At Acculturated Emily Esfahani Smith, the associate editor of the New Criterion, provides another elegant dissection of the deeper philosophical themes in pop culture. Here she discusses “No Church in the Wild,” from Kanye West and Jay-Z last year, now gaining popularity because of its use in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby:
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 one?
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.
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.