by Ryan Simón
THERE’S A SORT OF BUGS BUNNY SWAG to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” that I like — from Gambino’s rhythmic charm to his party-time violence. And this observation isn’t mine alone, as Hiro Murai, the director of “This Is America” and FX’s Atlanta, told The New York Times in an interview on the music video: “[T]here’s a part of it that also feels cartoony. There’s ‘Looney Tunes’ logic in there somewhere. Obviously we’re dealing with very provocative images, so it’s a total tightrope walk.”
For a song titled “This Is America”, this makes complete sense: Looney Tunes logic is the prevailing logic of American pop culture. Consider: the American possibility of self-invention and -reinvention, promised by The Great Gatsby and Mad Men, celebrated in the perceived disconnect between Bruce and Caitlyn Jenner, caricaturized by Bugs Bunny throwing on a dress to sexually distract his predators/victims. In American pop culture, as in cartoons, self-identity is negotiable, and, thus, so is self-responsibility. This is all partially thanks to America’s reverence for the trickster, an archetypal figure whose American roots begin with the slave-era collision between Africans and Europeans. Since its birth, the American trickster has taken many hip forms — from Mark Twain to Bugs Bunny to Muhammad Ali. Childish Gambino is only the most recent iteration.
Another recent, relevant iteration — these lines from Eazy-E’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood”:
Til I caught him in my car tryin’ to steal my Alpine
Chased him up the street to call a truce
The silly cluckhead pulls out a deuce-deuce
Little did he know I had a loaded 12-gauge
One sucker dead, LA Times front page
In only so many words, Eazy-E tells a story of betrayal, violence, and death, but in a lyrically fast, fun, celebratory way, denoting an almost farcical distance between actor and action — the disassociative state of the American trickster. And the song’s real-world success completes the con: we dance along. We’re complicit, despite only having just arrived at the imaginary crime scene. As a result, the moral differences between cause and effect deteriorate.
In the warehouse-trapped setting of “This Is America,” any sense of real-world cause-and-effect morality also ceases to exist. The Newtonian structures of reality dissolve to the frenetic fluidity of the amoral trickster, as something akin to dream logic supersedes. In this surrealist dreamscape, Donald Glover gives way to his musical alter-ego Childish Gambino, who, with all rhyme and no reason, goes on a killing spree, leaving his witnesses dancing in his wakeTo see this in action from another angle, let’s return to Bugs Bunny:
— including us.
But why? This is what many want to know, but it’s the wrong question.
The correct question answers itself: Why not?
So, too, is the answer to Gambino’s song stated by the question: “This Is America” is as much a declarative statement as it is an artistic one. “This Is America” is America, literally manifesting what it symbolically and stylistically represents: an ongoing attempt(otherwise known as the Great American Experiment) to choreograph order within the chaotic New World.
And it’s within this liminal space that the dancing trickster emerges.
KARA WALKER IS AN AMERICAN PAINTER AND SILHOUETTIST, whose work often depicts the nightmarish, humiliating lives of plantation slaves in ironically refined artistic formats — e.g., the silhouette, which is typically used for family portraits. Kara Walker’s artistic, postmodern charm works by this bluesy irony: the depiction of tragedy via aesthetically pleasing formats. This juxtaposition of sorrow with smiles is the nature of the blues, which, by no coincidence, traces its origins to slave-era America and threads a historical path through various pop cultural (r)evolutions — from Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” to Kara Walker’s sillhouettes to, yes, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”.
Part of Kara Walker’s style includes drawing attention to African-American folklore of pre-Civil War South, which perhaps explains Walker’s tonally tricky art-style. Embedded in slave folklore is the American trickster, a mixed product of the Western ideal of individualism and the African trickster character Esu-Elegbara (a.k.a. the Signifyin’ Monkey). As American historian Peter Kolchin noted in his book American Slavery: 1619-1877:
“Surviving in a heartless world assumes overriding importance.”: This is important to consider if you’re hung up on the negative stereotypes associated with the word “trickster.” If we can at least minimally fathom the heartless conditions of slavery, of the slave’s survival instinct for a coded language among slave-owners, we may better understand the slave’s attraction to the trickster archetype, whose words always possess a double-meaning.
