My first exposure to Macklemore came in the form of his song and video for “Irish Celebration,” a bawdy, brawling ode to the rapper’s Irish heritage. Sampling Beirut’s “Scenic World,” the song’s brassy instrumentals inspired YouTube comments such as, “Siq beat—makes me proud to be Irish!” Fun fact: Beirut’s music is largely influenced by Balkan music, not Celtic drinking songs. What ignorance! This, combined with Macklemore’s less-than-inspired lyrics like, “Put a pint up everybody sing a song,” was strike one for me. I wasn’t a fan.
Strike two came when I heard “Thrift Shop.” To me, the song seemed as if Macklemore, trying to catch the wave of “underground” tastes, had shown up a few years late to the hipster convention and was trying to sweep around for any frat boys or blog-fresh suburbanites just as late as he was. He represented everything that was wrong with the hipster movement—principally its hordes, clamoring but also doing an overly obvious job of clasping onto the tired aesthetic. Silly clothing! Irony! Hooray!
“And We Danced” was strike three. In my mind, perhaps the only thing worse than cultivating a (questionably) “alternative image” is to pair it with Black Eyed Peas-style lyrics—i.e., using phrases like “really, really, really good time” in one’s chorus.
He had struck out.
But then I watched the video for “Same Love,” and I was forced to reconsider my call. After “Thrift Shop” had already dominated Billboard’s number one position, Macklemore could have easily written another beer pong bump. But he didn’t.
Instead, he produced a track advocating for LGBT rights and attacking socioreligious hostility toward the gay community just as the state of Washington was debating whether to legalize same-sex marriage. This is by no means the easy move for an artist attempting to gain the spotlight in the hip-hop/radio hits industry. His choice reveals (what I believe to be) something much more deliberate and self-aware going on behind Macklemore’s curtain.
What if he used mindless lyrics in “And We Danced” simply because he knew people would listen to it anyway? What if, to the horror of “music-savvy” Tumblr-ites everywhere, Macklemore actually understands how bad a light “Thrift Shop” shines on indie culture? What if the song isn’t a desperate appeal but a meta critique?
I can only imagine he secretly chuckles at all the “in the know” blogs that gut him for being a poser and that aren’t nearly as savvy as they think they are. And they can’t be all that savvy if they’ve failed to identify the trail of breadcrumbs he’s left behind. In a music scene so obsessed with genre, he has successfully created a frat party smash hit, a noble protest song, and a wannabe hipster anthem, all within a year. And while each has its respective merits, his work’s collective genius lies in the Chuck Close-style collage it renders of a giant middle finger—to genre, to “hip” listeners, to oblivious listeners, and to expectations in general.
It’s easy to dismiss Macklemore, but I don’t think we give him nearly enough credit—not necessarily as an artist, but as a social critic and an astute stuntman. To dip into such varying social tastes and succeed brilliantly each time is impressive and alarming. His eclectic marathon run raises questions about artist autonomy and public standards, and makes us wonder if this out-of-nowhere Seattle rapper with a hip haircut is infinitely smarter than we think. Then again, there’s always the possibility that we’re just getting dumber.