Rapper Macklemore’s song “WINGS” retells his loss of innocence and growth into angry anti-consumerism [Full Lyrics]. You can hear the memory of childhood joy of “touching the net” for the first time after lacing up a pair of Air Jordans. This glee falls away when a friend is murdered for his new shoes. Macklemore continues,
We want what we can’t have, commodity makes us want it
So expensive, damn, I just got to flaunt it
Got to show ‘em, so exclusive, this that new shit
A hundred dollars for a pair of shoes I would never hoop in
Look at me, look at me, I’m a cool kid
I’m an individual, yea, but I’m part of a movement
My movement told me be a consumer and I consumed it
They told me to just do it, I listened to what that swoosh said
Look at what that swoosh did
See it consumed my thoughts
Are you stupid, don’t crease ‘em, just leave ‘em in that box
Strangled by these laces, laces I can barely talk
That’s my air bubble and I’m lost, if it pops
We are what we wear, we wear what we are
But see I look inside the mirror and think Phil Knight tricked us all
Will I stand for change, or stay in my box
These Nikes help me define me, but I’m trying to take mine, off
I was never cool enough to have a shoe fetish. (I did love my pair of Air Icarus, but I remember that the were just super comfortable.) Nor did I grow up in a climate where I or my peers were likely to be killed for our shoes. There was violence near my school (a near-fatal stabbing if I recall), but my own bubble of privilege insulated me from these experiences.
Macklemore recognizes, too, that a significant part of his fame rests on his identity as a “white rapper.” Like Eminem, Macklemore is a racial inversion of the dominant hip hop culture. In interviews this summer, he’s been pretty open about the role of race in his success:
“The people that are coming to shows, the people that are connecting, that are resonating with me, that are like, ‘I look like that guy. I have an immediate connection with him.’ I benefit from that privilege and I think that mainstream Pop culture has accepted me on a level that they might be reluctant to, in terms of a person of color. They’re like, ‘Oh, this is safe. This is okay. He’s positive.’ I’m cussing my ass off in ‘Thrift Shop.’ Families are like, ‘Fucking awesome.’ I think that it’s an interesting case study and something that I feel, as a White rapper, I have a certain amount of responsibility to speak on the issue of race, knowing that it’s uncomfortable, that it’s awkward and that, in particular, White people are like, ‘Let’s just not talk about it. Everyone is equal.’ The reality is that…that’s bullshit. We absolutely see race. We all do. I think we can evolve as long as we are having discussions about it.”
Similarly, he’s received both praise and scorn for his pro sexual equality anthem “Same Love.” While I tend to find myself on the side of praise–rather than with the critics here or the comment thread here–I still think “Wings” carries a bit more heft for me. At least, I believe its critique of consumerism would be more a fabulous way to mark a discussion of consumer behavior and iconography. Nike’s Swoosh is about as close to a golden calf as consumer culture had in the 1980s and 1990s. How it got there is an amazing story–probably better than Walmart‘s. Nike’s sport culture is solidly religious and would make an accessible object for students. We may have moved on (to Lulu Lemon) but Nike will not go quietly into the night. Their latest campaign (“possibilities”) is obvious fuel for their future.
The other night’s VMA awards–ignoring Cyrus’s twerking–featured Macklemore, who decided to play “Same Love” instead of “Thrift Shop.” It was one of the night’s few moments of merit. It reminded me how thin the veneer of production is over so much contemporary music. It’s hard for listeners to avoid this trap. Even the obviously misogynistic duo of videos from JT (explicit) and Thicke (explicit) were careful constructions meant to stir sales. I was (and continue to be) infuriated that we can’t seem to get over the hill and onto other issues. You’d think that nearly 40 years after the “male gaze” theory was introduced, we’d have better ways to use women in cinematic productions. You’d be mistaken.
If all of this means little to you, I encourage you to watch Macklemore’s NPR TIny Desk concert. It’s definitely worth 15 minutes of your time (Warning: some lyrics NSFW). It doesn’t feature women (sorry to fail the bechdel test) but it also doesn’t feature any topless women gyrating alongside fully clothed ogling men. I’ll take the small victories when I can get them.