"Because the internet I'm here, because of the internet we're all here."
"It's the language of Earth. Everyone keeps saying by this or that year, Mandarin or Spanish will be the most dominant language, but the internet is already a language we are all connected to; even my dad can understand the meme format. But the thing is, there are no rules, which is also the awesome thing." -Donald Glover (Exclaim, 11/11/13)
Almost as soon as Donald Glover published the music video for his new single " This is America", he became awash in near-universal acclaim. It's already widely considered one of the most important artworks of the year, if not the decade. A coalition of his supporters on the internet have taken apart its symbolism and deeper meanings with an obsessive meticulousness. The name Donald Glover is now being spoken of in sentences alongside the likes of Curtis Mayfield, even Gil Scott-Heron.
A different subset of the internet--the greater meme community--has capitalized on this same content in an entirely different manner. Leveraging its sensationalist imagery, meme lords and normies alike have already mined a few key screen grabs from the video for purposes of lols.
As is the nature of the internet, war has broken out over these different responses to the video. We're now posed with a question: is there any subject too serious to meme-ify? And if this is war, the catalyzing event--the 9/11, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand--was an op-ed piece published in Vice titled "For the Love of God, Don't Meme Childish Gambino's 'This is America' Music Video: You're missing Donald Glover's whole point."
No matter what side you fall on in this debate, that Vice piece comes off as tone deaf. Here's the entirety of its argument (the whole piece runs only four paragraphs--three of them explanatory):
It's not that memes can't address macabre subject matter. [. . .] Making a meme from "This Is America" isn't dumb just because of the violent imagery. It's dumb because the source material literally symbolizes the short attention span of the internet. Any meme made from "This Is America" misses its point entirely.
The author of this piece fails to elaborate on what "its point" is in the first place, instead opting to list a series of random tweets agreeing with the author's position.
If I were to guess, this line of reasoning is that This is America memes are "ironic." The premise is that Childish's whole point is to bring attention to the problems of how we view black people in America: by depicting images of shootings, popular dances, and chaotic scenes of police cars in only moments' time, like passing news stories and fads without any care for the souls of the people involved. Therefore, by making light of such images--by treating them with the same brush you would a Spongebob meme--you're contributing to exactly the issue he's trying to red flag. (In my experience, this isn't actually the case: the memes I've come across are self-aware enough to know what Glover's doing, and aren't falling into his trap so much as willingly playing along.)
What this argument fails to realize is the depth with which meme culture handles even the most unassuming images you come across on social media. Put another way: y'all just don't get it. If that Vice article felt like Mom trying to scold the kids, treating memes like they're pieces of nothing is like Dad listening to your Young Thug record and calling it "nonsense". If you engage with Young Thug you'll hear what's between the lines, and if you don't, you won't.
If you don't understand exactly what is significant about this sequence of images above, it would take me maybe 2,000 words to explain it all. i0.kym-cdn.com
Feeling uncomfortable about "This is America" memes - that is entirely your right, and not anyone else's place to deny you that view. There is something to be said about not making light of sensitive social issues. However, what these viewpoints have failed to see is that memes are not just jokes. Memes are not "missing the point entirely." In fact, of the tens of millions who've watched this video thus far, few have engaged with its content in such diverse ways as the meme community is now.
And it is true: memes will use "This is America" in service of jokes. The underlying premise is that no subject matter is off-limits in comedy. Creators take images otherwise imbued by Glover with significant cultural consequence and re-purpose them for humor, but in doing so, they are not necessarily presenting any political stance. Rather, they're simply identifying characteristics of Glover's bodily contortions, the way he frames foreground and background, and the exaggerated visual flare of the video in service of already longstanding cultural memes.
In that sense, memers are doing closer reads of Gambino's aesthetic than just about anyone else. Simply identifying Jim Crow references in "This is America" is like finding slavery references in Get Out: it's a fun game to play, but it requires little more brainpower than what a tenth grade English student would dedicate to a last-minute term paper. In contrast: to discover your own significant motifs within the cacophony of Glover's choreography, to spot identifiers where they don't otherwise exist and then cross-reference your findings with longstanding internet aesthetic traditions, is a deeply engaging and creative activity. It takes a lot more intellect than just groveling over a celebrity and calling this "must watch" content. We all know that. It's obvious.
Frankly, the "message" of "This is America" is much less interesting than what our reactions to it say about us. One can't help but wonder whether, in all of this noise, Glover has been sitting back, watching his master plan play out. If there is a genius here (aside from the complex artistry and the banging beat), it's that Glover has thrown us all a slab of meat and we've bit. This is a man who first built his career from the
internet outward. He knows what he's doing. As expected, we've lunged into the trap.
Nate Nelson is an NYC-based writer and podcast host.
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