Google defines “goblin” as “a mischievous, ugly, dwarflike creature of folklore.” And this song, whose video includes Tyler swallowing a bug, subsequently vomiting, and then eventually hanging himself, comes on Tyler the Creator’s debut studio album, Goblin.
At play here, then, are certain foundational elements of Uri McMillan’s notion of avatars,which “act as mediums — between the spiritual and earthly as well as the abstract and the real…” And although McMillan’s work focuses on black female performance, we can use his scholarship to understand Tyler’s performance as an effort to renegotiate understandings of black male deviance within a society which targets black males, which criminalizes and punishes their performance of everyday life.
In this music video, Tyler ostensibly renders himself a deviant, vile object who eats animals and, in the end, hangs himself. We, the viewer, will never identify with him. And because he dies at the end of the video, the work of even beginning to humanize Tyler is impossible, we need not even entertain it. But if we look closely at Tyler’s lyrics here, we see a stark anger with how he is understood. He uses this platform to speak for himself on this frustration.
The video begins with the word GOBLIN plastered in large, colorful font. This introduction invites us into a folkloric, mythical space. The man we are about to hear and witness might not be fully human — he might, in fact, be ugly and mischievous. In the song’s opening lyrics, Tyler declares, “I’m a fucking walking paradox, no I’m not…” From the beginning, then, we see Tyler blurring the lines between the abstract and the real — he is impossible to describe or to restrict to colloquialisms and platitudes. The rest of this project can be viewed within that nebulous, undefined space.
At the end of the first verse, Tyler eats the bug that has been in his hands for the duration of the video. Almost immediately, Tyler throws up, and the camera does not move. We are meant, perhaps forced, to see him in this reduced, violated state. In the first words of the second verse, Tyler tells us, “Jesus called, he said he’s sick of the disses / I told him to quit bitching and this isn’t a fucking hotline / For a fucking shrink, sheesh I already got mine / And he’s not fucking working, I think I’m wasting my damn time.” Tyler, then, is extremely frustrated with Jesus, whom I think we can interpret to represent something much larger: a predominantly white, sanitized rap audience. Tyler will not be filtered, he does not care, frankly, if people do not want to hear him “diss” others. We might read this video, then, as a consequence of the toll which this reception has taken on Tyler: instead of dissing other people, Tyler here disses and degrades himself.
The video ends with Tyler taking off his shirt and subsequently hanging himself while the audibly strained and tortured beat continues to play. Perhaps we are meant to read this as the desperate extent to which Tyler is trying to communicate his frustration about the way his music has been received, and about other facets of his life — at another point in the song, Tyler quips, “But after bowling, I went home for some damn Adventure Time / (What’d you do?) I slipped myself some pink Xannies / And danced around the house in all-over print panties / My mom’s gone, that fucking broad will never understand me / I’m not gay, I just wanna boogie to some Marvin.”
Nobody, then, understands him, and so he turns to the avatar as a means of navigating an otherwise impossible and cruel world. This avatar, by hanging itself at the end of the video, demonstrates Tyler’s own internal frustration and the consequent self-harm he wishes to inflict.