Isn’t it ironic that a song and video that possibly depict America at its absolute worst is technically the first No. 1 song with the word “America” in its title?
Not variations of the word, like “American” (that’s happened three times before, as explained below), but the word “America” itself.
Childish Gambino, the singer/rapper and alter-ego of Donald Glover (actor and television show producer) achieves the feat as his latest single, “This Is America,” the titular song behind a simultaneously released (and controversial) music video, debuts at No. 1 on this week’s Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. It’s Gambino’s first No. 1 single and only his second top-40 hit, following last year’s No. 14-peaking “Redbone.”
The new song’s lyrics and music video are a commentary on the rampant gun violence plaguing black America and society’s perpetuation of the violence through pop culture entertainment (mostly targeted at black youth).
The video, which has gone viral, depicts a bare-chested, expressively dancing Gambino in various settings where he suddenly – and stunningly – carries out two sets of murders. The first victim is a black man sitting in a warehouse peacefully strumming an acoustic guitar. Gambino dances into the scene, then strikes a “Jim Crow” caricature-like pose before shooting the now-blindfolded man (sans guitar) from behind as the music’s tone and tempo ominously changes.
The next victims are a singing black church choir, which Gambino executes using a semi-automatic assault rifle. The choir likely represents the nine church members who were murdered in a racially motivated hate crime in South Carolina in 2015.
In both cases, the murder weapons are handled with extreme care (wrapped in symbolic red cloths – speculated as a hidden message representing “red” states’ stance on gun control issues) as Gambino dances away into the next scenes.
Suddenly, young black people are seen joyously dancing with Gambino, either oblivious to or unaffected by all the violence around them, as the rapper alternates between contemporary dance moves and well-choreographed, African-inspired ones, which along with other images in the video have caused people to draw a nexus between racial issues here in the U.S. and those on the African continent.
The video’s much-analyzed imagery is clearly the reason for the song’s out-of-the-gate success, with its viewership accounting for 68% of the song’s streaming points. It’s the streaming total (65 million clicks) that propelled “This Is America” to the top of the Hot 100 chart, as the song’s radio airplay (another factor in determining the Hot 100) isn’t even enough to cause it to enter Billboard’s Radio Songs chart yet.
Realistically, “This Is America” is not the kind of song that will garner enough pop radio airplay to sustain it at No. 1 once the excitement over the video subsides. The song’s African-inspired chants alone will prevent radio from jumping on it. Its chart descent will likely begin as early as next week (allowing the Canadian rapper Drake to resume his 15-week dominance of the American singles chart).
But even a short reign at the top for Gambino is better than none, and it’s enough to inspire djrobblog to research earlier “American” triumphs in song titles.
As mentioned already, no songs named specifically for “America” reached No. 1 before Gambino’s viral hit. However, three songs with “American” in their titles have. All three occurred in the early 1970s.
First was “American Woman” by the band The Guess Who in 1970. Often interpreted as an anti-American war protest song, it doubled as a cynical take on American girls by the rock group who hailed from Canada (and, as the song’s writers put it, clearly preferred Canadian women to ours).
Then came Don McClean’s “American Pie,” which topped the chart in 1972. His song was a wistful take on the 1959 plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson, also known as the “day the music died.”
And finally, in 1973, came Grand Funk’s “We’re An American Band,” a song about the Flint, Michigan band’s then-recent concert tour through America and their dalliances with groupies. The song’s title was reportedly inspired by a heated debate about American and British bands between members of the defiant Grand Funk Railroad and the British group Humble Pie as the two were touring together.
As for “America” itself, the closest anyone came to reaching the top before Gambino was, ironically, another black man – James Brown – whose “Living In America” reached No. 4 in 1986. That song probably embodies the most patriotic spirit of any song named for “America” as it represented the fictional boxing matches between American fighter Apollo Creed (and later his pal Rocky Balboa) and Russia’s Ivan Drago in the film Rocky IV.
With the U.S. at the height of its Cold War with the Soviet Union back then, the makers of Rocky IV couldn’t have been more shameless in their capitalization on American patriotism and their “good-vs-evil” take on the American boxers’ battles in the ring with the big Russian Drago. So dripping in patriotism was it that even James Brown, who could never get substantial pop airplay and at that point in his career couldn’t even buy a hit, had his biggest pop radio single ever.
Other notable “America” songs to make the top 40 include “Kids In America” by Kim Wilde, “This Is Not America” by David Bowie, “In America” by Charlie Daniels Band, and “America” by Neil Diamond. Only the Neil Diamond hit, a positive patriotic take on U.S. immigration, reached the top ten. Surprisingly, that song was seen as offensive by some after the 9/11 bombings in New York and Washington.
Also, the British band Supertramp had the song “Breakfast In America,” a satirical take on writer and singer Roger Hodgson’s fantasy about coming to the U.S. for the first time. It failed to reach the top 40 (made No. 62 in 1979), but was the title track to perhaps the biggest album with the word “America” in its title. The album spent six weeks at No. 1 in ‘79 and remains Supertramp’s biggest-seller.
Aside from those song titles (and Supertramp’s album), the group named America topped the Hot 100 twice, first with “A Horse With No Name” in 1972 and then “Sister Golden Hair” in ‘75.
So as you can see, Gambino’s dire wake-up call is now the biggest song about “America” (not Americans) to chart within these borders and it essentially succeeded where all others have failed in taking “America” to the top of the Hot 100 singles chart for the first time in its 60-year history.
I’d be willing to bet that the red MAGA hat-wearing folks probably didn’t have any of this in mind when they adopted their favorite slogan, but for a moment in music history, “America” has indeed achieved greatness on the Billboard charts.
Even if the song that did it couldn’t be any more disturbing about its depiction of what’s happening in America.