Music Videos in the Age of Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’

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Unless you’re a hermit, you’ve probably watched (or at least heard about) Childish Gambino’s electrifying ‘This Is America’ music video. It’s already amassed over 119,000,000 views on YouTube since being released earlier this month and has sparked fierce discussion across national news, cultural outlets, and social media.

It’s rare for music videos to become cultural phenomena, but it’s certainly not a new thing. Music videos have always had the power to do this and there have always been artists that make politically or artistically-charged videos that transcend the format. Take the unforgettable impact of Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ and MIA’s ‘Born Free’. 

So, what’s new? The way we consume and experience music videos has undoubtedly changed. Today, music videos can be shared, analysed, and discussed moments after they drop. 

But with great accessibility comes great invisibility. With anybody now able to release and share their music videos online at the click of a button, it’s become so much harder for artists to stand out in the saturated market.

What’s more, streaming is increasingly becoming the most common way we consume music. How often do you actually click through to the artist profile on Spotify? In this wild west of competing profiles, music videos are an important tool in the artists’ arsenal. Eye-catching and memorable visuals are more important than ever to halt the ever-scrolling thumbs on our smartphones – especially when so many of us view content on our feeds without audio. 

In a bid to stand out, we’ve seen music videos utilise new tech formats. Vertical videos have been used by the likes of Nicki Minaj, Selena Gomez, and Maroon 5 (using Snapchat filters) with some released exclusively on Spotify and Snapchat. We’ve seen Nadia Rose’s ‘BOOM!’ shot fly-on-the-wall-style on a genuine night out and Gorillaz using 360 VR for their ‘Saturnz Barz’ promo.

So, you’ve got their attention. Now what? Artists and directors need to be careful not to fall into the trap of using new technology as a gimmick. The general rule of thumb is to have a great idea first that embraces the new tech, and to bring it to life with standout craft and execution. Failures come from the technology having no relevance to the idea, track, or artist.

‘Lyric videos’ have also experienced a resurgence – acting as another piece of content to feed the hype until audiences can see the music video. It gives artists more fuel to elevate their track in the charts. For some years now, YouTube plays have directly impacted how well a song charts. Since its humble beginnings as a quick and cheap solution to slashed music video budgets over a decade ago, the ‘lyric video’ format has stuck about and is beginning to come into its own. Traditionally, creative expectations for lyric videos have been lower, but now it’s become an opportunity for new directors to work with bigger artists, and springboard onto other jobs. 

Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ music video doesn’t rely on fancy tech gimmicks or distractions – the entire video is set in a run-of-the-mill warehouse; the setting of so many other music videos – but it’s a masterclass in engaging content.

It triumphs and stands out against the sea of noise because a) the message is important and true to the artist and b) the quality of the filmmaking and execution match the message and do it justice. 

I won’t speculate on the ins and outs of what the video means – you can wade through hundreds of those online! But I will say it’s daring and challenging; simultaneously mesmerising and uncomfortable to watch. 

The uncontrived historical and personal relevance in his message forces our acknowledgement and cuts through the unashamed commercialism we’re so used to seeing. It’s miles away from long-time branding success story Taylor Swift’s music videos and her trademarked lyrics that openly promote her profile and products (like her ‘Incredible Things’ perfume in her track ‘Blank Space’). 

It’s a huge risk. Transforming this complex message into equally gripping visuals requires immense skill. If the execution had been shoddy, it could’ve been torn apart and criticised as using cheap shock tactics. Against these odds, the music video’s benefits from Director Hiro Murai’s talent and strong relationship with Gambino (he lensed much of Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino’s, TV series ‘Atlanta’). His use of space is smart and the transitions between influences seamless, taking viewers through a psychological rollercoaster.

It might be a few years until we get another gem that ignites such a wide reaction, but it’s clear that music videos aren’t dead, they’re just changing.