this is brown
meta political action in poppy and childish gambino
I was recently told in a mass email that, when engaging political issues at Brown, my options are either discourse or discourse. Thankfully, I am a productive member of the Brown community, so I have ample opportunity to engage in discourse. In fact, it seems to be all that I’m expected to do. According to the email, it’s what I have to do if I am to engage at all. I decided to engage in discourse by writing a discourse and publishing it in post- magazine’s Arts & Culture section. That way, I get my name in a magazine, you read about art, my editors eventually get paid jobs, and everyone is more cultured for it. Here is a discourse on artists who make meta music because they might have no other option. Their names are Poppy and Childish Gambino. They are first filtered through the discursive lens of a day-to-day Brown student. They are then cherry-picked so I can present them in a specific order to no particular end. Except discourse, naturally.
Poppy began by building an online following with short, eerie videos of its humanoid character, also named Poppy. Poppy vlogs, interviews, applies makeup— basically anything one would do if they were looking to build an online following. Normal YouTube acts such as introductions and even iPhone reviews are delivered in simple statements with robotic cheer to create uncomfortable parodies with millions of views. The emulation is so watchable that Poppy creates a near-perfect critique of internet culture even as they participate in it. The Poppy project has since shifted its focus to streaming platforms, where Poppy has developed into a ready-built android destined for the charts. Poppy is a robot designed to be the ideal popstar, and their features are established with Poppy’s first album Poppy.Computer. Poppy is a Carly Rae Jepsen Barbie doll manufactured in Silicon (The) Valley. Their major output is their appearance, delivered in a steady stream of short video clips. Their side-project is bop after peppy bop of up-tempo synth-pop sung with an airy falsetto. Poppy performs their role with absolute professionalism, moving with robotic efficiency between studio sessions, modeling gigs, and video shoots. The aesthetic (and the album) are summarized with “Bleach Blonde Baby”: artificial and expensive, an icon perfectly distilled from Eurocentric standards. Poppy could never separate from their well-maintained image, but by the second LP, Am I A Girl?, they begin to question it. Poppy’s descriptions are less exaggerated and more honest—the album’s opening lines are as follows:
I’ll make up my face in a minute
I’ll reform this state in a minute
Cash my check, got paid, yeah, I did it
I haven’t done my nails in a minute
Worry not! Poppy will get to reform! But first, optics. Then, money. Then, more optics. To their credit, if Poppy didn’t look and sound so expensive, they would never get popular enough to explain how popularity works. But conformity is narrow, as explained in “Hard Feelings”:
Why do I have porcelain skin
With wires and electrics within? …
My arms and my legs are so stiff
Is that the way you wanted it?
Why am I so different?
What crimes will you make me commit?
As Poppy sings and poses, white and expensive is reaffirmed as the pop star standard. Of course, Poppy can’t stop being white and expensive. Poppy’s a robot. But let’s pretend that Poppy could stop or look different—they risk losing the coveted audience they criticize for existing. Doomed to being iconic (whatever that may mean), Poppy is the pop star they were designed to be.
Donald Glover, I’m sure, understands the struggle—almost everyone in the United States has heard of him by now. Director, actor, comedian, writer, producer, director, rapper, singer, songwriter. The artist otherwise known as Childish Gambino has released a varied -ography, from YouTube sketches to 30 Rock, from mixtapes to shirtless SNL performances. The music video to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” is a recent addition to this body of work. The title demands a click and is so hand-holdey that it’s almost condescending. (Apologies, reader.) In our defense, it is a very short setup, and it acts as a hint for the audience to make their own connections. (You’re welcome, reader.) Gambino’s viewers can always just bump the song, mutter the flows, and continue their days as planned. But they were at least prompted to understand the video as a narrative and title it “This Is America.”
It starts off happily enough. In an empty warehouse, a barefoot black man picks up a guitar and plucks to the lyrics:
We just wanna party
Party just for you
We just want the money
Money just for you (Yeah)
Behind him, an emoting Childish Gambino half-flexes, half-dances over to the guitarist, smoothly strikes a pose, and shoots through the back of his head. At the sound of the gunshot, the ingratiating spiritual is replaced with the dark hum of a trap 808, a clattering set of snares, and a quickly serious Childish Gambino groaning the beginning to his verse. Bracketed by the occasional “this is America,” the lyrics sound like a Migos word scramble— whip, dope, bag, strap, hunnid bands, Gucci, contraband. Gambino skates over concrete floors in a rhythmic set of jerks and swivels, staring down the viewer as a loose riot develops out of focus behind him. The rapper is soon accompanied by a set of black school children, dancing and smiling amidst perpetual chaos. For the next three minutes, the students imitate Childish Gambino as much as he imitates them, breaking only for the artist to murder a choir. The video transitions to the outro with Childish Gambino dancing on a car, and the hooded guitarist back plucking in his chair, thankfully free of bullet holes.
At this point it should be mentioned that “This Is America” has over 500,000,000 views. The video is violent, gruesome even, and everyone involved got paid for it. Release brought memes, views, and, above all, attention. One year later, as expected, America looks the same. Childish Gambino outlines, critiques, and profits off black death, but that seems to be a central part of his point—this is what rappers do. “This Is America” is not a pot shot at party rap, in fact party rap seems to support the project. Everyone’s favorite mumble rappers provide trap cosigns: Young Thug, Blocboy JB, 21 Savage, Slim Jxmmi of Rae Sremmurd, and Quavo of Migos add their adlibs to the song like verbal signatures. No, this is deeper than rap. From the barefoot fingerpicker to the church choir to Migos, “This Is America” draws a clean line of musical tradition from slavery to the present day and then collapses it into one song. Childish Gambino suggests that popular culture, like his merry dance circle, is a distraction. Don’t get me wrong—popular culture is joy, it is knowledge, it can be the only thing to watch besides violence and concrete. But popular culture is a distraction. To encapsulate the long tradition he employs, Childish Gambino puts artist, audience, and gunfire in one warehouse, renders them inseparable, and asserts in plain text: “This Is America.”
The outro shows a very different side of Childish Gambino. The cool sequence of dance and expression is replaced by a wide-eyed sprinter, sweating as he runs through concrete woods towards the camera. Young Thug croons, “You just a big dawg, yeah / I kenneled him in the backyard,” as the camera recedes from the artist, revealing scores of dim figures running behind him. It is not clear whether Childish Gambino is being chased or simply running with the crowd, but the suggestion is that the man dancing, shooting, and rapping in “This Is America” acts in a desperate exertion, compelled by some terrifying force in the darkness behind him.
This is the end of the thinkpiece. Now I am free to write discussion posts or outline a final paper. I am glad to have engaged in discourse. In fact, I’ve nearly forgotten that I don’t have another option. In summary: I am not an artist, this discourse is not music, Brown is not America, and you might be the audience. Thank you for reading my discourse; please leave positive comments.