This is the final installment 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, the second one here, and the third here.
"Can I have some #NiggasBeLike / Put a +18 on a e-vite / And I said what I felt no re-write"
In reframing our expectations and understandings of Because the Internet, the myriad instances of self-awareness, self-reference, punning, and webspeak come to demand deep reading; in keeping with the bildungsroman mode, we find that the protagonist's shortcomings function as creative successes. What we behold is a young artist trying to make sense of his world by laying bare contemporary language and its trappings. As evinced in "Sweatpants," he offers himself up for criticism without making an overt wink or nod that he "knows better" (a hallmark of the strictly deconstructive impulse), employing puns that, though they may initially induce a squirm, are in fact so involved that it can be deceptively easy to miss their deliberate layering ("Rec League, I ain't paying to ball / Y'all B-string like a broke guitar / And I still put it down like the family dog," "Got no patients, cause I'm not a doctor / Girl why is you lyin', girl why you Mufasa," "She on Hollywood and Vine, thinkin' that she Hollywood on Vine / Makin' movies with her friends all the time / Showin' off her ass, that's a net twerk," "Got a glass house in the Palisades, that A-K-A / White hood, white hood, O-K-K-K"). And, regardless of how much one does or doesn't appreciate punning, the interrogation here is an interesting and relevant one: why do we prize some language over others? Why are his puns -- cringeworthy foremost because of their overly well-conceived puckishness -- considered more shameful or less artistically viable than the uninventive, insipid language we continue to reward with Top-40-Hit stardom?
Maybe the larger idea at play is to encapsulate a trend that Bo Burnham captures in "Repeat Stuff":
Any language, regardless of meaning, can be made to sound beautiful behind a nice tune, something for people to nod along with mindlessly. Gambino's more interested in displaying the ways we communicate than whether or not he endorses them. There's a clear exhaustion with posturing here, even alongside a simultaneous realization that artful posturing has become the most appropriate fashion to illuminate that fatigue. It's a search for some kind of truth, even as the truth feels muddled, upsetting, and bloodless.
"Because the internet, mistakes are forever / But if we fuck up on this journey at least we're together"
For any criticisms Gambino levels, his ultimate hope for human connection continues to assert itself. At one point in the script, The Boy drives to Oakland unannounced to visit a past flame. She represents something pure in his mind, existing before Internet culture became such an omnipresent force in his life. The moment is the same subject of "What Kind of Love (Bonus Track)," where he explains, "Drove for hours just to see your face," before being interrupted by what sounds like the brief noise of another song, after which he says, "Sorry / Drove for hours just to see your face / We should've talked if just to clear the space." In this way, we find a "simultaneous enactment of events from a multiplicity of positions." There's The Boy stumbling through an apology for past wrongs and Gambino apologizing for the interruption; is it diegetic or non-diegetic? Is he apologizing to listeners? His ex? Maybe too, through the metaphor of the interjection, his apology is broader, an expression of shared sadness for the ways our various media have claimed to bring us together when they've done more of the opposite, and that his art has to be part of that noise in its hope to somehow bridge the resulting gulfs between us. In other words, if we're stuck in the noise, we have to find and prize the noise that enriches our lives and facilitates a coming together, not a squirreling away from it.
"Yo, bro, man, check out this video I just sent you, man. This shit's hilarious, man. It's like this kid, man, he got like, he got like, hit on the side of the head, man, he's like freakin' out" ... "We don't wanna be on (Worldstar!) / And all I wanna be is a (Worldstar!)"
Spectatorship and performance have become larger parts of our existence than ever before in human history, fueled in every way by the Internet. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more time spent observing and engaging with cyberspace, the more one inevitably performs for it and projects it onto the real #SweatpantsMusicVideo #feedbackloop. Sitting back and commenting on what we perceive is something we've always done, but suddenly, there's a ubiquitous platform to do so. It has been argued that this arrangement has promoted community, and there are ways that it has, but the larger effect has been overstimulation and alienation, best elucidated here:
"I don't know who I am anymore / Still on the beat though"
Another consequence of Internet culture has been a more democratized sense of celebrity, where @ParisHilton and @PerezHilton achieve overnight fame and vlogging is its own industry #microcelebrity. There's an inherent blurring of authenticity and artifice, which is, in turn, what real life has come to reflect. In the Internet age, what we do isn't so much about what we want or mean -- it's the ensuing perception of those acts by everyone else that reverberates -- a familiar truth for Glover. Things other people do become vehicles for us to share our own thoughts. We're presented with conflicting realities. We're nobody on the Internet; we know that our participation in comment threads, for example, will fade from active existence quicker than the forums where they take place. Meanwhile, everything we put on the web exists as permanent record for anybody willing to dig, a sort of pre-emptive blackmail via our own naivety; so often we don't understand the implications of our actions, even when we think we do #weallbigbrothernow. It doesn't leave much space for community-building and freedom of expression.
So what do we do? How do we combat this incongruous loneliness? In the case of Childish Gambino, we choose to make art that engenders discussion of its ideas and an openness to empathize, understand, and problem-solve. In whatever ways we can, we shove these conversations into the same, infinite space where we do virtually everything else.
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