One of the highlights for me of watching Major Lazer in Bristol on Friday night, was when the DJ started playing Macklemore‘s Thrift Shop, and the crowd went wild. I was really surprised. I would have thought that most of the people who would go to a Major Lazer gig would be far to cool to completely lose it over a song that’s only a couple of swear words less poppy than Call Me Maybe.
After all, Macklemore and Major Lazer are very different: one is a super conscientious rapper who is trying to improve the world one beat at a time; the other is ‘a fictional cartoon character, who fought as a Jamaican commando and lost both arms in a secret zombie war in 1984. He fights vampires and various monsters, parties hard, and has a rocket-powered hoverboard.’ It’s really great dancehall music, but ultimately, it’s really great dancehall music made by a blonde guy who used to star in BlackBerry commercials, and it shows – to call it a pastiche wouldn’t be a stretch. My favourite Major Lazer song, Keep It Going Louder, has an official video directed by Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric fame, and it is essentially a parody of rnb/reggae/dancehall videos, featuring scantily clad women whose faces have been digitally altered to appear grotesque. It is one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen. It’s cartoonish, silly and fun, and doesn’t take itself, or the genre it’s modelling itself on, too seriously.
Such is the power of Thrift Shop. Of course, like anything popular and fun, the song has its detractors. In ‘Stop saying nice things about Macklemore’s Thrift Shop’ on Spin.com, Brandon Soderberg writes:
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… 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.
So far as donating to charity goes, money is money. Your $2.99 goes the same way towards helping support those in need whether you spent it on much-needed work clothes or ironic lols. If lording over his peers in Gucci and making your grandad’s clothes look incredible encourages his impressionable fans to shop at charity shops, that’s great. I think it’s wonderful that, during these dreadful economic times, you can go into a thrift shop with ten dollars and come out looking like your favourite rapper.
That’s one of my favourite things about Macklemore: anyone can join in the fun, with cheap clothes, moral messages that hit you over the head like a wolf on your noggin and pop culture references that even your nana could get. You don’t need a PhD in Overanalysing from the University of Critical Outrage to understand what he’s about. Homophobia is bad. Being addicted to drugs is bad. Pirate ships are awesome.
He has covered race (‘But we still owe ’em 40 acres, now we’ve stolen their 16 bars” from White Privilege), sexism (‘She said “We have a flame, your fire’s ignited with sound. Are you building the empire up, or using your fire to burn it down?'” from Contradiction), materialism (‘They told me to just do it. I listened to what that swoosh said’ from Wings), drugs (‘I’ve seen Oxycontin take three lives/I’ve seen cocaine bring out the demons inside’ from Otherside) and homophobia (‘If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me/Have you read the YouTube comments lately?/”Man, that’s gay” gets dropped on the daily’ on Same Love).
Now that the nineties revival is in full swing (but is swing really the right word to describe the nineties? Full bop maybe? Full nod your head and kind of sway a bit) and everything but the fanny pack (or as we call them in England, bumbags – fanny means something very different here) is back in fashion, it seems like the right time for a pop star who is so certain and earnest in everything he says. He could have been a spokesrapper for D.A.R.E. I can imagine him rocking out the Bayside Diner as the credits begin to roll, as Zack, Kelly and the gang jiggle along out of synch with the music to shake off the stresses of having learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of caffeine pills or whatever. It’s as though he has spent the last decade and a half holed up in a cave playing Pogs (or off his noggin on syrup) and missed the point in history where we stopped being sure what we actually liked.
The dream of the nineties is alive in this one. Listen to one of his songs, close your eyes, and you are transported into a world where the best bands of your teenage years haven’t been dividing the past few years between lighting cigarettes with handfuls of $100 bills and fighting with their Playboy model ex-wives on Twitter; where not every politician you’ve ever believed in let you down; where you can hear a straight, white rapper talk earnestly about homophobia and racism without cringeing.
We’re nearly done with revivals now. Pretty soon we’ll be through with the nineties, and then there won’t be anything left to revive (unless we decide to start going way back in time and dress like Henry VIII and listen to Greensleeves or something). We’re bored of constantly harking back to classic songs and giving them sacred status, or enjoying bad ones ironically. It’s time for something fresh, and new, and different – music that catches you by surprise, shows that let you lose your self-consciousness for a couple of hours, and pop stars that make you feel like together, you could actually make a difference.