I have been, and still am sometimes, a wedding DJ, which is how I found out about Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop.” It was an instant crowd-mover among the predominantly white and Asian audiences attending the weddings I’m hired for, and at first I was a bit baffled as to why. Granted, it has ‘crossover hit’ written all over it. The intro features a cute kid’s voice and an 80s-style swinging drum machine beat that a lot of people probably associate with Will Smith’s early hits (eg. the Fresh Prince theme and large chunks of He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper). There’s a fun wheezing horn sample for a melody and a memorable hook. But I found it odd that, in a pop marketplace where someone like Robin Thicke can have a hard time getting people to warm to the feel-good retro vibes of his non-“Blurred Lines” singles, “Thrift Shop” blew the fuck up right off the bat.
Once I paid closer attention to the lyrics I chuckled, because I get it. I am also a white person who enjoys thrift shopping, and has never to my knowledge spent $50 for a t-shirt. (Out of curiosity, I wonder how much Macklemore & Ryan Lewis tour t-shirts cost. $50 would be high but hardly unheard of by merch booth standards.) From a strictly economic point of view, the only way luxury goods that aren’t obviously of superior quality or durability to less expensive ones is if the buyer values the status it may confer, and since I don’t particularly value the status that comes with looking like I spent a lot of money on my outfit, it simply doesn’t appeal to me. I suspect that my audiences come from similar socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, hence the instant appreciation of the song’s message.
If we were all free to make these choices, unencumbered by background and culture, then there would be nothing wrong or disturbing about this. Of course we’re not, as Reason’s Thaddeus Russell patiently reminds us, introducing us to the theory of conspicuous consumption and reminding us that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ song is part of a long tradition of the rich knocking the poor for making bad lifestyle choices. My instant reaction was, are we sure “Thrift Shop” is making fun of poor people for lusting after the flyest gear? There’s precious little commentary about expensive clothes in the song, and other than the dismissive tone in his voice about the $50 t-shirt, Macklemore doesn’t appear to be taking shots at other people. Initially, I figured critics who heard that in the song were hearing what they want to hear. But the more I thought about it and talked it over with people, the more I realized that the context doesn’t exactly jive with what I’ll call the “Oh, I didn’t see you there” defence.
We’ve all heard edgy artists respond to angry parents that it’s the parents’ fault they allowed their children access to material that, if they were doing their job properly, they would have known was offensive. It’s pretty convincing, in that the desire to keep kids away from arguably harmful material shouldn’t infringe on anyone’s freedom of speech. This is the textbook application of the ‘Oh, I didn’t see you there’ defence, in that the artist argues that they aren’t responsible for how, or by whom, their art is consumed. I was trying to use a version of the ‘Oh, I didn’t see you there’ defence for Macklemore, pointing out that people who read a critique of others’ materialism into “Thrift Shop” are bringing it to the work, it’s largely absent from the song.
But if Macklemore didn’t intend for people to read his love of thrift shopping as a critique of hip-hop materialism, why did he make a hip-hop song about it? The context takes the credibility out of the denial. It’s a bit like a comedian making a joke about a guy murdering his ex-wife when OJ Simpson is in the audience – the comic can say “oh, that was in my routine before this show” but the decision to say it when you know OJ is present makes it hard to deny the evident intention. The same logic applies to “Same Love,” even if it’s a more socially accepted message – Macklemore could argue it’s not intended to critique hip-hop homophobia (which is arguably driven by similar social conditions as hip-hop materialism), it’s just his opinion. I doubt anyone would find that particularly convincing, because again, why choose a hip-hop song as a vehicle for this message? Why not post a letter in support of gay marriage on your website instead? (Or just make out with a dude on camera? I’m sure WorldStar would be more than happy to host the video.)
I don’t think Macklemore or his defenders can credibly argue that the “Thrift Shop” reaction I see on dance floors among middle class white people — for whom criticizing less wealthy people for not being sufficiently thrifty is a bit like a bank CEO criticizing the poor for their lacklustre investing knowledge — is an accident. And if he was really upset at the way the song was being received as a paternalistic rebuke to other rappers and their fans, he could stop performing it, or stop accepting Grammys for it. But he hasn’t done any of those things, and that makes his apology text message to Kendrick Lamar seem even less sincere. “I robbed you,” he wrote, and then posted it on Instagram. It was a gesture that he apparently wanted everyone to see. We don’t know exactly why, but we can guess.