For the fourth week in a row, an independent artist has a number one, chart-topping song. Who is this new indie messiah? Meet Macklemore. Not the savior you were hoping for? Well, that’s how people felt about Jesus, and I think we all know who got the last laugh there. If you’re part of the rabble crying out for Macklemore’s crucifixion, here’s a few reasons to consider waiting before you throw your stones. Because even if you don’t like him, you’d better get used to him.
1) He’s more indie than your skinny jeans
Aside from “rock,” “indie” is probably the most overused and ambiguous label in modern music. This is ironic, because originally indie was an extremely specific designation used to refer to artists or bands that were independent (i.e. not associated with a major label). Now, it seems as though “indie” is more of a label itself that describes a certain genre of music and that any band playing lo-fi folk/rock and donning skinny jeans and flannel can slap on their brand to make it more marketable.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; word meanings shift and evolve and I often use “indie” in this sense, because I like the kind of music it has come to be associated with and it’s a useful way to find it. Just like people forgot what “punk” used to stand for (anyone who still had any questions about this was silenced when Blink-182 appeared on the Teen Choice Awards), I think that people have forgotten some of the value and coolness of artists who are making it on their own.
Macklemore, however, is an actual, bonafide independent artist. He’s been making and releasing music independently since 2000 (presently with ever-present producer Ryan Lewis), and I’d challenge anyone who says that he doesn’t deserve the success he’s experiencing to try doing anything for 13 years in which the financial and social returns are basically zero. The success that Macklemore is now experiencing is well-deserved and hard-won, and the fact that he managed to top the Billboard Hot 100 without a major label promoting him is pretty impressive (independent artist Lisa Loeb topped the charts in 1994 with “Stay,” but this was largely due to the song’s association with the movie Reality Bites). Which brings me to my next point…
2) He uses the internet the right way
It seems like every day I hear something about social media marketing being the fastest-growing job in the marketplace, and it seems like every day I again want to hit my head against the wall after hearing that social media marketing is the fastest growing job in the marketplace. “Social Media” seems like the modern-day equivalent of The Force; it’s everywhere, no one seems to understand it and people who can control it are looked upon with an almost religious reverence. It’s thought to have nearly absolute power to make your wildest dreams come true, and that’s why marketing companies are paid to make “viral” videos and struggling artists pay to go to seminars in which “social media experts” explain how to “harness the power of social media.”
All this is frustrating, because social media really isn’t all that complicated. It’s powerful in that it allows people to connect with each other and share content that they have created faster and easier than ever before. For artists like Macklemore, this means that they are able to reach a big audience of potential fans without having to go through intermediaries such as record labels. What it does not mean is that anyone can make a video and get to a million views, or that a marketing company can simply “make” a viral video. When a video goes viral, it’s usually because of an unusual confluence of luck, timing and creativity. A good rule to follow is that good content will speak for itself and find a way to separate itself from the chaff. As Matt Parker and Trey Stone (two dudes who know a thing or two about creating popular content that spans across different platforms with staying power) put it, “We’ve been doing it long enough to figure out that content will ride on top of whatever wave comes along.”
The moral of the story here is that you have to make content that people want to see. If you’re going to use social media to distribute your content, you have to make content that the kind of people who use social media want to see. You might not like “Thrift Shop,” but you can’t deny that millions of other people do. The video is practically made for YouTube and features all of the staples: outrageous outfits, a fat suit, a topic highly relatable to college kids who have enough time to browse YouTube for four hours a day. Plus, they can queue it up on their Macbooks to play at dorm parties. Listening to the rest of the album, it seems pretty clear that “Thrift Shop” was tailor-made to blow up on YouTube and get Macklemore’s name out there so as to gain exposure for his other work, which is much more personal.
3) His lyrics are deeper than you think
Macklemore’s other songs are pretty different from “Thrift Shop.” Before you lump him in the same group as Asher Roth and LMFAO, check out “Same Love,” in which Macklemore trumpets his support for gay marriage, or “Otherside,” about his experiences with drug abuse, or “A Wake,” which tackles social media itself. The lyrics are vivid, colorful, and clever. You might feel like he sometimes hits you over the head with the moral, and his strong approach may not be especially subtle, but then again neither is “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
Sure, the issues he addresses are all poster items for people and artists looking to appear socially conscious and progressive, but before you decide that Macklemore is being disingenuous, take a listen to the songs. There’s a surprising amount of insight, and this is pretty refreshing in a time when indistinct mumbling paired with low-quality production is often mistaken for lyrical depth.
