Childish Gambino’s “This is America” is sleek, clever commentary

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Ever since Childish Gambino, also known as actor Donald Glover appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and performed “This is America,” speculation about what the song is about and literal interpretations have permeated American society. The song’s various moods are divided into sections and each time the mood changes, listeners get an idea of the complicated state that black Americans inhabit.

Websites dedicated to parsing song lyrics are full of copious interpretations and news of at least one teacher in Texas showing the video in school and provoking the ire of parents abound. It seems that people cannot get enough of this song, or they cannot believe it exists, even as many people believe it is overdue.

Childish Gambino on “Saturday Night Live”

Under the hazy lights of the long-running sketch comedy show’s lights, it might not have been abundantly clear what Gambino was getting at when he performed “This is America.” There was some evidence of a big idea, but it was late, and not everyone was ready for such deep thoughts.

Male and female dancers wore what looked like private school uniforms and performed moves that highlighted swinging arms, bowed legs and wide steps. The stage was sparse. Viewers had an idea that the song constituted commentary, but it would take a few more spins to confirm.

It was as if thousands of viewers awakened at once and suddenly, there cannot be too much conversation about a song that is bound to make people uncomfortable. According to Forbes.com, Gambino’s record sales increased by 419 percent recently.

The dramatic increase in sales leads a person to consider if the song isĀ that good, or is the conversation so overdue that people are clamoring for this version of the conversation that never happens satisfactorily for many people.

Childish Gambino’s “This is America” as a kind of code switch

The idea of code switching is almost as old as the idea of black Americans. Originally, the phrase referred to language – – that black Americans used one kind of language in their communities, and another kind of language in professional and academic settings.

“This is America” illustrates the peaceful, halcyon side of life, where the everyday tedium of working, meeting a significant other, and so forth are portrayed with relatively lighter sounds. Almost a capella vocals in parts, nothing too deep or bass-y.

However, when black Americans are assailed by police brutality and other social injustices, the mood changes, and the deep, dark bass sounds recalls pitch black scenes shot through with police lights.

Put another way, it is as though the song’s lighter mood is the way black Americans see themselves, and the darker mood is the criminalization of being black- -just being, not actually committing crimes.

These are possible interpretations. The song’s lyrics don’t give the average listener a host of metaphors to parse, but the song’s different sections and their accompanying sounds give audiences clues about what is being indicated.

Any song that seeks to provide commentary about American life is bound to provoke controversy and even see increased record sales. That such a song is so popular speaks volumes about the necessity of uncomfortable conversations regarding American life.

 

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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