There’s something haunting about “No Church in the Wild,” the hypnotic new song by Kanye West and Jay-Z. I first heard the song in the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and the more I listen to it, the more I realize how perfectly it captures the spirit of Gatsby’s decadent world and also some–some–disturbing elements of our own.
The music video for the song, directed by Romain Gavras, was filmed in Prague across the backdrop of the city’s neoclassical architecture (Prague’s National Theatre is the beautiful building you keep seeing). The video’s fiery images of protesters and policemen violently clashing on the streets will no doubt call to mind the riots in Greece and London, the Occupy Wall Street protests, and even the bloody demonstrations of the Arab world–which explains why some critics have rushed to interpret the song and its video in political terms:
Gavras is no stranger to politically themed projects: He and M.I.A stirred up controversy two years ago with the video for her single “Born Free,” which graphically depicted governmental oppression of redheads. Of course, M.I.A. is known for her political flame-throwing, so the imagery for “Born Free,” while jarring, did not seem entirely out of place. But Jay-Z and Kanye don’t protest wealth on their record, they celebrate it. Kanye’s verse seems especially incongruous over the backdrop of a (seemingly all-male) political protest. “And deception is the only felony,” he declares, “So never [expletive deleted] nobody without telling me.”
The narcissism of the lyrics seems to cheapen the imagery deployed in the video. So what’s going on?…
Of course, there’s no reason artists should refrain from depicting both the attraction of wealth and the dark side of affluence. Indeed, watching this video, it’s impossible not to think of the last place we heard this song: in the new trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. At this point, however, Kanye and Jay-Z’s grasp on the tension between those two subjects doesn’t quite match Fitzgerald’s, to say the least—and Romain Gavras isn’t helping.
Slate‘s Aisha Harris has trouble making sense of the meaning of the song and the video because her political explanation is too surface and misses the point.
The song is not about politics. It’s about culture–or, what happens when culture degenerates and society breaks down. The riots represent disorder and chaos, themes that lace each lyric of the song, each shot of the video. When the video flashes to images of neoclassical sculptures, which symbolize order and harmony, the contrast with the violence is stark. Do you see the protester jumping to his death in this scene?
Meanwhile, the pagan god of light, truth and order–Apollo–sits, watching over these scenes of death and fury. Nietzsche called Apollo “the marvellous divine image of the god of individuation and just boundaries.” But there are no boundaries here. No individuals. Just a mob. Dionysus is Apollo’s antagonist, and it’s his influence that’s present throughout this song, not Apollo’s.
The hat-tip to neoclassicism and the pagan gods brings to mind the classical world itself, and the birth of Western civilization from Athens to Rome to Christianity. In its lyrics, the song contains references to Socrates, Plato, the Platonic dialogue the Euthyphro, Jesus, and the colosseum:
Is Pious pious cause God loves pious?
Socrates asks, “Whose bias do y’all seek?”
All for Plato, screech
I’m out here ballin’, I know y’all hear my sneaks
Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy, laid beats
Hova flow the Holy Ghost, get the hell up out your seats
For the record, the dilemma of the Euthryphro (in the words of Socrates) is as follows: ”Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Not bad, Jay-Z.
The next part of the song is the hook:
Human beings in a mob
What’s a mob to a king?
What’s a king to a god?
What’s a god to a non-believer?
Who don’t believe in anything?
We make it out alive
All right, all right
No church in the wild
The point is we’ve come a long way since the days of Plato and Socrates.
Western civilization, especially it’s art and culture, has always been caught between two elements: the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Nature versus civilization. Mind versus body. Passion versus reason. Earth god versus sky god. Destruction versus creation. Chaos versus order. There is constant tension, both in human nature and in society, between these two forces.
Listening to this song, and seeing the image of Apollo first in a fighting post and then just sitting there (above) having surrendered, it seems pretty clear that Dionysus has won. Or that’s the message anyway–that he’s won and has been winning for a long time, as Jay-Z’s reference to Rome’s gladiatorial games (“blood stains the coliseum doors”) makes clear. We’re in the wild, enslaved to nature and its pagan ruler, and there’s no Church, no moral order, here.
So what’s left?
Bacchanalia. “I live by you, desire / I stand by you, walk through the fire.”
Nihilism: “What’s a god to a non-believer? / Who don’t believe in anything?”
Materialism: “Thanksgiving disguised as a feast / Rollin’ in the Rolls-Royce Corniche.”
Decadence. “Cocaine seats / All white like I got the whole thing bleached / Drug dealer chic.”
A new religion of hedonism:
We formed a new religion
No sins as long as there’s permission’
And deception is the only felony
So never [have sex with] nobody wit’out tellin’ me
And, of course, pain: ”When we die, the money we can’t keep / But we probably spend it all ’cause the pain ain’t cheap. Preach.”
As Camille Paglia has written, “In nature we are convicted without appeal.”
The nightmarish language of the song with its images of total social breakdown reminds me Yeats’ famous poem, The Second Coming and its talk of “rough beasts” and “mere anarchy” being loosed upon the world (read the poem here).
Both have a savage quality about them. Both refer to this thing in us that’s half-man and half-beast. Both are describing a world defined by chaos and disorder. But is this the world we actually live in? To a certain limited extent, perhaps. But I think the key is that it’s limited. I have my objections to the type of decadence and materialism described in the song, but when I ride on the subway and see a young guy give up his seat to a pregnant woman, or go to a wedding to participate in a celebration of love and commitment, or even listen to “No Church In the Wild,” which is subversively critical of the culture it describes, it’s clear to me that we’re (still) more than our animal natures, even if we are we’ve come a long way since the golden age of Athens.