4) He’s a lot better than other gimmick-hit white rappers who made it big
Look, I understand a lot of people have negative preconceptions about Macklemore. Ever since Eminem started pairing up with Rihanna and talking about his kids, everyone has been looking out for the next Slim Shady, but all we’ve gotten is Asher Roth and Hoodie Allen. Some people like these guys a lot, and they each have a few decent songs, but it’s not hard to see why they annoy the hell out of so many people. Em’s rough Detroit upbringing earned him an air of legitimacy, where Asher and Hoodie sort of seem like drunk, clowny college freshmen penning lyrics during Philosophy 101.
On the opposite side of the arena, we’ve seen Yelawolf and Machine Gun Kelly, who seem more legitimate and definitely have better flow. The problem with these guys, though, is that they’re all Relapse and no Slim Shady LP. Which is to say they’re always fucking screaming. There’s really nothing in the way of humor or a good time, because they’re too busy trying to convince you how “hard” they are. Mark Blankenship of NewNowNext recently ran an article trying to decide which rapper would be the next Eminmen, Macklemore or MGK, and put his money on Macklemore, calling MGK an “unchecked ball of id.” Only time will tell if either inherits the throne (and personally, I’m not so sure that either will), but if one of them is in line, I’d like to see it be Macklemore. I think we’re all sort of worn out on the angry white kid thing by now, and I don’t think many people were ever a huge fan of the privileged white collegiate rapper thing. Macklemore isn’t either of these things, but is clever, funny and highly listenable.
5) The song “Thrift Shop” is a good song
Not everyone is on board with Macklemore, though. Brandon Soderberg from Spin recently raked Mackelmore across the coals for “misreading rap and conspicuous consumption” and “stinking of privilege.” His principal argument seems to be that shopping at Goodwill for clothes to party in is an activity that is only enjoyable to people who’ve never been forced to shop at Goodwill, and that Macklemore and those meddling college partiers are just as much conspicuous consumers as rappers who wear Gucci. Soderberg claims, “He is, in the hierarchy of people poring over cheap ass-clothes at Goodwill, only slightly above people who are there for Halloween costumes.” Aside from the obvious flaw in the argument, which is that any purchase made at Goodwill helps support an organization which itself provides jobs to underprivileged workers and that Goodwill is nowhere near in danger of running low on inventory, this argument fails because it, itself, stinks of privilege. Trying to save a few bucks for beer by going to Goodwill while you are in college is equally as valid a reason to go as not having enough money to shop at the mall, and the experience of being a lazy, party-obsessed college kid is, like poverty, part of the American experience. In fact, I always thought one of the cool things about Goodwill is the variety of people who all shop there; it’s a shared experience for people of very different backgrounds. In the hierarchy of people poring over the Billboard Hot 100 and looking for reasons to hate music that’s popular, Soderberg seems to be only slightly above the staff of Pitchfork.
But really, none of this brouhaha over whether or not it’s okay for Macklemore and college kids to shop at Goodwill would matter if it wasn’t a good song. Unfortunately for its detractors, it is a good song. Just try not to move your head every time the sax line hits the blue note. It’s catchy, it’s funny and it’s fun to listen to. Besides, people need to stop acting as though the “goodness” of a song is something objective; it’s entirely subjective, and the fact that it is currently the number one song in the country means that more people think it’s good than not. If anyone’s going to try any sort of objective measure of whether it’s good, it has to be by the numbers, and the numbers say it’s good.
Amanda Dobbins of Vulture indignantly asked, “Is this the number one you want America? If so, please explain in the comments.” Shortly after, the deluge of comments forced her to tack on, “UPDATE: Apparently you do! Okay!” The moral of the story? You may not like it, but don’t expect others not to just because you say it isn’t good. And before you decide you don’t like it, put it on, drive to Goodwill and buy some onesie pajamas.