Friday, May 18, 2018

Unpopular Opinion Time: "This is America" is not all that genius

There's nothing more annoying than the guy who says, "It's good.  But it's not as good as everyone says it is."
You can't argue with that guy.  If you try to point out why it's really that good, he just responds, "Dude, I agree with you.  I already said it's good. I'm just saying it's not as good as everyone says it is."
And the thing is... he's probably right.  Nothing is as good as everyone says it is.  So he's defending a no-lose proposition.

...that being admitted, I'm going to be that annoying guy for today.
The amount of lavish praise that "This is America" has been garnering has been slowly irritating me.  And today when I saw yet another friend (someone roughly my age--not a star struck teenager) call this video "genius" on Facebook, I decided I was going to have to write this post after all.

Look, it's good.  I'm not saying it's not good.
It did take while to grow on me though.  I was initially unimpressed with the boring monotonous beat of "This is America. Don't catch you slipping now. Don't catch you slipping now..."
But after listening to it a couple times, I've decided I liked the various sub-rhythms and sub-harmonies that are going on besides the main beat.
The choral "Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, tell somebody, You going tell somebody..." sections are catchy, and compliment the main beat nicely.  And I also like the "1, 2, 3 get down..." beat at the end.
And when I caught myself humming the song as I was walking around my apartment, I had to admit it had gotten to me.

And Donald Glover is right as far as he goes.  America really is a messed up place right now.

It's just that... as far as he goes doesn't go very far.  There's no real meat to this song.  There's nothing there.

Take away the music video (imagine that you only heard this song on the radio) and the songs lyrics are really unimpressive.  A catchy beat, sure, but what is he really saying that's all that profound?
I mean, the lyrics are mostly just "This is America" repeated over and over again.
He's right, but he's not genius.

And the video is well done.  Nicely shot and choreographed and everything but...
But what am I missing here?  Why is everyone praising this video so much?

I've heard so many people praise it as genius (both professional commentators, and people I knew) that I thought I must be missing something.

So I watched a number of Youtube videos that explained all the symbolism.  And they didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know.
Yes, I already knew the music video was a commentary on gun violence.  I was able to work that much out myself, thank you very much.

Look, don't get me wrong.  I love protest music.  But why is this particular song getting so much praise?  Why is everyone saying "This is America"  is so deep?  Hasn't this same thing already been done so much better before by Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs or Public Enemy?

...I have a theory.
My theory is that with pop music being so corporate the last few decades, we haven't had any protest songs go mainstream in years.  (What was the last protest song on the big charts?)
So people are just hungry to praise anything that even attempts any kind of message.


Rachel said...

If you haven't seen it already, Doreen St. Felix had an interesting article about this in the New Yorker. Her reaction was also mixed:

Joel Swagman said...

Thanks for the link. I enjoyed that article.
I found that, while she does indeed have mixed emotions about this song, her concerns are entirely different than mine.

But... that's the way it works I guess. Everyone comes to this stuff with their own pre-existing biases and perspectives, which colors how they view the song.

Sidenote: I am finding that after the news of yet another gun massacre, I'm feeling frustrated with America, and I'm finding the repeating lyrics of "This is America" somewhat cathartic whereas I had previously found them banal. I guess the changing perception based on outside events is also part of how this works.