Wednesday, January 18, 2017

No Macklemore that ain't thrifty.

(Warning—Strong graphic language)

Love him or hate him, one thing is certain, in the world of hip hop everyone has an opinion of Macklemore. He is considered the most successful white rapper since Eminem. Unlike Eminem he managed to climb to the height of success without a record contract. In 2014, he and Ryan Lewis won three grammy’s for Best Rap Album, Best Rap Performance and Best Rap song for Thrift Shop. In doing so, he skirted the usual gatekeepers of the industry and created a unique place in the hip hop world. 

Like most rappers his lyrics tend to be political and polarizing. Unlike most rappers, Macklemore was reared in an upper middle class setting. Though he is privileged, a fact that he openly acknowledges, he has chosen to court counterculture and oppose hegemony in his music. But it is not an easy position for him to take. One of the largest criticisms of his work is whether it’s possible for a white rapper to criticize white privilege. Is it possible to recognize hegemony when we are a part of it?

An argument can be made that though Macklemore appears to push against his privileged upbringing with songs aptly named White Privilage II (2016) and Light Tunnels (about the consumer circus surrounding the Grammy awards show)(2016), he in fact supports the hegemony he claims to oppose. To Illustrate this we can look at one of his most popular music videos, Thrift Shop. (2014)

(Warning—Strong graphic language)

Thrift Shop opens with a group of hipsters riding towards the camera on bicycles, big wheels, in laundry carts and on office swivel chairs. The party is coming and you want to be there. Macklemore, Slurpee in hand, meets Ryan Lewis in a retro Delorian. As Macklemore “rolls into the club” in his green gator shoes and fur coat with “ice on the fringe that’s so damned frosty” the message is clear, “Damn that’s a cold a** honky.” Macklemore is the model for desirable behavior because “this is “f****** awesome”. 

Ironically the only anti-model portrayed in the video is the black club owner who hedges at having his club overrun by millennials in thrift store finds. Quickly he relents.The party has arrived. The rest of the video plays out in the aisles of a thrift super store and fetishism abounds. 

“Velour jumpsuit and some house slippers
Dookie brown leather jacket that I found diggin'
They had a broken keyboard, I bought a broken keyboard
I bought a skeet blanket, and then I bought a kneeboard…”

Patrons dance through the aisles filling their carts with clothes, toys and broken instruments. One of the more refreshing points is that the video is cast with regular looking people, not super models, but plain clothed folks you’d see shopping at Walmart—well not your Walmart, a really hip Walmart in Seattle.

With every repeat of the chorus we are told, 

“I'm gonna pop some tags
Only got twenty dollars in my pocket
I - I - I'm hunting, looking for a come-up
This is f******* awesome” 

Thrift Shop is a critique of the blatant consumerism in rap and hip hop. By rejecting high end possessions the characters in the video actually increase their status. So by design they reject hip hop culture and create a counter culture that is made to become the ideal. 

The challenge with an analysis of this type is that rap is a text created by a disenfranchised people. By design it shows the “otherness” of those who feel marginalized. The fact that Macklemore, a white rapper can create a pop/hip hop anthem rejecting this culture is irony in itself. One of the largest criticisms of his 2014 Grammy win relates to the fact that even in the world of rap it is easier for an independent white rapper to win acclaim than for Kendrick Lamar from Compton. 

Jaime McFarlin refers to this as cultural appropriation “The crossover phenomena involves the absorption of African American contributions as simply ‘American’ or ‘universal’ after being accepted by mainstream culture.” According to McFarlin “Macklemore appropriated his rapping style from black culture, harnessing the storytelling features of the genre to address social issues closely affiliated with White America, such as gay marriage, materialism and the suburbs.” (2014) With velvet rugs depictions of JFK and tee shirts emblazoned with images of Kurt Cobain, Thrift Shop pays more homage to white suburban culture than of the African American roots of the genre.

At face value it appears that Thrift Shop rejects consumerism and materialism by embracing a secondhand counter culture as the ideal. However, this video fails to acknowledge the millions of Americans who shop at such stores not out of want but out of necessity. Instead, it shows young affluent millennials buying novel items at thrift shops. These are not underprivileged youth purchasing items of need. These are middle class kids on a field trip to the local Goodwill to buy fetish items, exemplifying the message of privilege, “we can shop anywhere but we choose to shop here”. Therefore, this text can be viewed as an inflected oppositional reading. “A mere bending of hegemony to suit ones own needs rather than an outright rejection.” (Sellnow, pg. 120)

Though some of the characters in the video may be depicting a proletariat lifestyle, the text of the video and the intended audience is for mainstream Americans, the Bourgeoisie, who have the funds and closet space for batman pajamas and coonskin caps. Therefore songs like Thrift Shop support Hegemony in the occluded form. 

Personally, I am a fan of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and enjoy their theatrical style. I find the music fun and the political messages relatable. While listening, I want to dance in the aisles of the local Goodwill or cruise around town on a moped. It’s likely I enjoy it because I am a white suburbanite. Like Macklemore I recognize that I’m a part of privileged culture but even in our most earnest attempts, as Thrift shop illustrates, it may be impossible to separate ourselves from it. 

Discussion Questions:

1.) Do you feel you are part of privileged culture?

2.) How does privilege impact how you interact in your world?

3.) Do you believe it is possible to recognize hegemony when we are a part of it? 

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