I wrote this yesterday afternoon and it sat on my phone and I decided not to publish it because whatever but also because I found out Insanul ran something about this last week and it was quite good and I’d rather have his word be the last word on the site, and then Macklemore won way more Grammys than I thought he would because he really is that awful so here.
I don’t hate Macklemore because he’s white. Let’s get that out of the way first: The fact that Macklemore is white isn’t the problem. Macklemore could be brown, mulatto, mauve,* whatever. But Macklemore’s whiteness—which is different from the fact that he’s white, and we’ll get to that later—definitely has something to do with it. And it should probably be cleared up here that when I say I “hate” Macklemore, I don’t mean I hate the guy who plays the character of Macklemore, let alone have a serious, burning hatred of Macklemore in the darkest depths of my soul. From what I can gather, Macklemore The Human Being seems like a patently nice guy. Like, he wouldn’t be a terrible in-law. If your sister dated MTHB, you wouldn’t be too upset, because your sister is more likely to make Macklemore cry than Macklemore is to make your sister cry, and that’s about where you want things.
I hate Macklemore the same way I hate Floyd Mayweather Jr, Ron Paul, or Crossfit: Partly because it’s funny, partly because it whips their most ardent defenders into a frothy psychosis, but mostly because this is a person/institution in a position of cultural power who Most People regularly mistake for being good. And more often than not, they make this mistake because a property of mass culture is that “good” regularly gets conflated with “ubiquitous.”
That’s not to say there aren’t popular things that aren’t great. Harry Potter. The Beatles. Otis Redding. Etc. Popular things are often popular because they’re great, and more often than not, objectively great. Like, Pretty Boy Floyd, who’s an undefeated boxer. People love a victor. I love to hate this victor because he fights defenseless spouses and a bunch of pussy boxers and cheats in the ring and threatens to punch senile old men like Larry Merchant, but that’s another thing entirely. The point is: I get pleasure out of hating on Pretty Boy Floyd. It’s therapeutic for me because of my own issues with what Floyd means to me. It’s the same way hating on Macklemore is therapeutic, or at least, used to be.
Because now, Macklemore is beginning to do more than just represent bad things, but actually, inhabit them. As I write this, hours before the start of the Grammys, I am pretty convinced that Macklemore will win every award in which he is nominated with other rappers, and that tomorrow, people will be upset about this.
But we shouldn’t be surprised, or even upset that he won whatever Grammys he did. The Grammys are a short-term problem, and at this point, given the totality of morons and idiots that barely distinguish the Grammy voting body from a rigged student council election, not winning a Grammy as a critically acclaimed rapper is almost a mark of accomplishment.
The win-lose record isn’t the problem, though. The problem—the real one, the one that will absolutely happen, and the one that dwarfs whatever awards he will or won’t win—is that people are gonna leave the Grammys telecast knowing more about Macklemore than they will about any ostensible rap artist tonight.
And there are a lot of reasons this sucks, but the main one is really all that matters: People have a certain number of hours in the day to listen to music. After tonight, Macklemore is going to take more of those hours from more people. These are people who could be listening to Kendrick Lamar, or Kanye West, or Nas, or Wale, or any number of rappers whose music is more compelling, less sanitized, more nuanced, and more important than Macklemore’s. These are the people who subconsciously file Macklemore under their cultural consumption’s rap requisite, and push all else away. These are people who think they know Outkast because they know “Hey Ya.”
Do you think it would have taken this long for Outkast to reunite if we didn’t reward them for making an album on which they barely rapped together? Consider, for a moment, another dimension in which Outkast gets Album of the Year for ATLiens or Aquemini or even Stankonia instead of Speakerboxx/The Love Below, and then tell me that’s not the universe you’d rather live in.
Macklemore is the Rap Game Starbucks, the Rap Game Wal-Mart.
Macklemore The Rapper’s rise in popularity comes in a decade when the rest of America had finally decided to wake the fuck up and get on board with the gay marriage train, because not being with it is some medieval mentality shit. And Macklemore’s big single, the one he’s performing at the Grammys, is a song about gay marriage. In 2014. How revolutionary.
This is a great message to be hip to, and to promote. But there’s a difference between promoting a message implicitly through the virtue of being great—see: Frank Ocean—and exploiting a message explicitly through a song that basically screams GAY MARRIAGE IS GREAT.
What Macklemore boosters conveniently forget when they bring up the virtues of “Same Love” is that the best possible world isn’t a world where a straight rapper tells everyone gay marriage is okay. The best possible world is one where nobody hears a love song and feels singled out or left out, where the sexual orientation of the performer or the love song’s message or constructions aren’t even a talking point. Those people already exist (again, see: Frank Ocean), but they’re not crass commercialists who need to exploit that message for brownie points as populism.