You can hear the continuation of this duplicitous wordplay all the time in hip hop.It’s for this reason that I view political correctness, or any form of language policing, within hip hop culture as nothing short of cultural suicide. Part of the trickster wordplay is treating vileness and vulgarity as a form of endearment — e.g., “Yo momma’s so fat, she brought a spoon to the Super Bowl.” Any sensible, hip-minded individual, who’s aware of the double-meaning of words, may hear a “yo momma” joke and laugh it off, possibly even becoming friends with the “insulter.” As it turns out, it tends to be pretty square individuals with fat, ugly, smelly, old mommas who push for political correctness in hip hop. Consider: the “bad bitch” whose badness is actually goodness, as in having a “cute face, slim waist wit’ a big behind.” Or the aqueous evolution of Snoop Dogg’s “-izzle” language.
In American pop culture, this double-meaning goes by the name of “signifyin’,” which follows that the meaning of a word may not always be confined to a dictionary definition. In other words, meaning can go beyond interpretation. And often times, this layered abundance of meaning can render a “signifier” seemingly meaningless, or pointless, in its presentation, as demonstrated by this intro story passage on the signifyin’ trickster himself, the Signifying Monkey:
There’s a signifying motherfucker down the way.
There hadn’t been no disturbin’ in the jungle for quite a bit,
For up jumped the monkey in the tree one day and laughed,
“I guess I’ll start some shit.”
In his book The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, American literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. places the signifying tradition at the crossroads between two linguistically divided cultures, such as “the black vernacular and standard English.” This makes signifyin’ a language of synthesis in the context of division — an evolving, give-take, push-pull linguistic hybrid, as evidenced by early American jazz (European instruments over an African beat), Kara Walker’s art (African iconography to a Western art-style), and Eminem (white rapper). Signifyin’ is the trickster language of American pop culture, of Bugs Bunny and Childish Gambino, that says what it doesn’t say and doesn’t say what it says. Depending on which side of the linguistic crossroad you’re standing, the meaning of what’s said, or signified, may mean something else entirely. Or nothing at all.
EXCURSUS: “For Free? – Interlude” by Kendrick Lamar
In “For Free?” Kendrick Lamar isn’t quite the terpsichorean trickster played by Childish Gambino in “This Is America”. But he hits many of the same jarring Looney Tune notes — and then some — as he cartoonishly breaks physical and spatial continuity, swiftly role-shifting from tormented (by the gold-digging hoochie/America) to tormenter (almost horrifically, as in the style of a horror movie, by the music video’s basement scene) solely via rhythmic, musical energy. The song’s reiterated phrase “This dick ain’t free!” represents the tense duality of hip hop language, playing on the double meaning of “free” — i.e., one interpretation sees Kendrick Lamar powerfully refusing to work without payment (“This dick ain’t free, so pay up MF.”), while another definition of “free” positions Kendrick Lamar’s “dick” as captive — enslaved. His dick ain’t free. Musically, “For Free?” is the most impressive, most authentic adherent to Afro-America’s hip, bluesy roots in recent years, on par with Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” and Eazy-E’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood”.
But while the meaningfully overloaded language of signifyin’ comes across ostensibly pointless, there is a spiritual reward to its use.
For the signifyin’ trickster, to revel in catastrophe is to transcend, and even transmogrify, his culture’s misfortune into something tolerable — and for others: into something sorrowfully beautiful. Enlightening. (Such as the serpent’s trick against Eve and Adam.) But only enlightening to those who catch the double-meaning.
