Seattle rapper's Billboard chart-topper misreads rap, conspicuous consumption, stinks of privilege
Right now, the worst song in the country is the biggest song in the country. Wouldn't be the first time, right? But Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop," sitting at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, is a special case. Namely, it's a rap from a white guy celebrating common sense and sustainability — spending money at the local Goodwill or Salvation Army instead of at the mall or some streetwear boutique — that misses the mark and ends up as a party track for privileged dweebs. For the most part, Macklemore just lists LULZ-worthy things he copped at the thrift store (“Velour jumpsuit and some house slippers”; “I'll take those flannel zebra jammies, secondhand”), but occasionally he wanders into sanctimonious asides about how spending a lot of money on clothes is wack, yo: “They be like, 'Oh that Gucci, that's hella tight' / I'm like, 'Yo that's 50 dollars for a t-shirt / Limited-edition, let's do some simple addition / 50 dollars for a t-shirt, that's just some ignorant-bitch shit/ I call that getting-swindled-and-pimped shit.” There is also a corny R. Kelly joke, and a point where he pitches his vocal down to sound like a black dude and calls himself a “honky.” Not to mention, the implicit message of this rap song is that "Thrift Shop" is not like all that other gauche hip-hop about ballin' and champagne-poppin', blah blah blah.
Probably shouldn't have to explain this in 2013, but when you didn't have to wear hand-me-down threads or thrift-shop clothes your whole life, there's a novelty to wearing them in your 20s so you have some extra beer money. And hey, maybe you even feel like you're getting one over on a world of American Apparel-wearers by spending $2.99 on an already-worn-in colored T-shirt, but well, fall back. And that's not even the point. The dynamic that this is a song rejecting conspicuous consumption is, for the most part, projected by its listeners. Macklemore's embrace of the thrift shop is exclusively for wacky outfits to get him attention at parties, as well as something to lord over his peers in Gucci. He is, in the hierarchy of people poring over cheap-ass clothes in the Goodwill, only slightly above jerks who go there for Halloween outfits. At the top of this hierarchy, of course, are people who don't have enough money to buy new clothes.
Over the past six months or so, since its release, “Thrift Shop” has been embraced by plenty of people who should know better. All that I could think of was Goodie Mob's “Goodie Bag,” which does Macklemore's small-rewards rap far more effectively. Particularly, these lines by Big Gipp flashed through my head, because they kill Macklemore's safe-as-fuck, liberal meme-rap dead: “Today was good to me / I went to the Goodwill with the ten-dollar bill / Got that London Fog jacket out the back, paid the man.” The 1995 song (b-side to the friends-and-family celebration “Soul Food”) is ostensibly a celebration of weed as an escape from all the bullshit (though the act of “reach[ing] into the goodie bag” could even refer to positive thinking). But since this is Goodie Mob, they find plenty of room for the pain of life and an ATLiens-meets-Ralph Ellison sense that life's pleasure and life's pain, when you're an African-American male in the United States of America — even during Clinton's hallowed glory days, all you '90s babies — are inextricably tied. It's a song about life's smallest rewards, buttressed by weary, pissed-off experience. Take notes, Macklemore.