“Sweatpants”: Existential Loneliness and Identity Formation in the Internet Age
This post was written and submitted by guest contributor Samantha Hiura
In a radical act of modernization and redefinition of performance art, Donald Glover invites us to step into his internal experience as a young, successful Black man under the microscope of American popular culture. Glover, most well-known as rapper Childish Gambino, found fame on early YouTube, resulting in a genre-defying career marked not only by profound self-reflection but an inextricable creative and cultural connection to the digital world. Gambino's breakout album Because the Internet (2013) was met with popular and commercial acclaim upon its initial release. However, the 19-track-long album was just one component of the living multimedia performance art collection that was the Because the Internet project. Accompanying the album are a 75-page screenplay, mobile apps, a website called “becausetheinter.net,” a short film titled Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, and various lyric/music videos. The album functions as a companion-soundtrack that syncs to the screenplay, alongside the videos, short film, and website which further brings to life Glover’s intricately constructed world. The screenplay is itself a multimedia work, as it experimentally modernizes the traditional screenplay structure with a sensorily immersive experience that invites viewers to participate by instructing which songs are to be played in correlation with both script and short film. Glover's disregard for the confines of traditional creative genres mimics the amorphous, omnipresent, and inextricable influence of the online world upon our complex presentations of the self. In a living embodiment of the project, Glover went so far as to only appear in public dressed as his fictional character, "The Boy," during the time surrounding the project's release. Glover's total integration of trans-media works and the revolutionary obfuscation of the boundaries between reality and fiction makes Because the Internet a transformationally meta and self-referential performance art piece critiquing the production of social space in the Age of the Internet.
In his exploration of central problems within postmodern socialization, Glover presents a sort of broad-scale appeal to existential loneliness, imbued with the solipsistic narcissism of a semi-anonymous digital culture that is then complicated by the experience of race, class, as well as gender. The semi-autobiographical narrative of Because the Internet follows a central character known only as The Boy, played by Glover. By proxy, the project also appears to unpack Glover's tumultuous relationship with his embodiment of his uber-successful, rap-persona: Childish Gambino. The project’s plot revolves around The Boy being caught in the liminal space between his manhood and boyhood as he attempts to emerge on his own as a young, rich, but ultimately lonely, Black man in the Palisades. In the screenplay, short film, and album The Boy tries to reconcile with the experiential alienation that is inherent to the lives of the young, Black, and wealthy, which is then compounded by the backdrop of the simultaneously hyper-connected, yet altogether disconnected Internet Age. Through his portrayal of The Boy, we see how Glover is forced to confront the transient nature of human relationship within the context of the contemporary virtual matrix. The Because the Internet project invites us to examine the critical role the internet plays in our epistemological constructions of reality and the inherent sense of alienation within ourselves that begs for reconciliation.
In tracks like “Sweatpants,” Donald Glover exposes the nuanced complexities behind the problematic intersections of exorbitant wealth and Black masculinity, expressed through machismo, braggadocio, senseless violence, and indulgent–and ultimately harmful–lifestyles . Glover communicates the inherent loneliness experienced at these intersections, which are only augmented by the social culture built around the Age of the Internet; an age defined by the contradiction between hyper-connectivity and socio-emotional disconnect. The Boy’s experiences embody the Internet's boundless effects on how we make meaning of our existence, our relationships to others, and our attempts to bridge the increasing feeling of separation from our true selves. As he exists within these complicated intersections of thought and identity, The Boy is asked to become someone he is not: to enact classed, racialized, and gendered stereotypes of who he believes he is expected to be as a means of satisfying the contradiction between the socially-contrived definitions of his varying self-concepts.
The song “Sweatpants,” itself, loosely follows the narrative plot of the written screenplay, but is dominated by a distinctly boastful and egotistical tone that differentiates the song from the isolated, melancholic tones of the music video and screenplay. Gambino's bragging tone is similar to more traditional diss tracks: a popular archetype of the Rap genre. Within the multimedia context of the Because the Internet project, “Sweatpants” acts as a breaking point within the larger narrative. The audience witnesses The Boy's confrontation with his actual disdain for his life as he is currently living it. Under the guise of 'flexing' his public persona–one of Dionysian ego and excess–we see The Boy (and ultimately, Glover) wrestle with his existential alienation.
