Childish Gambino and the Metamodern Ennui, Part II

This is the second in a series of four essays examining how Childish Gambino's Because the Internet functions as part of a new avant-garde in contemporary art. Read the first one here.


BY-NC-SA Luke Turner 2011

Oscillation is foregrounded as aesthetic in Because the Internet -- which has been one of the primary sources of criticism of the album. Glover shuffles through and among genres as if flicking through browser tabs. "Crawl," for example, jumps from trap anthem to R&B crooner to string interlude and back, and that's not even to speak of the jagged movements among the actual songs (compare the onslaught of "WORLDSTAR" with the jazzy, down-tempo, "Urn").

But Glover's oscillation extends beyond mere technique; he employs different personae in different songs (as well as shifting within the songs themselves) depending on his rhetorical goals: sometimes the lover ("Telegraph Ave," "3005"), sometimes the frustrated youth ("Sweatpants"), sometimes the jaded celeb ("The Party"), sometimes the mellow-high philosopher ("No Exit," "Flight of the Navigator"). This isn't the persona play we might see from Eminem or Styles P, where specific voices are used as outlets for distinct parts of the performers' personalities. Gambino doesn't forecast when shifts occur, and what results is a layering of simultaneous (and often contradictory) realities. The constant fluctuation forces us to read this collage as a composite persona -- a singular identity engaged in continuous code-switching, more cuttlefish than parrot -- existing as the summation of all the performed identities. The process of discovering and listening to music has become so dependent on cyberspace, that, no matter if he's "talking" to his lover, his boys, his fans, his ghosts, or himself, he knows he's ultimately talking to the Internet horde. And, because we know that Glover is deeply invested in social media #lifestylereporting, the album (in conversation with his use of persona in daily life) makes it impossible to pin down exactly who's saying what. Which of the voices here belongs to Donald Glover, which to Childish Gambino, which to The Boy (the accompanying script's protagonist)? To stratify it even further, which is @DonaldGlover -- Childish Gambino's Twitter self -- and which are simply imagined voices or characters? In crafting such a whirlpool, Gambino forces us to interrogate not just the artifice of persona -- that goes without saying -- but our need for it as a means of processing and engaging with the present world.

In the series of music videos that accompany Because the Internet, Gambino doubles down on this philosophy, adopting visual personae that further texture the album. And, though the supplementary screenplay offers a sort of narrative anchor, it is important to note that these music videos don't overtly depict the script's plot. Take, for example, the video for "Sweatpants":

This isn't the expressiveness of Community's Troy; instead, we see a dead-eyed, bed-headed Gambino trudging in circles around a diner. Each time he steps outside and checks his phone (thus "restarting" the cycle), he projects more of himself back onto what he sees, represented through the visual metaphor of seeing other restaurant patrons as clones of himself. At the three-quarter mark, he breaks the "fourth wall," communicating with and critiquing the song itself, remarking, "Fiskers don't make noise when they start up...just so you know," after an overexcited "vroom vroom" sound effect accompanies the mention of a Fisker (itself a charged image in relation to hip-hop decadence). In this way, he recircuits the flow of communication back toward himself (it's his song, after all) rather than the listeners.

The vision of solipsism hits fever pitch when he attempts to cut through the literal and metaphoric noise by interjecting, "And I don't give a fuck about my family name" -- a presumable reference to his privileged upbringing in the face of the expectation that "authentic" rappers come from harsh circumstances -- followed in the video by a slow track out as he clenches his teeth in rage then softens to fear, then confusion, as if to show that, though he's the song's pilot, he's as lost as the rest of us. There's a subsequent fade-in of melancholy carnival music that segues into the repetition of "Don't be mad 'cause I'm doin' me better than you doin' you," a line that perfectly encapsulates what makes Because the Internet so timely and metamodern. This is precisely the kind of phrase much of contemporary pop music parades around as defiant individuation, when in actuality it serves to bolster a ballooning navel-gazing among Gen Y. He risks this repetition being read at face value, as if highlighting the very culture of solipsism that is the song's subject of critique. By casting himself as both propagator and receiver #feedbackloop, he owns up front the ways he is complicit in this system. So, to put this off as ironic commentary doesn't do justice to its ambition. There's a tacit call-to-arms here, an earnest hopefulness that, because this sort of isolation is self-generated, it is capable of remedy. In tacking "Urn" directly onto the end of the video -- breaking the album's actual order and altogether shifting the video's aural and visual registers -- he solidifies this stab at optimism, crooning, "Let me hold you in my arms, forever more / These cold nights, the park is ours." Dancers move in milky, slow-motion chiaroscuro, shafts of light cut through a tree's foliage, and Gambino leans at an impossible angle against some invisible force, his face a picture of wounded yearning.