THERE’S A META-LAYER TO GAMBINO’S TRICK. As The Atlantic‘s “Why the Dancing Makes ‘This Is America’ So Uncomfortable to Watch” points out, the music video’s background dancers aren’t the only ones swayed by Gambino’s moves; it has us dancing as well, confusingly subverting our body’s instinctual empathy with communal dance, despite the onscreen violence. Childish Gambino shoots a man in the head execution-style, and what do we do? Dance. And why? Because Gambino’s dancing. Never mind the (artistically and, thus, intentionally) blurred mayhem in the video’s background; the video’s focus, as well as ours, stays centered on Gambino throughout the song and dance. That’s the mesmerizing charm of song and dance, two of the trickster’s favorite tools — the implications of which reveal a complicated, seamy underside to human empathy.Or at least kinesthetic empathy, which is “the ability to experience empathy merely by observing the movements of another human being.” (Definition via Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices , edited by Dee Reynolds & Matthew Reason.)
The trickster’s double personality — Donald Glover and Childish Gambino — creates a measurable distance between actor and action, wherein the trick’s meaning flourishes. When Gambino says “This Is America”, he means: America is violent and dangerous and fun. But when you squint and see Donald Glover, the actor behind Childish Gambino, instead, the phrase “This Is America” takes on a separate meaning. “This” doesn’t only include Gambino’s surroundings but Gambino himself, as well as the entire music video construct. (“This” is also visually noted in the music video’s rounded TV-style edges, a postmodern framework that turns the music video into a commentary on music videos.) When Donald Glover says “This Is America”, both the content and context of the song and music video are reconciled by “This”. When you grasp the double meanings to the trickster’s double personalities, the music video’s dancing becomes not only nihilistically fun but meaningfully tragic.
As a result, the multivalent ironies to Donald Glover’s/Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” not only make for rewardingly complex art but something much more transcendentally self-aware than most successful postmodern pop productions of late. As American pop culture continues moving away from postmodernism, I’d say “This Is America” potentially marks an important crossover into the post-postmodern zeitgeist. By way of comparison, consider Beyoncé’s “Formation” and accompanying music video. In 2016, Rolling Stones praised “Formation” for its #BlackLivesMatter spirit and deemed it “a powerful statement of black Southern resilience.” Yet, when you move past this selling point, what the music video essentially grounds down to is an unironic Beyoncé dance anthem, transforming a Hurricane Katrina-affected New Orleans into a model photo shoot and using black/female empowerment as a proxy for Beyoncé empowerment — e.g., “I’m a star, I’m a star / ‘Cause I slay, slay.” Similar to Kara Walker, Beyoncé repurposes traditionally white concepts of fashion and beauty to favor an Afro-American perspective; yet, the effort reeks of the same cynical, brand-focused detachment from genuinely expressive art that made postmodernism so popular and necessary in the first place. Beyoncé’s flexing carries no meta-layered irony. No hip enlightenment. It’s a pleasant sugar rush for a community that’s tired of eating shit. Which is all fine: “Formation” is still a fun song. And the image of a powerful, self-respecting woman independently lifting herself up amid urban carnage does deliver an important, inspiring message. But this self-focused “Queen Bey” style of delivery contrasts poorly against that of “This Is America” — i.e., it isn’t hard to imagine the dancing youth in “This Is America” listening to “Formation” in their earphones, distracted by the illusion of Bey’s material grandiosity, as the world falls apart around them.
What we’re watching in “This Is America” is Donald Glover doubling as Childish Gambino, who’s signifyin’ a violent dance routine, reveling in his culture’s misfortune, all the while nudging and winking at us, as if to say: “Isn’t this just awful?” That D.G./C.G. inspired you to dance is only the bait. The trick is our ensuing celebratory complicity in the imaginary crime scene. And the reward: enlightenment — a sorrowfully beautiful understanding of our roles and responsibilities in an otherwise fast, frenetic, Looney Tunes world.
The music, the violence, the dance — pure signification. If you take it too literally, you lose. You miss out on the meaning that lies beyond literal interpretation. And the significance of that gets pretty complicated, convoluted, and, yes, even contradictory.
But don’t dwell too long on it. This is America.