Childish Gambino's work has always been easy fodder for the web. His career was built on early YouTube stardom. His Billboard Top 20 hit “Redbone” became a meme by virtue of its catchiness alone. And hell, his sophomore album was literally titled Because the Internet. But what of his latest, the new Hiro Murai–directed video for “This Is America,” which the Atlantic has already hailed as, “extending a tradition spanning 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' to Get Out,” and which the New Yorker acknowledged as, “a powerful portrait of black-American existentialism"? Surely, given the video's serious tone and capital "I" Importance, it would be spared, right? Wrong.
The internet is the internet, after all, and it took one look at "This Is America"—the faces! the mix of laid-back gospel choirs and trap skrrts! the shock-and-awe imagery!—and got to work. On one hand, it's easy to understand why the internet immediately isolated the video’s most jarring moments and transformed them into jokes about the new Avengers movie and seasonal allergies. One second, Donald Glover is doing some weird Troy Barnes-from- Community faces, and the next he’s shooting up a gospel choir. It's surprising and elicits an immediate emotional reaction. Memes thrive on both.
On the other, had the meme economy paused for a second and thought about the meaning behind the video, it might have realized that memeing its most brutal moments proves the exact point Glover is trying to make. At a rapid-fire pace, he exposes viewers to a violent scene reminiscent of Dylann Roof’s mass shooting at a church in Charleston, then moves on, smiling, into a dance party. The symbolism of the video has been endlessly unpacked in a torrent of thinkpieces, most of which praise Glover for his indictment not only of gun violence, but of the way the entertainment industry distracts America from its problems.
It’s not that memes can’t address macabre subject matter. Just look at the surprisingly dark Evil Patrick Star meme, which reveals the shittiest things friends do to one another. The Who Killed Hannibal? meme even uses guns, albeit in a way that’s built on the Eric Andre Show’s surreal and specific use of violence. 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.
Even critics of the meme can fall into the trap of using it:
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