The auditory aesthetics of the song are built upon the contrast between a playful– but unsettling–xylophone and heavy bass, punctuated by various yelps in the background. The foreboding ambiance cultivated by the contrasting tones acts as the subtext of the auditory landscape, symbolizing the darkness in which the lighthearted bombast of the song is rooted. The Boy's innermost pain, loneliness, and apathy is undergirded by the restrained darkness of the bass. The fight for dominance between bass and xylophone throughout the song metaphorically reflects his struggle between juvenility and manhood. This discordant auditory juxtaposition, paired with the vocal exclamations throughout the track, produce a sense of discomfort that amplifies the song’s devolve from a light-hearted diss into a violent outburst.
“Sweatpants” epitomizes the braggadocio signature of the Rap genre, gloating about wealth and sex, while continuing to use Black hyper-masculine stereotypes to excuse The Boy's immaturity. The song’s thematic substance relies on the convergence between the fictional character of The Boy and Donald Glover's stage-persona, Childish Gambino thereby linking these stereotypes to his lived experience. Glover connects inaccurate, real-life accusations of his success in the entertainment industry stemming from his supposedly-wealthy upbringing to The Boy’s wealth: identifying how affluence contradicts with cultural conceptions of Blackness as he raps, “I’m born rich, life ain’t fair, silver spoon c**n hoe.” In this verse, Gambino references his wealth to demonstrate that he couldn't care less about such accusations because ultimately his wealth allows him to transcend some racialized barriers to success that his accusers cannot access. In his intentional use of a racial slur with slavery-era connotations of deviousness and laziness, with the phrase “silver spoon” (suggesting laziness from being born into money), Gambino highlights the stereotypes unique to the intersection of his Blackness and socio-economic status. The alliterative rhyme of the word spoon and the slur only further emphasize this lyrical moment's gravity.
Although a central focus of the project is his reconciliation with isolation and understanding his identity, stemming from his fraught relationship to his wealth, his social relationships, and the stagnation of his youth, The Boy’s struggles do not transcend his Blackness. This is an aspect of his identity that unsettles social conventions that would otherwise form a clear social situatedness. Specifically in the context of The Boy, wealth does not exempt him from racialized stereotypes and slurs that pervade social ideas around race, even in spite of the unequalized access to privilege it would otherwise grant him. Even the track’s title, “Sweatpants,” alludes to this idea, as its association with the leisure garment suggests comfort that is ultimately denied. This disruption of comfort mimics the denial of the comforts afforded by wealth on account of his Blackness, which complicates his access to all-encompassing privilege and is seen in the corresponding section of the screenplay as well.
Throughout this track, Gambino also boasts about sexual conquest as a means to secure himself within stereotype. In one line, he brags about being “Hip deep in that Pepto,” where he alludes to the extended size of his penis, with the distinct pink color of Pepto Bismol representing the pink tone of the vagina. Here, Gambino perpetuates the spectacle and stereotype of Black men having large penises; he seeks to empower himself through hyper-masculinization, evidenced by his use of penis size to flex on other men. His use of degrading racial stereotypes reflects a desperate attempt to tie himself to an identity in order to deny his feelings of amorphousness and liminality that are exacerbated by the socialization processes of the digital space. Ultimately, “Sweatpants” reflects a confluence of Glover's multifaceted identities; here, the Because the Internet project reaches a poignant examination of the tension between youthful carelessness, wealth, and Blackness, culminating in a boastful and increasingly chaotic track.
The section of the screenplay correlating with this track follows a scene of The Boy sitting in a nightclub following a rejection by his ex-girlfriend, Nyla, to whom he spontaneously traveled from Los Angeles to Oakland in an attempt at reconciliation. He sits silently with a member of his crew, as the rest of his friends remain present yet blissfully inattentive to his rejection-induced spiraling. A club promoter comes up to the table, accusing them of loitering and demanding they order a bottle. The Boy then orders 12 bottles, and a procession of women with bottles and sparklers is met with an empty table with only a large stack of cash remaining. The Boy and his crew withdrew from the club, but still left money and then some as an affront to the promoter who approached them.