Macklemore is the #Kony2012 of pop music.
Macklemore fans think they’re special for promoting this supposedly unique cause in their slice of culture, but the byproduct of their conquest is that they’re ruining the nuance of the landscape, and calling attention to themselves and their leader and their targets instead of systemic problems, and savaging any surrounding issues along the way. It shouldn’t be cool or trendy to be hip to a good cause. It should be pro forma.
And then there’s the issue of Macklemore’s whiteness. Again, not the fact that he is white, but the fact that he’s unapologetic in his whiteness. Macklemore is an act that takes pride in the middlebrow, who wears their distinct unfunkiness on their sleeve, like people who eat at Olive Garden because it’s “ironic.”
Take “Thrift Shop,” for example: The message about not spending tons of disposable income on clothing and instead spending it at a thrift shop is ostensibly a good one. Yet: Macklemore talking about “popping tags” is awful because he sincerely repurposes rap slang in a knowingly lame context. It’s barely one degree shy of a Weird Al parody of a rap song, if that. It’s not that “Thrift Shop” distinguishes itself from a parody of a rap song because it calls itself a rap song, but because Weird Al distinguishes parody from Macklemore’s version of rap, because he knows he’s making parody, and nobody has to cosign him to validate that argument either.
And this is where the Macklemore contagion really begins to get bad. Some of the best rappers of our generation will be destroyed by Macklemore madness, or at least, the memory of them will be. This will vary person-to-person, but all I’ll say for this is that I saw Dead Prez on the Okayplayer tour in 2001, and I was enthralled, and a little terrified, but mostly had a moment of revelation about culture and identity and the singularity of how great rap can change the world.
And then I came to my senses and realized that this is again another instance where it looks on the surface as if Macklemore is doing something that brings another cause or entity—in this case, the greatness of Dead Prez—good will and exposure to the mass of his fans, but ultimately won’t, because Macklemore’s fans aren’t about to pick up Dead Prez records so much as Dead Prez fans are going to have to wonder if they were wrong about Macklemore.
It’s brilliant and canny marketing that comes for free, because if you’re M1, why not take the chance to play the stage at the Garden? And if you’re Macklemore, the credence and attention you can get for this single cosign will go a long way in terms of getting people like me to begrudgingly talk about it, or at the very least, watch in abject horror.
And so much of that abject horror is the sheen with which Macklemore presents his schtick: As an independent entity from the rest of music fighting against everything else that’s popular. Macklemore’s independence is, again, a sales pitch. The idea that he’s speaking to and uniting an alienated group of people is brilliant, because what better way to unite a mass of people in fandom then making them feel like they are special and unique for liking him? Macklemore is the Tea Party of pop music. And (I told you we’d get here eventually) part of this appeal as a rap fulfillment segment is that Macklemore is a nonthreatening rap presence, because Macklemore is white, and plays up that whiteness. Macklemore being white isn’t the problem—Macklemore using his whiteness as if to claim this independent statehood is. Anyone who has any questions about the sincerity with which he takes his mission of independence can please refer to the heavy-handed metaphor that is the genuinely absurd “Can’t Hold Us” video.
Note that you haven’t seen me write that Macklemore is a terrible rapper. As a technician, he’s perfunctory at best and cut-rate at worst. As an artist, well…
Let’s just say that we’ve come a long way from the opening lines of “Mama Said Knock You Out” to the opening lines of “Can’t Hold Us,” which sound like someone who took a faceful of poppers and read out of a rhyming dictionary: Sounds great, means nothing. Macklemore’s penchant for subtlety is best exemplified by the chorus punchline of “Thrift Shop,” which is “This is fucking awesome.” It’s the kind of rap that would make Joe Biden proud.
But again, we return to the Grammys: For those of us who love rap, and love music, is that the kind of rap we’re proud of? Is the the great yield of this moment that rap has to offer for the world that will watch the Grammys tonight?
Again, the winners don’t matter, because The Grammys.
But convincing the people in your life who don’t listen to rap—who don’t understand why Kendrick Lamar’s album is a revelation for rap, let alone that Kendrick’s Lamar’s song about the dangers of alcoholism is so much more substantial than Macklemore’s woe-is-me tale about being a pillhead—is about to get that much more difficult after tonight, Grammy win or no.
And that’s why I hate Macklemore.
[*Someone asked me if I’d reconsider Macklemore if he were black. I told them I’d reconsider him if he were mauve, because that’d be remarkable: a mauve rapper. Also, I was a Childish Gambino booster for a long time before he popped, and his ‘whiteness’ has been the subject of supposedly high-minded critique for a while, which goes without saying that Macklemore is on the new Childish Gambino album, which for me was a surefire indicator that it would suck, which it mostly did.]