Something strange has been happening since Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” video dropped. Memes are surfacing, as they inevitably do, and some people are pushing back.
“It’s disrespectful” is a common criticism directed at the meme-makers and sharers. Some feel the video’s powerful messages, which together amount to a statement on the black experience in the United States, qualify it as a sacred work.
That’s a completely valid read. The video is an exceptional framing device for Gambino’s song, which contrasts joyful, cheery melodies against a harsh, thumping trap beat. But it’s also a standalone work with its own artistic merits.
Donald Glover, the IRL voice of Gambino, slyly commented on the video’s meaning when he was asked about it at the recent 2018 Met Gala. “I just wanted to make, you know, a good song, and something people could play on the Fourth of July,” he said, grinning.
Something that people can play on the Fourth of July, a.k.a. Independence Day. The most patriotic of patriotic holidays. A song, and a video, about the inescapable reality that a marginalized community in this country faces on a daily basis. Can you see it?
“I just wanted to make … something people could play on the Fourth of July.”
Ibra Ake, the video’s producer, offered a much more explicit read during a recent radio interview. Discussing the video’s violence — Gambino guns down unarmed black people at two specific moments — Ake pointed out that the video’s use of imagery is itself both informed by and a reaction to the state of American life in 2018.
“Our goal is to normalize blackness. It’s, like, this is how we would like to dance, but we have to be aware of the danger and the politics of how we’re perceived and the implications of the history of how we were treated,” he said.
“There’s all this math you’re constantly doing expressing yourself. We’re trying to not have to explain ourselves to others and just exist, and not censor what our existence looks like as people.”
All of this is meant to reinforce the idea we started out with above, that the meme-ification of “This Is America” is perceived by some as disrespectful. The music video isn’t your usual brand of pop fluff; it’s got something important to say. Laying down Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me, Maybe” on top of it drowns out the creator’s intent.
Does it though? Memes are an inevitable product of the age that we live in. It’s not like Glover, Ake, director Hiro Murai, and the other creative forces involved in making “This Is America” weren’t aware.
Even if they didn’t know how big the splash would be, they knew what they were putting out into the world with that video. They knew equally well what happens on the internet when a popular work enters the mainstream consciousness.
Take a moment to watch the Gambino/Jepsen mash-up:
The video syncs up as well as it does because “This Is America” was consciously built as a modern work of pop music. It plays at 120 beats per minute (BPM), a fairly standard tempo for some of the biggest songs of the modern pop/rock era. It lines up with “Call Me, Maybe” because they share the same DNA.
That’s the whole point. “This Is America” subverts pop standards to deliver its message to the broadest possible audience. You can think they’re disrespectful, or you can feel instead that they help get the word out on an important work.
Either way, the video is having its intended effect: We’re all talking about it and we’re all engaging with what it’s saying. This is America, memes and all.