Last Month in Pop Language: “This Is America” And Other May #1’s

The Roosevelt Review

by Molly Rosen Marriner

It’s another installment of Last Month in Pop Language, a column where the most popular (statistically) song, book, and film of the month will have their words analyzed in hopes of drawing a conclusion about language’s current usage—and future. At the end of each monthly column, we’ll draw a conclusion: Was last month’s pop language masterlymalevolent, or merely meh?

Film: Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War has eclipsed Black Panther to become the highest-grossing movie of 2018—heck, it’s already the highest-grossing superhero film of all time. And, for disclosure: I have not and do not plan to see this 2 hour 40 minute movie. Even the draw of Mark Ruffalo is negated by the fact that it also stars a raccoon—and, oh yeah, that the movie represents the film industry’s total embrace of its own decline/the superhero genre vomiting, eating its own vomit, and then vomiting again, like Spunky in Rocko’s Modern Life.

The screenplay is written by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, who wrote the other superhero mashups in the Marvel universe franchise—as well as the Narnia films. (Thanks but no thanks, guys.) Infinity War’s plot, which can be readily spoiled through a cursory Google search, seems to have a little more suspense than other Marvel Universe’s “will the hero beat the bad guy? yup,” but the screenplay seems par for the course: a heavy hand of casual, smug, self-referential humor juxtaposed with occasional “it’s time to save the planet”-style campy gravity.

Here are some literary devices we strived to find in this campy humor:

  • SimileDrax: [about Thor] “It’s like a pirate had a baby with an angel.”
  • CallbackLoki: “Well, for one thing, I’m not Asgardian. And for another, we have the Hulk!”
  • Pun: Tony Stark: “And I swore off dairy, but then Ben & Jerry’s named a flavor after me. So…” Dr. Stephen Strange: “Stark Raving Hazelnuts.”
  • Understatement: Peter Parker: “What is this guy’s problem, Mr. Stark?” Tony Stark: “He’s from space. He came here to steal a necklace from a wizard.”

Song: “This Is America” by Childish Gambino

Obviously, “This Is America” is the best music video in years—it’s possibly the greatest music video ever. In four minutes, it packs in references to history, current events, entertainment, and the apocalypse; it stands against watching, rewatching, and academic critical analysis.

But, this column isn’t about the layers of action in the music video, or the mix of musical styles, and instead is a focus on the lyrics. And at first glance, the lyrics don’t impress the way the video does: they feature heavy repetition of simple phrases, and don’t feature any “big words”. (This is something I’ve criticized Drake for in the past.) Many of Childish Gambino’s lyrics only hold greater symbolism about media’s distractions from Black struggle when paired with the video—”grandma told me get your money Black man” is haunting when the chipper gospel choir singing it is gunned down, and “ain’t life to a dog” is elevated when Childish Gambino is running from an invisible predator. But, some of the lyrics are packed with double-meaning … even without the video accompaniment.

Here’s my favorites … I know you were anxiously waiting:

  • Metaphor: “You just a bar code”
  • Double entendre: “This is a celly/that’s a tool”
  • Rhyme: “Don’t catch you slippin’ now/Look what I’m whippin’ now”
  • Repetition: “Get your money, Black man (get your money) / Get your money, Black man (get your money) / Get your money, Black man (get your—Black man) / Get your money, Black man (get your—Black man) / Get your money, Black man (get your money) / Get your money, Black man (get your—Black man) / Get your money, Black man (get your—Black man)”

Book: Magnolia Table: A Collection of Recipes for Gathering (Joanna Gaines and Marah Strets)

As I readily admitted that I haven’t seen Infinity War, I’ll also confess here: I haven’t cooked all the recipes in HGTV’s Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Table. Because of that, can I truly assess how powerful her/her ghostwriter’s knack for expository writing is? What if she slipped and advised to put wet mix onto—rather than into—a cake’s dry mix?

However, I can certainly judge her recipe names, introductions (“Food has come to play such an integral role in our family that the meaning of ‘seasonality’ has expanded beyond just what’s growing in our gardens. It’s also about what’s happening in our lives;” “I have two whisks, one large and one small”), and the book’s general content and utility.

In a market seemingly oversaturated by cookbooks written by professional chefs and restauranteurs, the topics Gaines writes about are well-tread and unoriginal—with chef memoirs featuring emotionally resonant recipes, kimchi recipes by Koreatown residents, and hosting guides by professional food writers, the bland and broad prose here doesn’t add anything to the canon. But since this is America (as Childish Gambino pointed out to us) and both food and reality TV are beloved, I can’t say I’m shocked that this beat James Comey’s book on Publishers Weekly’s bestseller list.

Here are some literary devices Joanna cooked up for us:

Verdict: Mixed Messages—Meh

We’ve got a movie that relies on fight scenes and action, a song that relies on its video’s imagery to deliver its metaphors’ nuances, and a heavily photography-dependent cookbook by a reality construction worker … yeah, this month’s way more about the visuals than the words … and so falls right into that meh category. (Though writer-actor-rapper Donald Glover replacing Drake as the number one artist is certainly progress.)

——
Molly Rosen Marriner is a writer, editor, and basset hound aficionado who lives in Oakland, CA.

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