, elevated Gambino’s themes and messages to another level.
If you remember, that is why the video is, and was, so subversive.
Let me refresh your memory. In the video, Gambino not only takes the spotlight but he sticks to the camera with a kind of addiction, forever jonesing for the attention lavished upon him by the lens. Basking in the glow of that attention, his shirtless, fluid body executes limpid choreography against nothing less than an erupting riot. You would think the chaos would eclipse him. The point is, and was, that it doesn’t.
If you remember the video, Gambino reclaims the focus of the camera after he guns down a gospel choir, without apology or consciousness, delivering a verse on materialism and status:
I’m so fitted
I’m on Gucci
I’m so pretty
Jog your memory and go back and watch this part of the video, where the bystanders above him take videos (on their phones, of course) of everything that ensues.
You may remember that moment in the video, or you may remember the video as a whole, and how it repeats, again and again, the disturbing truth around instantly gratifying media and entertainment, whether it’s our peers on Instagram or reading Kanye’s latest tweet. Do you remember how it takes our focus away from social issues — namely gun violence and namely race — as they unravel and fester in front of us.
Gambino’s video was released two weeks ago. Since then, America has witnessed two school shootings on the same day — reaching 101 mass shootings as of last Friday. And much of our media have cycled past the reported 55 Palestinians shot by the Israeli Defense Forces last week.
Did the new Deadpool movie or the “Laurel vs. Yanny” auditory illusion distract us? “This is America” suggests so.
How ironic that a song and video about everything that distracts us from the issues that are unraveling and festering in front of us gets in the way of not distracting us. There’s so much movement that “This Is America” requires rewatching, rewinding, rethinking. If you don’t, the video will distract you from a personified Death riding a pale horse, trotting slowly behind the rioters. Gambino dupes us with dance and more dance as he dances on and on, happily obscuring and distracting more and more of our view.
We live in a culture that not only emphasizes the trivial but fetishizes it. We prize the new, whatever the new may be, over the important, whatever the important may be. The lyrics of “This Is America” — “You go tell somebody” goes the repeated refrain — satirizes our diminishing capacity for attention but also our thirst for it.
The movements choreographed in the video includes at least 10 different, popular dances that have gone viral, such as the South African Gwara Gwara, of which a single video on YouTube has over 2,000,000 views. Because it’s more tempting to pay attention to that than, say, the coverage of mass shootings at a school.
We know Glover/Gambino thinks deeply about how the internet affects our lives; in fact, he dedicated his second studio album in 2014 to this topic. In spite of the instant thrills it grants us, he told Complex magazine, the internet makes him “still feel very empty.” I remember that album, but most people have moved on.
Pop culture and the internet can be used as tools for confrontation and to share political viewpoints; it’s not just a place of trending dance videos or slot machines to scratch that notification kick. On May 22 — two days ago — fans of Glover took over a pro-Trump Reddit page — a place that spreads conspiracy theories and fake news reports — declaring Glover as “The One True Donald.” The video for “This Is America” is true to the song title in that gun violence is a uniquely American cancer. It’s killing us, literally, even as we make art of it.
As this Vox article points out, searches related to the Las Vegas concert shooting last October dropped to a mere fraction of what they were within a week of the incident. Americans don’t have amnesia about mass violence, we have no attention span. We know that Gambino’s video was massively popular the day he released it; it currently has more than 180,000,000 views. Searching the song on Google Trends, I see that the popularity of the song was nearly halved by the end of a week. Searching for Texas shooting,” people seemed to have moved on within 48 hours.
It’s ironic that a video about distraction culture gets in the way of not distracting us. This is America. It’s been a week since a day with two mass shootings, and we’ve already…