Transcript: Childish Gambino's Society of the Spectacle

By now some of you have surely seen the music video for “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, aka actor and comedian Donald Glover. Some people have called it a work of creative genius, subversive, and the best social commentary they’ve ever seen. I’d call it maybe the most crucial piece of mainstream art that we’ve seen in some time. And I’ll get into the reasons why I think that later, because that’s the reason for this, but first let me summarize what you see in this video for those who haven’t seen it yet. This is also linked in the show notes if you want to watch along.

 

So, the video starts with a title screen that says This is America and after a few seconds cuts to the interior of an expansive warehouse where we see a guitar sitting upright on a chair. Now if you look at the support beams to the right of the chair, you’ll see Glover standing behind them with his back turned. It’s kinda subtle, but you’re definitely meant to see him back there, and this tips us off right away that we need to pay attention to what’s happening in the background, that what’s happening in the background is just as important, and as we move through the video, actually more important than what’s happening in the foreground. It’s a nice set-up scene, and by the end of this we’ll know why.

So a black man enters from the right of the frame and sits in the chair and starts strumming the guitar to the beat of the music. I saw some people online say this was actually Trayvon Martin’s dad, I’m sure you guys remember Trayvon’s story. I saw others refute that, though, and I’m not really sure who that is. And the camera has been moving this whole time towards Glover and now we’re focused on him, shirtless, back to the camera, hands straight down to his sides, he kinda jerks his head to the beat, slowly turns and starts dancing to the music. The dancing is what some have called a Jim Crow-style caricature and is obviously meant to mock the viral dances that you see across social media. And that mocking tone is important to keep in mind, as the lyrics and the dancing in the video is essentially one big fuck you to modern rap and pop music and the greater American culture.

Glover dances up behind the man in the chair, who no longer has the guitar and has a white bag-looking thing over his head and Glover here reaches into the back of his pants and pulls out a gun and strikes a specific pose here and let’s pause this real quick and look at this pose. A lot of people have pointed out that this is the same pose made famous by Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white minstrel performer who used blackface to perform a song dance called Jump Jim Crow in 1828, so some interesting commentary there. Let’s hit play again and watch Glover shoot the guy in the chair now. Notice the shift in the music from light and soft to a bit edgier and grittier. A kid runs in and he hands the gun to him and the kid handles it with what looks like a satin or silk cloth while two other kids run in and drag the victim’s body off rather unceremoniously, so the message here is the gun is handled more delicately than the body of a dead black man.

Then we have more of the mock dancing and we have a few black kids, maybe teenagers, dressed in school uniforms come in behind him and start doing the same dance, and this seems to hint that they’re essentially following the moves of an idol, of a celebrity and mimicking them.

Now, as this is going on, in the background we have essentially the equivalent of riots happening. People being chased, cars being looted and vandalized, more kids dancing in the background and some money floating in the air around them. And then we shift the scene to a group of a black church choir, ten people, singing and dancing to the music, Glover comes into the screen through a door behind them, sings and dances along with them up to the foreground of the scene and then stops, looks quite disenchanted by it all and then he’s tossed an automatic weapon and turns and shoots all the choir members, again hands the gun to a kid who holds in the same style cloth we saw earlier, and then walks away past a police car and rioters and continues to dance into another scene...

Where he continues to do this, again, this caricature dancing, this mock dancing, as the group of kids return to mimic the dance behind him while the riot scene intensifies behind them, including a guy getting thrown off an upper level of this warehouse down onto a car, and then we pan up to see a group of kids filming the entire scene on their phones, their mouths are all covered with what looks like white cloths or bandanas or maybe something like those masks you wear to block air pollution inhalation. And now we have another mock dance and now there’s a car on fire in the background and let’s pause it again here. You’ll notice the horse and the rider in the background. That is said to be a reference to Revelations 6:8: "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him." One commenter noted that maybe Glover is saying we’re so distracted getting money that we miss the ushering in of our own destruction in the process.

