The video for Childish Gambino’s latest song, ‘This is America’, has racked up over 100m hits in just over a week. It’s inspired fervent discussion, detailed analyses, and more than a few questionable think-pieces. Inevitably, it has also been meme-d. Would it surprise you to hear that most of that has been done by white people? It seems counter-productive to even draw attention to some of these hacks, but the point must be made.
We’ve seen the song synced up to ‘Call Me Maybe’ by Carly Rae Jepsen, which inspired the expected backlash. The most obvious example of meme fuckery happened when a disgraced YouTuber best known as a fatphobic bully and accused domestic abuser did her own version of the video but as what she called a ‘woman’s edit.’ Said edit featured the white woman recreating Donald Glover’s dance moves, which were based on Jim Crow imagery. In what is an astounding yet unsurprising display of ineptitude and creative bankruptcy, she appropriates the intense detail and artistry of Glover’s work and turns it into a shrieking waste of time and energy. All of the subtlety has been stripped out and replaced with the kind of clueless karaoke one expects from a woman whose most famous work is a video called ‘Dear Fat People.’
She calls it satire: It’s just shitty art.
The YouTuber in question doesn’t deserve the attention here — she thrives on her Ricky Gervais-esque inability to tell the difference between pushing the boundaries and being a bigoted hack — but the issue of the meme-ificiation of something like ‘This is America’ is still worth discussing.
Everything will probably get meme-d at some point in the future. It is the modus operandi of the internet. We use memes for various purposes and there’s no reason they can’t be used to tackle dark or morbid subjects. In many ways, memes are just an evolution of language, and they can work in assorted ways to express that. However, they can also be evidence of the many problems of online discourse. Think of how shitty memes and that absurd cartoon frog poisoned the well of the 2016 election, and how that obvious toxicity was dismissed as an internet exclusive frivolity. Memes often leave us unable to acknowledge subtleties and complexities, because why bother reading that article, or even a reasonably adept 280 character tweet when you can just slap a sentence on a low-quality still from a TV show or music video? Having distinctly black stories and points-of-view be hacked up into self-satisfied memes by white audiences is its own horrid metaphor.
The memes of “This is America” also miss a gigantic point of the piece: It’s all about the short attention span of a nation steeped in tragedy. The video is full of bystanders recording the carnage on their phones, as well as gleeful dancing that barely distracts from the violence surrounding it. You can read the video in many ways — and Glover doesn’t seem all that keen on giving a definitive dissection of it — but taking a video so rich in symbolism and very serious points and distilling it to a still picture with cheap captions may be the whitest thing in pop culture. The memes are bad: All quips and a smidgen of aesthetic with no substance to speak of.
Pop culture can and should be taken seriously. Despite decades of evidence that prove this point, we’re in 2018 and we still have to deal with dismissals that insist films or music or games are distractions from the ‘real issues’. A literal reality TV show judge is in the White House and yet many tell us celebrity and entertainment have no place in politics. The Dixie Chicks were told to shut up and sing, and the women who took on Harvey Weinstein were lambasted as silly actresses. Pop culture is a tool, a megaphone, a platform for which change can be demanded. Glover’s video is, as described by NPR Music hip-hop journalist Rodney Carmichael, a way for him to ‘really bring our focus and our attention to black violence, black entertainment [and] the way they’re juxtaposed in society. They seem to cancel each other out in the greater public consciousness.’ Glover is having a major moment in the cultural narrative right now, between winning a Grammy, breaking ground on Atlanta and stealing audiences’ attention as Lando in the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story. He’s using it to shine a light on something mainstream pop culture, as dictated by whiteness, tries to run away from. If us white people choose to reject those thorny conversations and instead revel in memes, then it’s a missed opportunity for everyone. It’s also fucking lazy.
White people like black culture when it suits them best. They steal the best parts and drape it in a white veil before claiming it was always theirs. They use it as a way to prove their edginess and artistic clout, then abandon it for born-again whiteness when that well has been tapped dry. They place targets on its backs and condemn it as dangerous and misogynist, then never apply the same standards to their own work. They look at pain and anger and the ways black culture tries to process that, then make it all a bad joke. Most of all, they look at the hard work of blackness in pop culture then make it something lazy.
This is not to say that anything is exempt from mockery. I’m sure Glover himself would be the first person to take the piss out of his work. The question is one of proportion and accuracy: Is the target worth it, and did the potency of the original message remain in place through this process of translation? White people have an issue with understanding that not everything is about, by or for us. You can enjoy Childish Gambino while being aware that it’s not made for you. The artistry of Beyoncé’s post-Lemonade era is undeniable and can be enjoyed by everyone, but that doesn’t negate its intents or who the artist in question is speaking to.
That truth can be hard to swallow. Usually, everything is for white people. Nobody in Hollywood ever casts a movie and worries if it’s too white. White artists can get political on basically every spot on the spectrum and do so without being labeled as radical. For every one story we’re not the center of, there’s a hundred others all about us. We’ll be fine. “This is America” isn’t our playground. It’s OK for us to just sit this out and let the conversation continue productively without cheap memes or a desperation to avoid the seriousness at hand.
(Header image from YouTube)