Individualism, Capitalism, and Whiteness: A Rhetorical Examination of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”

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The biggest song of this last year is a travesty. It manages to further establish the cultural hegemonies of individualism, capitalism, and whiteness through the cultural myths of rags to riches narrative, the notion that more things will make us happy, and the concept that competition makes humans perform their best. In doing so, the song normalizes behaviors and identities that exist to support the existing structures of power. The most egregious aspect of the song’s popularity is that it masquerades as a celebration of resistance, an anti-consumerist anthem for a generation grown weary of brands and corporate worship. And the masses have bought it. They have digested Macklemore’s privileged, capitalist message as a text that represents rebellion. “Thrift Shop”, Macklemore’s party anthem about the fashion available in second hand stores, has managed to capture the hearts of a legion of devoted fans who have in turn furthered some of the United States’ most established cultural hegemonies.

To understand “Thrift Shop’s” ramifications, it is necessary to examine Macklemore as an individual and as an artist. One of the rapper’s largest calling cards is his independence; Macklemore, along with his producer Ryan Lewis, operates unattached to a record label. He has promoted his music self-sufficiently, reaching the top of the Billboard Charts and iTunes Best Seller lists without assistance from a corporate entity. His hit album, The Heist, is centered on the concept that he and Lewis are performing a “heist” on the music industry by reaching the top of the charts through self-promotion and individuality, acting as a self-contained entity separate from corporate record labels. At face value, Macklemore presents himself as a hard working artist who has climbed the mountaintop that is the Billboard and iTunes charts in a rags to riches manner. He has emerged victorious, outperforming and out-competing his contemporaries to reach the pinnacle of his craft. Without delving into the content of “Thrift Shop”, Macklemore’s story can be viewed through the lens of Marxism as a narrative that enforces the hegemony of individualism. Macklemore is a capitalist; he is the sole owner of the means of production of his music and he is, through mediums that are not solely his own such as record stores and iTunes, someone who profits through the distribution of goods as determined by competition in the “free” market. When examining “Thrift Shop”, is important to understand that Macklemore is a capitalist and has benefited from capitalism and as such, the structure that allows him to profit has an influence on the content of his musical output.

One of the largest Billboard hits of the year is a song that presents itself as anti-capitalist. More than two minutes into “Thrift Shop”, Macklmore rhymes: “They be like, ‘Oh, that Gucci – that’s hella tight’/I’m like, ‘Yo – that’s fifty dollars for a T-shirt’/Limited edition, let’s do some simple addition/Fifty dollars for a T-shirt – that’s just some ignorant bitch (shit)/I call that getting swindled and pimped (shit)/I call that getting tricked by a business/That shirt’s hella dough”. Presented without context, these lines can be interpreted as a strong statement against the capitalist system that encourages consumption of expensive clothing. Presented with context, Macklemore can be seen as a capitalist who is using an anti-capitalist sentiment to sell records. When examining the lyrics of this blockbuster hit, it is important to note that this message comes near the end of the song. It comes unprompted, as prior to these lines Macklemore has not mentioned a word against the values of consumerism.  He has instead spent a majority of the song rapping about how his quirky clothing is giving him attention and compliments, making him feel superior to others who are not wearing clothing as unique. He says that he is “stuntin’”, rap terminology for being demonstrative and brandishing style. He even suggests re-selling his cheap items when he raps: “I could take some Pro Wings, make them cool, sell those”. This is not consistent with an attitude of sticking it to corporate entities by purchasing previously owned items. This is consistent with a view of Macklemore as a capitalist attempting to profit and gain through his individuality.

One event in particular serves to underscore Macklemore’s inconsistencies as a capitalist who claims an anti-consumerism outlook.  “Thrift Shop” is not the only song from The Heist to spout a message at odds with consumerism; “Wings”, a tale about Nike sneakers, is a song that more explicitly clamors against its dangers and perceived ills. It should come as a surprise then, that Macklemore allowed the National Basketball Association to use “Wings” for a commercial advertising the league’s All-Star Game. The league used an edited version of the song that did not include the anti-corporate message, instead choosing to selectively frame the song as about just basketball and sneakers. A compromise of artistic integrity to this significant a degree does not happen without profit as the main incentive. When scrutinized, Macklemore wrote a blog post on his website that did not recognize the irony ensconced in his actions. He masks himself as an anti-capitalist renegade but does not do so convincingly enough for the image to hold under further scrutiny. The fact that masses of individuals have bought into his thinly veiled attempt at garnering support from anti-capitalist listeners is astounding and egregious.

This examination into what makes “Thrift Shop”s message a popular one causes us to look at the audience that has devoured the song so voraciously. Macklemore’s target audience is the privileged class that can afford to go to Goodwill or the Salvation Army to purchase items for fashion rather than using secondhand stores out of necessity. Racial assumptions be damned, it is impossible to dismiss this class as not having to do with the prevalent white ideology in the United States. While it may not be fair to call into question Macklemore’s race, in this instance his skin color is impossible to ignore, especially considering his role as one of the only white artists in the field of mainstream hip hop. Several elements of the video for “Thrift Shop” invite us to delve into racial elements that are at play. The video shows a mix of races, but it highlights African Americans. One such man is seen saying “Damn, that’s a cold ass honkey” when Macklemore walks into the club. The character’s use of a phrase complimenting Macklemore’s style, suggesting that the rapper’s attire is cool despite his race (as the use of the word “honky” implies), invites the audience to cast a discerning eye on the video’s inclusion of other African Americans. It sets a tone that is maintained for the remainder of the video in which Macklemore is seen attempting to gain the approval of a black audience who presumptively has a greater eye for style. This creates a distinction between white and black rather than blurring the lines of race. It heightens Macklemore’s sense of whiteness. Keeping in mind the song’s target audience of the upper class who can use thrift shops for stylistic purposes, the video seems to suggest to a white audience that thrift shopping is cool because the black kids agree. Using his whiteness as contrast to the black extras in the video, Macklemore sells himself as cooler and stylistically superior, effectively selling white as cool and reinforcing a dominant ideology.

 Macklemore presents himself as an incredibly genuine artist in a genre that often suffers from disingenuous personalities. He presents himself as a rebel at odds with corporate control and capitalist interest. He presents himself in a racially distinguished manner that serves to emphasize and celebrate his whiteness. That he has time and again demonstrated contradictions within his actions and words, capitalist leanings, and an unhealthy appeal to race should be surprising when given the image portrayed to the public by the rapper. When diving below the surface of Macklemore’s public portrayal through the lens of the “Thrift Shop” music video, it becomes readily apparent that he is not the radical artist taking the industry by storm that he believes himself to be; he is instead a musician that enforces cultural hegemonies through the use of time-worn ideologies. 

About ctrimis

I am a student at the University of Washington, majoring in Percussion Performance and Music Education. View all posts by ctrimis

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