We have a close-up of the dancing here and then he pulls a mock gun pose and everyone scatters and the music stops and he lights up a joint. And then walks off screen, cue the music back in, and we see the black man with the white hood playing the guitar in the chair, Glover climbs up on one of the cars and does some more dancing. We pull out on the scene to see a bunch of the looted cars and singer Sizzah sitting on one of them. And then we switch to the final scene here which is Glover running in the dark and then we see he’s actually being chased by a group of what looks like white people, and the video ends. Some people have said he’s running because of the joint he had earlier, maybe indicating how we’re more concerned with persecuting people for minor drug offenses as opposed to, say, the police officers who kill innocent people and seem to be rarely punished for it. Another interpretation from commenter Abiola Oke, who is black, he wrote this about it: Finally, we see a terrified Gambino being chased by zombies of white people in what I understood to be a metaphor for the pervasiveness of white supremacy in black life. White supremacy seems to be the zombie that just won’t die, trapping us like a caged dog as Young Thug sings the outro, “You just a black man in this world… I kenneled him in the backyard / That probably ain’t life for a dog, for a big dog.”

We should also look at the lyrics real quick. They’re just as tongue-in-cheek and satirical as the dancing. Some of the lyrics, we just wanna party, we just want the money, look at how I’m livin' now, police be trippin' now, yeah this is america, guns in my area, i got the strap, i gotta carry em, yeah yeah i’m a go get the bag, or i’m a go get the pad, grandma told me get the money black man, and here’s my favorite part later in the song, look how I’m geekin' out, I’m so fitted, I’m on Gucci, I’m so pretty. And then skipping to the very end, the outro, you just a black man in this world, you just a barcode, you just a black man in this world, drivin' expensive foreigns, you just a big dog, I kenneled him in the backyard.

So you can see these lyrics speak to the materialism that’s run rampant in this country, as well as other issues like police brutality, social media consumption, and what people here are really paying attention to. Are we seeing what’s happening in the background, or are we just focused on the catchy song and dance distractions thrown at us 24/7. We seemed too consumed with American capitalism to really give a shit about the background.

Now, why was he shirtless doing this? I saw one person say it was a reference to the idiom losing your shirt, which indicates losing all your possessions, and is a direct commentary on black america losing all their possessions but still dancing to the music they’re creating. That’s another materialistic message, and I don’t think having less and dancing to your music is bad. It’s just that the music mostly sucks. One of the dances in the video too was apparently called the Gwara Gwara and was a South African dance that Rihanna did at the Grammys earlier this year.

On some level this is pretty ironic that a rich black entertainer is delivering this commentary. I mean, I don’t think Donald Glover knows the struggles of real America. Ya know he actually hosted Saturday Night Live the night before this video was released.It’s odd the video was released on a Sunday, that’s pretty rare, but you can see why they did that, holding it until after his SNL gig, where he also performed this song. I bring this up because in his opening monologue he referenced being poor and living in New York but now he lives in L.A. and it’s great to come back to New York because he’s rich now and it’s more enjoyable. So, hey, that’s great, man. Kind of contradicts the point of your message in the music though. I get it’s a sketch comedy show, but still. You’re not joking about your status.

Now, when I first watched the video on Sunday afternoon it already had 1.5 million views. The next time I pulled it up a couple hours later it had 6 million and on Monday morning it had more than 20 million. It was also being shared all over Twitter and Reddit, and all things considered, this is what anyone would call a trending video.

But I noticed some people commenting both in the video comments on YouTube and on social media that it wasn’t trending on YouTube in America, but it was in other countries, including places like Korea and China.

So, I logged onto YouTube, and clicked the Trending section in the top left of the web page. The top 10 video titles and the channels they came from were as follows:

  1. David Blaine and the Ice Pick Trick from The Daily Show with Trevor Noah

  2. $8 Toast vs $20 Toast - Is It Worth It? From Buzzfeed

  3. Carrie Underwood’s video for her song Cry Pretty

  4. Rainbow Paint on a Speaker from The Slo-Mo Guys

  5. The full race of the Kentucky Derby from NBC Sports

  6. DIY 16 lb Sushi Donut eating challenge from Hellthy Junk Food (hellthy spelled hellthy)

  7. Nicki Minaj’s video for her song Chun Li

  8. Stephen A Smith commentary on LeBron James performance over the weekend from ESPN

  9. The True All-Screen Smartphone is Here from Unbox Therapy

  10. And The Proposal of Felix and Marzia from Marzia

Now, with the exception of the Nicki Minaj video, all of these other videos combined do not equal the view total for Childish Gambino’s video for his latest song “This Is America”. In fact, as I’m recording this they don’t even add up to half of what Gambino’s view total is.

