Music + Visuals = Potency
At this point, one would be hard-pressed to find a person who hasn’t ever seen a music video or a portion of one during the course of their lives. Almost without exception we have all seen music videos, at some time or another, whether on MTV, VH1, BET, or YouTube. They have become not only an accepted part of the music industry but an almost mandatory staple of it. If you want to succeed commercially in music today, you have to adapt to this, and in 1981 with the launch of MTV, the music industry was introduced to one of its greatest assets as well as one of its greatest liabilities.
If one goes all the way back to Walt Disney‘s 1940 film, Fantasia, or even further back to the Silly Symphony cartoon series which began in 1929, it becomes immediately apparent that the marriage of visual imagery with music has proven to be a most formidable combination. Music can either be enhanced or diminished by an accompanying visual presentation. Some songs and some visuals mesh so spectacularly that one can barely hear the song without imagining its video counterpart. Take Star Wars for example, it’s almost impossible not to see the scrolling titles and prologue for the films in your mind’s eye whenever you hear John Williams‘ legendary theme, or to see an iconic character like Darth Vader without imagining the ominous theme of the Imperial March. Go on, give it a try. That’s just one obvious way that musical language and visual language can complement each other and create a link between one medium and another.
Now, take a look at music videos today, and most of them seem to have a singular purpose: to sell singles and albums. In this digital age, especially with the dwindling sales of physical music (since we’re on the subject I’ll take vinyl and CD over MP3 files any day), having a popular music video can make or break a career, even to the extent of a terrible song finding widespread fame and commercial success because the music video was so memorable. There are singers and musicians whose entire careers can be chalked up to the artwork and photographs on their albums or their music videos rather than on the quality of their music. Having grown up in the late ’80s and ’90s, I’ve seen this happen with bubblegum pop, teenybopper, boyband, and dance pop stars. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not living under the naïve delusion that once there was this grand past of substantive and enriching music videos, because no, there wasn’t. There are occasionally performers whose music videos elevate the medium from crass commercialism to high entertainment or even true art. Michael Jackson‘s Thriller, Kate Bush‘s Running Up That Hill, Peter Gabriel‘s Sledgehammer, Madonna‘s Like a Prayer, Nirvana‘s Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nine Inch Nails‘ Closer, TLC‘s Waterfalls, and The White Stripes‘ Fell in Love with a Girl are all examples of music videos whose visual aesthetics and narratives are more than just sales gimmickry. These are videos that attain artistry and relevance. They obtain renown, acclaim, and even controversy. They achieve immortality through the purity of their innovation.
Nine months ago, actor and musician Donald Glover, under his performing name of Childish Gambino, released a video for his latest single This Is America. The video immediately earned the same level of distinction as those aforementioned videos, because it is a singularly unique vision, as well as being a provocative, controversial, and riveting experience. Opening on an image of a black guitarist performing in a warehouse, the appearance of Glover dancing, and the shooting of the guitarist, whose face is now covered in a bag, in the head at point blank range, the video is openly confrontational in its effort to address racial violence. It continues and shows an all-black church chorus, singing and dancing in joyous and faithful celebration, before being gunned down, again by Glover, and then having their bodies unceremoniously dragged away and discarded. Forcing viewers to confront the harsh realities faced by black Americans every day and challenging long-held stereotypes, Glover’s song and its video present scenarios and raise questions, but intentionally leave the interpretation and the answers up to bewildered viewers.
Within 24 hours, the video for This Is America had received almost 13 million views, and at the time of writing this, the video has received over 484,500,000 views, with over 7.4 million viewers responding that they liked the video and 564 thousand expressing their dislike of it. Steeped in symbolism and allusions to current social crises, the video has become a lightning rod for controversy, and a hot topic among critics and commentators, most of whom praised its audacious visuals and metaphors. That said, the video has also received its share of reservations and critiques, with many of the criticisms focused on the abrupt and disturbing violence. Some viewers have seen it as a revolutionary statement on race relations and gun violence in the United States while others have accused it of reinforcing negative racial stereotypes. Some viewers have decried it as a pretentious mess of disjointed lyrical and visual content while others have hailed is as a masterpiece of Trap (a term for a form of hip-hop popular in the South and characterized by electronic beats, a dark or ominous energy, and scathing social commentary).
In terms of visibility, Donald Glover, as an actor, a writer, a producer, and a director, has been rising in prominence for some time now with his roles in 30 Rock, Community, Atlanta, The Martian, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Likewise his musical persona as Childish Gambino has risen as well, beginning with the melodic and confident rap of his first album Camp, continuing with his startlingly original follow-up album Because the Internet, and culminating in the brilliantly funky and psychedelic album “Awaken, My Love!”. And though it is true that singles like Bonfire, Crawl, and the Grammy-winning Redbone certainly stood out from anything else that was coming out of contemporary hip-hop or R&B at the time, the video for This Is America has managed to overshadow most of his other creative output as a hip-hop artist. Depending on how you look at it, this could be viewed as either a good or a bad thing, but it remains a fact. Topping the power of a strong single with an unforgettable music video will be a challenge for Gambino, but one that I think he is more than up for, and the result could be equally spectacular.