Since this dropped I can’t stop watching it. The national discussion—and finally, this work has managed to initiate it—is not wrong. This is one of the most important works of American art to be created in my lifetime.
The layers of meaning and resonance involved stretch well beyond those in the work proper.
Million of words have been written and spoken in attempts to capture and describe our America—today’s America—and its fundamental problems, contradictions, and zeitgeist. I’ve participated in that struggle, at the margins, always feeling that words were inadequate to the task. But Glover has done it, economically and powerfully, in three minutes with just a handful of words.
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Things that I’ve seen about this video that I think their writers got right:
- Our Jim Crow legacy
- Distraction—celebrity, entertainment, narcissism, wealth, drugs, denial—in the face of deepening crisis
- Gun violence (c.f. recent cases, last few years) and the relative values placed on guns and people
- The tragedy of black-on-black violence
- The larger context of racial violence and relations
- Actual vs. entertainment-represented status and lifestyles of Americans
- Takedown of a particular contemporary branch of hip-hop culture
- Open car doors—note no drivers, they’ve been shot—on cars that aren’t the cars of the wealthy
- Social media and cell phone culture, activism, and its impotence
- The now infamous horseman of the apocalypse
- Reference to other communities descended from slavery (America is part of that larger story)
- Cynicism—get your money, the “gospel” of money
- The way in which riot police descend on suffering communities after violence, but not before
- The interruption and following 420 reference echoing the moment of silence for Stoneman Douglas
Four more things that I’ll add that I haven’t seen anywhere yet:
(1) When all the drama is done, and he finds a kind of relief dancing on top of the car to cries of “get your money”—an idea that both the music and scene suggest to be the postcathartic arrival at a decision, a place of certainty rather than shock or questioning—he is alone. This is very much also our America. All that has gone before in the video is commodity, as he seems to point out—the guns, the kids, the drugs, the music, the phones, the riots, the media, the lives—and money is the basis for commodity exchange. Get your money, it is the doorway to everything, the choir seems to be saying, but we know that they are saying it cynically, almost sarcastically. But what is the critique here in explicit terms?
Others have pointed out the death. I’ll also point out something else—that he dances alone. No matter how transcendent (or, say, desperate) his dancing, no matter how much separation from the mayhem he has found on top of that car, no matter how much money he collects or at the expense of how many crimes, he dances alone—no evidence of functioning community, friendship, or family. The children, too, have left him. This would seem to be evocative of certain facts on the ground.
(2) There is a developmental arc here that is half Hegelian, half Piaget, and that echoes a prospective larger historical arc (see if you can imagine which one). He begins in innocence and a kind of natural genuineness (which obscures yet embodies its contradiction, the brutality of Jim Crow and the minstrel show), with some foreshadowing of what is to come. This gives way to cynicism and disillusionment, which are the environments of brutality and exploitation. At the end, he (and the music, too) find a synthesis of these two, at first uncomfortable and overwhelming yet also inevitable and cathartic, giving way to a feeling of naturalness once again as he finds his alignment with this synthesis, as shown by the dancing. Then—a new thesis; he is running. Darkness returns. Everyone forms the game; everyone plays the game; the game is constituted by its players.
Innocence, disillusionment, integration. Innocence, disillusionment, integration. Mutual constitution and engagement, even if the complete body of interests of each party remain unmet. This is the cycle of almost everything in social life, at all scales. Those who believe in God or in the “arc of history” (this would seem to encompass both left and right these days) see a Hegelian telos beneath this cycle. What we have not found right now is the integration that will follow our present epoch of disillusionment. Perhaps the purpose of his critique is to foreground the cynicism of disillusionment and call once again for reflection toward a new synthesis—a new integration.
(3) The cadence and tenor of the experience also echo those of our lives. America lulls itself with the complacency of production values and naive, self-satisfied first-worldism—along too many axes to enumerate in a place like this. And then—we are brought back—to America. Reality is unforgiving, and the contradictions can no longer be painted over. They erupt without warning—as mass shootings, as terrorism, as Trump—in ways that we tell ourselves and experience to be “out of the blue.”
We lie, including to ourselves. It’s not out of the blue, and it’s no longer rare—there is too much tension in the system. Attention is required, yet from an explosion of attention we rapidly return to complacency. We “slip up.” And then—the actual state of America erupts into view once again somewhere else. The title, and the line as delivered, are not merely descriptions; he is not telling us that this is America. He is reminding us that this is America. It is a corrective, as delivered by an instructor: “No. You slipped again. Pay attention this time. This is America.”
His “this is” is covertly “you are in.” You are in America. You know what that means. “Don’t catch you slippin’ now.”
(4) Formally, he has done historic newsreel footage, not “music video.” Frame corners are rounded off like vintage film. Grain has been added. Dynamic range is very high, highlights are not clipped, posterization is very low but there is a lot of “natural dithering,” the color response isn’t that of a digital colorspace like sRGB or aRGB, it’s more limited than that. I don’t know if this was actually shot on film, but it gives that effect.
The shots are long, with pans and zooms, not transitions—like reportage. Also, note the horizontals vs. the frame lines, as well as the shift upward to catch the observers with mobile phones. Whether shot handheld or not, it was made to look as though it was shot handheld—again, like reportage.
This is being presented to us as a documentary—not as entertainment. It’s a subtle effect, but it brings an entirely different psychology to the viewer, without their realizing it. It is presented as coming from “the archives of what actually happened” (or, say, is happening) rather than from the national entertainment machine.
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Very few contemporary works bear repeated listenings/viewings/readings without running dry. And very rarely have artists produced “music videos” that represent a complete synthesis of the visual and musical forms. This one is different. The visual and aural elements can’t be separated; they are deeply intertwined. There are a multiplicity of interpretations, a wealth of references, much ambiguity—and yet all of it, even interpretations that appear to be contradictory, are deeply evocative of America, itself beset by impossible contradictions at the moment. I’ll do the impolitic and say that this resonance goes beyond the experiences of the African-American community that is most obviously represented.
To me, this work captures the essence of this American moment. And paradoxically, it is also hopeful—by the very act of creating it, Glover implies that this isn’t the eternal, unavoidable America. There are alternatives; things can be different.
But perhaps—and this is a message that both left and right need to hear right now—neither an analysis of, nor the pursuit of, money or of power—as held by or held over anyone—will get us there. Perhaps we should instead wonder what we might be missing in our endless discussions about who’s abusing the money or who has or does not have the power—and try to ensure that we stop idolizing or seeking the performance, and even more to the point, seeking refuge in the performance of dancing alone.