Home > Culture, Music > The Persistence of Consumerism in Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”

The Persistence of Consumerism in Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”

How, precisely, did I miss the hilarious and weirdly brilliant alternative hip hop single “Thrift Shop” (released last fall and topped the Billboard charts in January) until around about now? Out of touch with certain segments of the culture, I suppose. How ironic it is to have one’s tendency to be situated outside of the cultural cutting edge demonstrated so notably by a song celebrating the act of situating one’s self outside of the cultural cutting edge.

And “Thrift Shop”, by Seattle-based indie-rapper Macklemore and his producer Ryan Lewis (with a chorus vocal assist from Wanz), does celebrate that act, but it does so with such an aggressively loopy sense of the absurdity of resisting mass consumer capitalism that it would be just as easy to argue that it is sending up the act of resistance as glorifying it. Macklemore has spoken about “Thrift Shop” as a parodic refutation of hip hop’s ostentatious displays of wealth. Instead of cruising in Escalades and luxury sedan while wearing expensive designer clothes, his joke is to don tacky second-hand clothing while riding scooters. As far as it goes, it’s a bit of a cheap joke (as was that joke). But the devil is in the details, and those are drawn out to quite hilarious lengths in the song and its accompanied video (embedded below). Batman onesie pyjamas? A broken keyboard? “Damn, that’s a cold-ass honky!” If you squint just a little, it looks uncannily like genius.

As a critique of the ills of consumerism, however, “Thrift Shop” is predicated on little more than bean-counting. What separates the $50 Gucci t-shirts Macklemore mocks from the 50 t-shirts he can get for $1 beyond a pricetag? The components of the consumption of style are not erased, merely substituted. The shopping mania is displaced from expensive items to cheaper ones, and not for the purposes of morally-upright frugality but rather to support even greater consumption. Macklemore and his associates are surrounded by stuff, just as the wealth-obsessed rappers he critiques are, and they seem to intend to purchase a great deal of it. Both the lyrics and the video that visualizes them constitute a litany of consumer goods to be possessed, albeit recycled ones. The argument over the nature of consumption becomes about minimizing cost and repurposing objects, rather than challenging the very terms of the capitalist social contract. The Value Village chic, as “Thrift Shop” expresses it, swaps consumer goods but not the underlying ideology of capitalist consumption.

In this way, “Thrift Shop” and its success exemplifies the oft-elided truth that the core conceit of the alternative culture is little more than cover for the very psychosis of consumption that it claims to be curing. Quite likely, a simple comedic rap tune cannot accomplish even a compromised overturning of any element of the consumer culture. Furthemore, Macklemore’s intention does not reach quite that far in the first place; he is satirizing one particular expression of capitalist excess in popular culture without any larger active designs on ideological insurgency. But in both its subject matter and its own path to prominence (independent release to YouTube sensation to Billboard #1 single), “Thrift Shop” embodies the so-called hipster counterculture’s subservience to more imposing and persistent capitalist imperatives.

Categories: Culture, Music

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