Two weeks ago, Lena Dunham was in Long Island City on a Funny or Die set, rapping to the camera and ripping off breakaway pants. Alongside Power 105.1’s Charlamagne tha God, Tony-winning The Color Purple star Cynthia Erivo, and a set of backup dancers, the Girls creator was playing a character named MC Pantsuit in a fake celebrity PSA. In addition to serving as genuine advocacy for Hillary, the video, released this morning, is meant to parody the ineffective gestures of actual celebrity PSAs.
Vulture was on set with with Dunham, who spoke afterward about her goals and meta-goals for the video, the state of celebrity advocacy, working with Charlamagne and Erivo, and landing on a rap-style that’s basically just talking.
Why this video — especially now, at this point in the election?
Well, I had a literal dream about it. I’m like a crazed Hillary Clinton fan, and wondered what it would be like if I took this character one step further, to the most delusional Hillary Clinton fan. She’s MC Pantsuit and wears a sensual pantsuit. I liked the idea of a well-meaning, ridiculous white girl who thinks she’s helping the election by exposing her body and writing thoughtless rap music.
I wanted to bring in Cynthia and Charlamagne because they’re amazing and can get people really excited about voting. At the same time, they are part of the meta-commentary on the culture of white girls making it about themselves. So, she’s a character for sure, a ridiculous character, a little bit of Iggy Azalea meets BeBe Rexha. In my mind she’s just a delusional person whose passion is rapping as MC pantsuit. Then you have Charlamagne and Cynthia featured on the track in this way where they’re both participating, but also kind of like, “This isn’t the right way to go about getting Hillary Clinton elected.” There are so many PSAs at this point, so it’s fun to take a step back and go, “How many of these are working?” We should all be doing our part, but are they necessarily the smartest way that we can be going about it?
You’re saying the hope was to subvert the idea of advocacy?
Yeah, that was the goal. We have so many of these celebrity straight-to-camera addresses. The idea of this video is equivalent to when on the TV show Rich Girls the girls wanted to drop mattresses on Africa. It doesn’t quite work as an idea. Some of these PSAs are well meaning and they come from a place of deeply not wanting Donald Trump to be president, but they don’t quite work. I feel like it’s really important to unify and to not think your celebrity voice is going to do the job all on its own. This is in some way a commentary on that.
It’s also another way to scream loudly about Hillary. I love this as a medium for yelling out these truths about Hillary Clinton, which I feel have been lost in the current dialogue, especially around the debates. We’ve gotten so involved in the Trump news cycle that these fat incredible facts about her have been lost. Whether the right way to express that is through a white girl rapping is a question that we’re exploring.
We’re about the same age, and we grew up in a Rock the Vote era that said, “Just vote. We won’t tell you who to vote for, but vote.” That has changed.
Yeah, this has been the year where I feel people have been like, “This is a fucking emergency.” It’s not okay anymore to just say “vote.” It ceases to be responsible to say “vote,” because there’s one vote you can make that would lead to an apocalypse.
So what you’re doing in the video is responding to anticipated criticism of the video with what your friends, and later Charlamagne, say.
Yeah, they all [say], “You shouldn’t be doing a rap.” Also, Charlamagne improvised those lines, like “Why do we need to appropriate Iggy Azalea’s culture to win this election?” He was going to add, “I’m going to ignore this like Odell Beckham Jr. ignored Lena Dunham at the Met ball,” but we felt like by the time November rolled around people would be like, “Oh, right, I forgot that happened.”
How did you go about recruiting Charlamagne and Cynthia for the video?
Charlamagne’s been very kind in his tweeting about Girls, so I messaged him and was like, “There would be no better, or more amazing person to do a get-out-and-vote video with.” He said, “Yeah, I would love to and you should come do the Breakfast Club.” We did a little bit of a trade. I loved my experience of going on his show. I’m a huge fan — I’ve been listening forever — so to just get to go and be in the room with him and Angela [Yee] was a real special thing. Then, he was down to come and join this. He just fully got the joke immediately. I was like, “This is not endorsing white women rapping. This is not endorsing my three corn rows. It’s about talking about the complexity of being a celebrity spokesperson in a really goofy, light way.”
And Cynthia, I’m a crazy, huge fan of, as everybody on Earth is. We wanted someone really great to sing the hook, where it wasn’t a joke, as everything that is said in that hook is serious. She saves it from being pure garbage coming from my mouth. Also, even though she’s not a U.S. citizen, her Trump rage is right up there with the rest of us. Post-Brexit, she recognizes the similarities between the xenophobic racist insanity that our two countries are experiencing. She was like, “I’m just glad I get to say ‘mother fucker’ because I don’t get to curse in my show.”
What were you going for with your rapping, stylewise?
I’m worse than everybody, but I’m better than I thought I’d be. I have a secret collaborator, who’s very talented, who declined to be named, which is fun and mysterious. He was like, “Do you want an easy beat or a tough beat? I was like, ‘I’m going to have to go with easy beat.’ Then I went over to his house — it was the day after we wrapped Girls — and we just busted this thing out.
We had an amazing moment where he was like, “Why don’t you try it with a little more swagger?” Then I did and he was like, “Actually, let’s not. Let’s take the swagger away.” It’s really just me talking. It’s much closer to Anne Waldman doing her poetry about women that she would do with a gong. When I did SNL, Cecily Strong wrote this amazing sketch where we were three old women rappers that are like “Great great rap, great great rap, this is an example of great rap” and this is much closer to that.
But also rap is an amazing medium for social change and rage. There’s a reason that white teenagers sit in their bedroom feeling like their teenage feelings are being expressed by rap musicians. This happened at a moment right after the first debate, and I was so fucking angry. It did feel like a really good way to get my rage about the way the country reacts to Hillary Clinton out, but of course it has to be tongue-in-cheek because I am not a rapper.
Girls is implicitly political. What is the difference for you as a writer making something explicitly political?
I try to keep it really separate. Like, right now I’m working on a film for the Planned Parenthood centennial. It’s a five-minute animation with a lot of amazing, Oscar-winning female voices in it. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve gotten to work on. But I really think about that or making my podcast as a totally different activity than writing a book or writing a story for Lenny or making a show. There’s a part of my brain where I turn off political correctness and judgment and there’s the part of my brain where I try to think like an activist and advance a cause. This falls somewhere in the middle.
It’s also different from your other work in that it’s a straight-up comedy.
It was right after Girls wrapped, and I felt like the election was being kidnapped by such dark rhetoric. So, I wanted to bring humor to it, in which you don’t even say Trump’s name. It’s just about how fucking qualified she is. I don’t know if you’ve read that Medium story that was like, “Bitch, do you know who I am? I’m Hillary Clinton.” It’s like, are you people fucking joking? We have this woman in front of us, we have the chance to worship her, and this is what we’re doing and this is what our new cycle contains. I wanted to bring some levity, some enjoyment, some pleasure to it, because, frankly, there was so much that was getting me down.