The Boy’s mood throughout the scene coupled with this act all reflect a climax of his numbness to the party atmosphere as he constantly surrounds himself with. The indifference in his use of wealth in this scene reveals his apathy, as this affront is meant to convey “fuck you money” thrown indifferently in reaction to the promoter’s racialized assumption that this group, composed of young Black men, is loitering or that they do not belong. It also implies that only money could buy them that belonging. In a literal sense, this interaction demonstrates how racialized exclusion complicates the privileged access that wealth affords people. The socially learned contradictions between extreme wealth and Blackness are exposed, as the social expectation attached to both of those things are oppositionally defined; the promoter’s shock is evidence of this, as it uncovers a noticeable violation of his expectation that they would not be able to pay their way into the club based on stereotypes about their race.
Later in the screenplay, they are sitting at a diner where The Boy and his friends argue over the role of morality in vegetarianism. They explore ideas of human self-consciousness as power in the context of our ability and refusal to spare animals. Their conversation evokes the idea of money as a form of power, like human self-consciousness, that can operate to spare others, but the competition inherent to the capitalist goal of accruing wealth urges us against doing so. The Boy is overcome with a sense of deja vu, as this night is just like every other night of partying and killing time, demonstrating the repetitive nature of their seemingly exhilarating lifestyles. After losing focus of his conversation, he sees two teenagers writing “Roscoe’s Wetsuit,” a fictional, nonsensical idiom that goes viral and is referenced throughout, which triggers an emotional response and results in him yelling at the teenagers and slamming his fists on the table, causing everyone to look at him. Through this moment of silence following his outburst, all of the simultaneous narratives between the three media types of “Sweatpants”–the screenplay, music video, and song– are united.
The music video continues with this idea of deja vu. The music video is also set in a diner, where The Boy is accompanied by a group of what can be assumed to be his friends. The music video is a loop of a scene that is choreographically repetitive but with subtle variations throughout. It follows The Boy entering the diner, sitting down briefly at a table with his friends, getting up to pay for a song at a jukebox, stepping outside where there is a couple kissing and someone throwing up into a plant, looking at his phone, and then walking back into the diner wherein the loop restarts. Everyone freezes by the third loop after Gambino slams his fist on the table, and there is a pull-back camera action followed by a 360-degree shot of the whole diner, where every patron appears as Childish Gambino. This outburst mirrors the one from the diner scene in the screenplay. With each loop of this scene, the diner patrons become more and more like Childish Gambino in their appearance until they all become him. Childish Gambino breaks the fourth wall throughout the video by staring directly into the camera with what is at first a menacing look that ultimately softens and transforms into an introspective, melancholic look of being lost.
When examined through the context of The Boy, these looping, parallel scenes act as a manifestation of the “looping meaninglessness that is The Boy’s life.” This meaninglessness seems to resemble the mindless internet scrolling often used for distraction, as well as represent a symptom of his life of luxury and eternal comfort. There is a compounding relationship between the mundane, meaningless ways we engage with the Internet –perhaps to grasp at a semblance of connection or simply to numb our minds– and The Boy’s existential boredom, symptomatic of his lifelong wealth. These two culminate in his ultimately lonely existence in the Internet Age. The patrons all becoming The Boy reinforces Glover's experience of profound isolation, despite being surrounded by other people.
When The Boy steps outside, the camera pans his surroundings: a couple kissing and a man throwing up, which are reminiscent of the atmosphere just outside of a rowdy party. His visible disinterest–demonstrated through his facial expressions and reversion to his phone– embodies the idea that The Boy has become disinterested and detached from his partying lifestyle. If the personas of the fictional Boy, the rapper Childish Gambino, and the person Donald Glover are synthesized in this moment, it suggests that they now find the lifestyle of partying, drinking, and doing drugs that is essential to rap culture, to be a life of stagnation. Historically originating in poor, Black neighborhoods, the aspiration to 'make it big' evolved to glamorize expensive ragers, drug abuse, and endless sexual conquest; which is now synonymous with the reputations of many famous rappers. This specific brand of hyper-emphasis on materiality and carnal pleasure then became fixed to the unique intersection of Blackness and wealth, simultaneously perpetuating and reinforcing the stereotypical attribution of hypermasculinity to Black men. Donald Glover intentionally evokes the cultural connotations of hyper-aggression, overindulgent sexual conquest, and materialism associated with Black masculinity as a means of securing himself within his Blackness in order to combat its destabilization caused by his wealth.
