Donald Glover is a singular talent in his generation. He can act, write, direct, and sing. He’s halfway to being one of the few EGOT winners (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), and he’s not even out of his mid-30s. After hosting a pretty funny “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, where he also served as the musical guest under his alter ego Childish Gambino, Glover dropped the controversial music video for his latest song “This is America.”
Generally in this column I fill you in on what’s on repeat in my playlist these days, because I’m absolutely in love with it. Today though, this is a case where you have to listen to this song and watch the music video, because it’s a cultural moment that cannot be avoided, whether you like the song or not.
Clearly the song and the video are commentaries on the current state of affairs in America in the age of Trump. But what exactly is Glover trying to get at with “This is America?” Let’s break it down.
First and foremost, the video is obviously about gun violence. Lots of ink has already been spilled about how the guns are handled in the video versus how the bodies of those killed by the guns are handled. The video, directed by Glover’s frequent collaborator Hiro Murai, makes a point to carefully treat the weapons, carrying them out on a fine cloth after each shooting, while simply dragging the bodies quickly off camera. This is apparently an argument for guns being valued more than lives.
One of the two shootings we see Glover commit is blowing away a church choir, reminiscent of one of the several church shootings we’ve seen in America in the last several years. The other shooting is a close-up, execution-style murder.
I hope people don’t just think about gun violence as the big attention-getting catastrophes that Glover highlights in his video here, though. Gun violence on the streets of America’s cities, and suicides from guns, kill far more people than the high-profile mass shootings we see on the news. That’s something we can’t forget as a country.
Both within the song itself and in the images of the video you see community policing as another topic in Glover’s “America.” At one point toward the end, Death is riding upon a pale white horse followed by police cars. Not a subtle message.
Death riding the Pale white horse while he is followed by Hell (represented by police) going totally unnoticed because of dancing and pop culture in the foreground is the single greatest cinematic message I’ve seen in a music video to date. #ThisIsAmerica pic.twitter.com/DYaPjbvoym
— Isaiah Persons (@PersonsIsaiah) May 6, 2018
No matter what you think of Black Lives Matter, it’s clear there is a problem between the African-American population of most American cities and their police departments. Glover’s punch in the face imagery here is amazingly impactful, but honestly, because this video is so jam-packed with things going on, including distracting dancing, you might almost miss it. Almost.
Another key criticism in the song and throughout the music video is the blatant materialism in our society. We got some of this from Glover himself in his opening monologue on SNL, when he joked that it was nice to be back in New York City now that he was rich, because living in NYC when you’re poor sucks.
In “This is America,” we hear the common refrain “Grandma told me/Get your money.” We hear the choir sing it just before being gunned down. This is a common refrain throughout the song and video. At one point while he’s distracting you from violence in the background, Glover is singing about Gucci and being pretty.
You also see cell phones everywhere in the latter half of the video. As the camera pans up, you’ll see kids have their phones out and are recording everything. Everyone has to have a smartphone these days. Where would we be without the world at our fingertips and Candy Crush on demand?
One of Glover’s points throughout this song and video seems to be a critique that Americans are quick to embrace aspects of the hip hop culture — music, food, clothing, lifestyle — but have a very short attention span for fixing any of the problems inherent in the communities it represents.
I think this is where the music comes into play. We’ve talked mostly about the video, because it’s getting a lot of attention, as it should, but when you just listen to the song, the visual references to gun violence that most people are focusing on get stricken out. What you’re still left with are the obvious jabs at materialism, escapism, and living in a world where we’re so quick to move from one crisis to the next that we forget to actually fix any underlying problems. That’s what Glover is getting at.
He ends the video with a rather terrifying shot of him running from a crowd of people trough a dark hallway.
I gotta hand it to Glover. I can’t think of the last time I watched a music video multiple times in a row, particularly when I wasn’t like, “Wow, I love that song!” The song ends up being catchy, but it’s not his best work. The other song he debuted on SNL this weekend, “Saturday,” reminded me of an old-school 70s beach party.
It’s perfect for this summer. No word yet on when we’ll get a full album from Glover. You’ll see him next on the big screen in this month’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” as a young Lando Calrissian.