Adventures in Memes: CHILDISH GAMBINO AND THE ADVENTURE OF THE ARDUOUS INTERFACES
A good twenty years before the dawn of the world wide web, the American technopope Marshall McLuhan predicted that the rise of electronic communication would create what he called a “global village” – a connected community of absolutely everybody. It’s a phrase loaded with associations; while a village is a tightly-knit group of disparate but united individuals, prefixing the word with ‘global’ evokes a somewhat disconcerting scale. How can individualism, or individuality, prevail against the vastness of a globe swarming with billions of intricately associated social agents?
The answer is, of course, that it can’t, and that was really what McLuhan was getting at – as with many of culture’s over-repeated buzzwords, the meaning of the phrase has been diluted and even inverted, and the term “global village” doesn’t mean at all what you think it means.
As McLuhan explained, “when people get close together, they get more and more savage [and] impatient with each other. The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and abrasive situations.” In other words, the internet is not a global festival of cuddles and understanding, but a village in the true sense of that word – a bunch of people squished together, fundamentally divided, tribal, and uneasily peaceful until the first hint of provocation exposes the ugly battle-lines gouged between each group.
All of which is a very cheerful and optimistic way of saying “welcome to this new weekly column about online culture, in which I’ll be recommending, exploring and occasionally critiquing the vast mass of media and cultural content that’s current and interesting on the net.” Thinking back, maybe I should have gone with that instead of the doomy rant about arduous and abrasive tribalism. But hey, I’m committed now, so let’s get to it.
This is America
In point of fact, the doomy rant was particularly appropriate this week, as I’m going to be talking about Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’, which is a viral smash that exposes and excoriates tribal divisions while also celebrating diversity and healing wounds. Racking up over 150 million views in just two weeks, the provocative and beautiful video for the song, in which Gambino (the hip-hop alter ego of actor and writer Donald Glover) dances shirtless in a rundown warehouse while chaos rages around him, is spectacularly powerful.
The dance is hypnotic, shifting from Jim Crow gurning through a panoply of liquidly joyful African and American moves. With a gang of blithely happy black school kids on hand, Gambino kills and snarls and dances and ends up running through darkness, barely-glimpsed spectres of a black man’s fate hot on his terrified heels.
Ultimately, Gambino/Glover seems to conclude, it’s not guns themselves which America has a problem with, but the colour of the hand holding them.
I’m Not Racist
With algorithmic serendipity, YouTube has selected Joyner Lucas’s heartbreaking ‘I’m Not Racist’ as the suggested follow-up to Gambino’s video, and the pairing really couldn’t be better. These videos, and the songs that go with them, are angry art, almost outsiderish in their rage, but both contain a note of hope entirely missing from the analogous ‘white pride’ point of view, and both will leave you with a sense that something can be done about race, in spite of what Donald Trump and his ilk would have us believe. The global village is all about tribes, and tribes are all about echo chambers, and echo chambers are all about repeating the same comfortable truths, so music that transcends its core audience and provokes real debate, which YouTube is paradoxically very good at fostering, deserves to be celebrated. Just look at the hundreds of “reaction” videos propagated by Gambino’s piece – everyone is watching this video, and talking about it, and maybe the world might be slightly better for it.
Over the coming weeks, this column is going to be increasingly concerned with memes as a shorthand for internet culture, so my first recommendation to anyone who wants to get a handle on this thriving subculture is Comment Awards. Released every day by American student Graham the Christian (formerly known as Cowbelly), Comment Awards has a deceptively simple and much-imitated formula – each day, Graham puts together ten to fifteen minutes of screengrabs (submitted by his army of fans) of memes, comments and social media posts, with a perky musical soundtrack and a computerised text-to-speech voice reading the text aloud. The world of memes, in which still images are paired with glib, revealing or obscure text, is often highly opaque and thrives upon Deleuzian repetition to create meaning, but to those intrepid souls who seek to understand what the teenagers are doing on their phones all day, Comment Awards is as good a starting point as any. It will also give you a head start on the memes that are going to filter through to Facebook, iFunny and Buzzfeed in a few months’ time.
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