“Sweatpants'' epitomizes the project’s attempt to reconcile social expectations that become unsettled in multiplicity within the self. Ultimately, it is not only about how The Boy sees himself, but how he is perceived by others, from which he then begins to understand himself. While this bind is one that is intimately tied with Glover’s life as a successful multimedia artist and celebrity, as well as the lives of the characters he evokes in Because the Internet, it is also expressive of the general tendency within contemporary culture to force us into negotiating our lived experiences in a racialized, classed, gendered society wherein we must assert a kind of brand identity to be seen.
Throughout all three mediums, this segment of Because the Internet reflects The Boy’s attempt to overinflate himself in anger, resulting in a reliance on stereotypes about Blackness, youth, and wealth as a means of securing himself in an existential crisis. Through the obscurity between The Boy and Childish Gambino, Glover offers commentary on the ways in which the luxurious rapper lifestyle invests itself in detrimental Black stereotypes. By doing so, he also touches on the nuanced experience of being Black and wealthy, and the unique expressions of alienation that accompany that experience. Its distinctiveness is symptomatic of the cultural cognitive dissonance that exists between wealth and Blackness. At once, he is granted elevated access to privilege through his wealth, but it is made unstable by his race. This living art project centers on the effects of the Age of the Internet as they relate to the formation of identity and how we exist in a social matrix. Through it, Glover hints at the unique individual formation that emerges as a result of the confluence of these ephemeral cultural phenomena and systems of social meanings.
The project’s internet-based existence pushes the binary between the ephemerality of a cultural moment and the permanence of the Internet to its respective extreme. Even then, once we begin to feel as though we understand this tension, Glover pulls this project into the realm of the “real” by modeling his public appearances in the dress of The Boy and making direct reference to his own lived experiences as a young wealthy Black man in the Age of the Internet. He molds his public existence into an extended element of performance art. By inserting elements of living performance art, Glover closes the liminal space between the digital and the “real” and suggests that perhaps these two concepts do not act as binaries, but as complex, inextricably linked social systems and interior worlds.
For a generation raised on the Internet and a contemporary moment built upon its mediated environment, this project’s expansive form and content struck a chord with the seemingly insurmountable existential loneliness that it induces. It embodies the idea of the Internet as a social echo chamber that problematizes the ways in which we make meaning of ourselves, as our perceptions of self are filtered through those of others. It is a holistic critique of duality– silence and overstimulation, reality and fiction, alienation and extreme inter-connectedness, how we are and how we present ourselves– resulting in a cutting, introspective examination of our positionality within tangled webs of social identity and the context of our cultural moment in a historical lineage.
Ludwig Gorranson. Because the Internet. Childish Gambino. Glassnote and Island Records. 2013.
Childish Gambino. “IV. Sweatpants.” Recorded 2013-2014. Track 8 on Because the Internet. Glassnote and Island Records. 2013. Spotify. 1:40-1:45.
Cuchna, Cole. “Season 3: Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet.” Dissect by Spotify. Podcast audio. September-December 2020. https://open.spotify.com/episode/04mA2M686jcA5lx8z9EtwY?si=v44PG2UtQBKHywPhP9ys3g&dl_branch=1. 22:28-23:26.
Childish Gambino. “IV. Sweatpants.” Recorded 2013-2014. Track 8 on Because the Internet. Glassnote and Island Records. 2013. Spotify. 0:38-0:40.
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Cuchna, Cole. “Season 3: Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet.” Dissect by Spotify. Podcast audio. September-December 2020. https://open.spotify.com/episode/04mA2M686jcA5lx8z9EtwY?si=v44PG2UtQBKHywPhP9ys3g&dl_branch=1.
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“Clapping for the Wrong Reasons [director’s cut].” Youtube video. Posted by “Donald Glover,” August 15, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_bONLcE8IA.