I found that curious, so I asked some friends of mine in other countries to let me know what they saw in their trending feeds. I had folks in Canada, Australia, England and France tell me that the Gambino video was in the top two of each of their feeds. The top two in four other countries, but not to be found in the top 10 of my trending feed here in America.

Okay, so, maybe that’s a fluke. After all, YouTube does not like me or my content - they’ve already deleted my channel once. So I asked three of my friends here in the States if they saw the video in their trending feeds and they all reported back with a no.

Now, that was Monday. Since then, the video has started to appear in that trending section here in the states. I guess google just can’t suppress it for long without it being a bit too obvious. It’s also at more than 42M views as I record this.

So, what does this tell us about actual America? What is the nature of this America that’s not being mumble rapped about by establishment-approved musicians?

Maybe Twitter and Instagram can help us answer those questions. I posted this in all three places asking for opinions. On Twitter and Instagram, I put up a poll and got pretty decent responses on there. I gave people two options: was the video showcasing real america or was it just more media propaganda, and it was pretty close, but after tallying up everything 56% of people thought it was propaganda and 44 thought it was america. I had one person on Twitter say I should have included an option that said both, and he was right, it really is both. It’s American propaganda.

And that’s why I recorded this, because I have to ask if this really is America, and I do think it is a version of it, but I think it’s the version of it that’s broadcast through media such as this, and through entertainment such as this. And the agenda of those entities has long been focused on some sort of gun control or even confiscation if you wanna get really conspiratorial about it. They also love to create division among the population, whether it’s through race or gender or political parties or sexual orientation. These are always social issues that are politicized, and the fact that they’re politicized and emphasized so much in media should clue us into the fact that there are, like the Gambino’s video here says, there are things going on in the background. I don’t think this was made to be some sort of meta commentary on that, but I can make a case for it. There’s more going on in the background than what this video even suggests.

And here’s where we can look at things like poisoned water in places like Flint and and fluoridated water everywhere, genetically modified foods, suppressed disease cures,  the rampant geoengineered climate change and the frankenskies, and the endless war on - well, on everyone, which I don’t think is restricted to a specific race. We’re all struggling and fighting to stay alive here. We’re all just barcodes and account numbers. We’re all viewed as just consumers who use shit and then get rid of it and use more shit in its place. I know this video was geared towards Black America, but the message needs to be analyzed from all angles, because it’s pertinent, and it could also be divisive if we allow it to be.

Now, one more interpretation of this I wanna share, this one from one of the many Reddit threads on this video. From reddit user reddit is pretty rad, he or she calls the video the society of the spectacle in music video form. That piqued my interest, because I’d heard that term before but wasn’t sure what exactly it was so I looked it up, and because I’m sort of lazy, I’m gonna link to the wiki for it.

Regardless of the interpretation of this video, this is, at the least, what art is meant to be, or supposed to be. You won’t find this in those Carrie Underwood and Nicki Minaj songs, and you won’t find it in any Lil Uzi or Lil Xan mumble rap bullshit. Even if this is propaganda on some level, and it is, all media and entertainment is - but even so, this is the vehicle in which we should challenge and question and think critically.

And if the response to this on Twitter and Reddit and 4chan is any indication, people are at the very least doing just that. Dialogue around this piece of art is open and has been damn near nonstop for a few days now. And whether you enjoy the art or not is irrelevant. That’s not the point of it. Part of the reason we’re where we are is because too many people have sought out art for enjoyment instead of seeking out art that challenges their way of thinking and ultimately their way of being. Art should make you uncomfortable, and this is an uncomfortable piece of art because it cuts deep to some real truths, and that’s great, but a word of caution: don’t get caught up on the surface of this. This looks like an indictment of how far America has fallen both socially and culturally, and is focused particularly on the degradation of African-American culture. And that degradation is very real, very obvious, and very much part of whatever social engineering has been taking place in this country. And there definitely has been some, and you may have just watched four minutes of it with me.

But hey, let’s keep talking. Let’s keep the dialogue open. And let’s be civil about it with each other. Healthy, constructive and critical conversations are a must as we continue down whatever path we’re really on together, so let’s stick by one another regardless of race or gender or orientation or belief of any sort. Let’s keep loving, keep thinking and keep questioning.