Music Video Analysis: “America” by Mac Miller
by Colin Hodgson
If you watched music videos during the past decade, you’re bound to be familiar with line animation. You know, the kind of video where someone is drawing over the video by hand, blurring live action with animation. Usually it’s used to accentuate certain elements on screen or to alter reality. This style was so popular that Bruno Mars, The Weeknd, and even Justin Bieber used it. It ultimately became a cliché and is now actively avoided, but back in 2012 line animation had not yet hit the mainstream. Only the animator Ruffmercy had used it, and only with underground artists. He would go on to pioneer his own unique style through his work with ScHoolboy Q, Run the Jewels, and many other artists. But, just like in the Youtube comment section, there’s always someone trying to get there first. In this instance, it’s the music video for Mac Miller’s “America” that claims the spot as the first major video to incorporate line animation.
Here I will analyze Mac Miller’s music video with a focus on its line animation. I will discuss the effectiveness of the style in general, and how Miller and the directors used it to enhance the themes of the song.
“America” is off Macadelic, a mixtape that came out on March 23, 2012, just a few months after the release of Miller’s debut album Blue Slide Park. The song features Casey Veggies and Joey Bada$$ early in their careers and samples “Danger! She’s a Stranger” by the Five Steps, which was also sampled in Outcast’s “Two Dope Boyz (In A Cadillac)”. The video was directed by Mike Carson & Mike Waxx and released on July 4, 2012.
The mixtape was a departure for Mac Miller. Until then he had largely made “frat rap”, focusing on sex, drugs, and alcohol. With Macadelic he began transitioning towards a psychedelic sound and introspective lyrics. This change is clear in the lyrics and production in “America”. He begins the song by saying “I’m in a room filled with holographic images” which he explains as “a place that you create inside your head”. He goes on to discuss his journey towards happiness and envisions what his future could hold. This sets the stage for a subjective and hallucinatory video.
While the cinematography is fairly generic, it’s worth noting the lighting choice. The harsh red light is different than his previous videos, which all have natural or studio lighting. Staying true to the idea that this is a visual representation of Miller’s mind, the red light may represent the passion and energy he has inside of him. The main focus, though, is the line animation.
Music videos are generally designed to visualize the qualities of sound. Films and TV shows give the viewer a sense of understanding over the subject by adhering to certain rules (such as the 180 degree rule), thus placing the viewer at a distance and creating a voyeuristic experience. Music videos, on the other hand, use constant motion and rhythm to keep the viewer in an unstable position and draw them into the world. Line animation is an extremely effective method because it allows for constant changes and growth within the image. The image takes on the ephemeral properties of music because the lines are never on screen for more than a second at a time. When used effectively, the lines can also take on the rhythm of the song and act as visible sound waves. Therefore, the style of line animation is perfectly suited to the music video medium.
In “America”, the animated lines are primarily used to emphasize certain parts of the shot and to exaggerate specific motions. For example, Mac Miller’s watch and hat are both outlined. When looking at the video as a visualization of Miller’s mind, these outlines can be seen as physical manifestations of his wishes. He dreamt of success and what comes with it, and now it’s becoming a reality. A nice watch, nice clothes, and a fat blunt are all indicators of wealth and success (at least for him, at this point in his career). By highlighting them in this way it shows that he got them because of his skills and creativity, not because of dumb luck.
Another major use of the lines is to draw attention to all three rappers’ eyes. Eyes are X-ed out, outlined, and filled in with the colors of the American flag. The overwhelming focus on eyes confirms the idea that what’s happening on screen is how Miller and his friends see the world around them, full of infinite possibilities and bursting with magic and creativity. They see something the rest of us can’t.
It’s interesting to note that only Mac Miller’s eyes are X-ed out. This relates to the transformation in his career that this video depicts. With this imagery, he essentially kills his old self and becomes someone new who is more introspective and thoughtful.
In “America” Mac Miller continues his traditional music video structure — hanging out with the homies — and also gives a glimpse of the next stage of his creative evolution with distorted visuals and psychedelic elements. The video for “America” can be seen as the bridge between the frat boy phase and the psychedelic phase of Mac Miller’s career. His lyrics test the water as he becomes more introspective and self-aware, and the video performs a similar role. The animation allows his thoughts to bubble up to the surface and becomes visible to the viewer.
Line animation is a powerful tool for self-expression. In a more general sense, it creates an immersive and rhythm-focus video, which is ultimately the main objective of most music videos. After the release of “America”, dozens of artists caught on and made some equally creative and exciting videos, though this quickly resulted in overuse and declined into a cliché. By the time the rest of the world caught up, Mac Miller was already paving the way towards something new.
He was one of the most genuine and creative artists of the past decade, and if he hadn’t passed away would have kept paving the way toward a bigger and brighter future for himself and his fans. He will be remembered as one of the best of his generation.
RIP Mac Miller.
Originally published at https://colinhodgson.com on September 10, 2020.