So, I went to the Macklemore concert on Friday night.
I’ll get the “why” part out of the way first. I’m no ride-or-die fan of Macklemore’s, but I’ve always found him to be pretty light and likeable, and I’ve defended him (via Facebook comments) against articles like this and this. The first piece grated me because it’s the usually-great Brandon Soderberg chiding “people who should know better” for liking ‘Thrift Shop’; elevating his personal aesthetic disappointment that it isn’t a track from a Goodie Mob b-side into a moral taxonomy of people who shop at Goodwill. The second is a hand-wringing piece from Jon Caramanica, who posits that hip hop is an endangered species whose survival is being threatened by introduced predators like Macklemore. I went to the concert, then, partly to rebel against this gatekeeping, doom-and-gloom rap blogger consensus that Macklemore is (a) forbidden for Serious Rap Fans, and (b) single-handedly destroying hip hop. Mostly, though, I went because I owed a friend a present, I vaguely knew that he liked one Macklemore song, and I was short on gift ideas. I bought two tickets on a whim, and along we went.
I had a fair idea what the audience demographics would be like before we headed in, and the Auckland show fit the mould perfectly. Apart from the odd chaperoning dad and Macklemore himself, I was the oldest person at the show by an average of about a decade, and I’m 25. I was half-heartedly live-texting the gig to one of my friends and I described the audience’s racial mix as being like “Westlake Boys High School during apartheid South Africa”. It felt like roughly 100 per cent of the brown people at this concert were with me, and I went with just the one guy. A common criticism of Macklemore is that he makes rap for kids who don’t listen to rap, and that much is crystal clear. But, I wondered, is there anything wrong with that? Is anyone harmed by young, white kids listening to squeaky-clean pop-rap with some serious social messages and enjoying it?
Well, that depends. Some of the most interesting and nuanced criticism of Macklemore notes the insidious way in which he’s appointed himself as hip hop’s moral conscience, and if kids are listening to Macklemore because he’s not like all that other rap, that’s definitely problematic. Macklemore himself has resisted being framed this way, and that’s one of the reasons I criticised Soderberg’s article when a friend linked it on Facebook, commenting as follows:
not sure u can chastise mmore for an “implicit message” that his song “is not like all that other gauche hip-hop about ballin’ and champagne-poppin’, blah blah blah” when his EXPLICIT message [in “A Wake”] is that he’s “not more or less conscious/Than rappers rappin’ ’bout them strippers up on the pole, copping/These interviews are obnoxious/Saying that, ‘It’s poetry, it’s so well spoken’—stop it”
Okay, but then Macklemore did an interview with the always-gross Herald ahead of Friday’s show, and the interviewer blew smoke up his ass in that exact same way: dog-whistling about his music being “socially conscious and fun hip-hop that is not typically what you’d expect to come out of the US” [translation: this is not like all that black rapper stuff]. It seemed like a perfect opportunity for Macklemore to rebuke the interviewer à la his own lyrics, but he didn’t. In fact, he agreed:
While most hip-hop music celebrates how much money you can spend and what type of material possessions you can buy, that song goes against all of that and that in itself goes against anything else you might hear out there these days.
That is, he exactly paraphrased the criticism of Soderberg’s that I tried to defend him against, and perfectly contradicted his own position of not being a special “conscious” hip hop figure. The interviewer, no doubt after giving a sage, knowing nod, went on to ask Macklemore about the social justice issue dearest to his heart, gay marriage. He responds:
You know, coming from the perspective of being a straight male, how do I approach this subject knowing that I will be speaking about and for the gay community, but not being a part of that community? Holding myself accountable, holding the hip-hop community accountable.
Well since you’re asking, Macklemore, you could start by scrapping the idea that you speak for gay people altogether, and also that it’s your job to single-handedly hold the “hip hop community” (which includes people like Le1f and Murs) accountable for its homophobia. This is the crux of Macklemore’s problem: he wants to be received as an honest-to-god rapper, but he lords himself above the genre, slapping hip hop on the hand for its moral depravity in the same breath as he fawns about how it changed his life. Macklemore teeters between well-intentioned change-cheerleading and pernicious, White Man’s Burden scolding, and on Friday he leaned way too far into the latter category for me to want to defend him any longer.
Apart from homophobia, the most devastating social ill in Macklemore’s eyes is drug abuse. A fair chunk of Friday’s gig was dedicated to the topic, as I expected it would be. For what it’s worth, I have zero problems with Macklemore sharing the story of his own battle with addiction, and I’m loath to write that off as just a middle-class, Drake-stakes struggle, even though by rap standards it is. The problem, though, is that Macklemore singles out hip hop as being a Very Bad Influence in this regard. I felt icky as fuck when this exact moment played out during his performance of ‘Otherside’: a song which chastises rappers like Weezy for promoting lean, weed, Oxycontin and coke; a raft of drugs not exactly plaguing the lives of the 5500 drunk white Kiwi teens surrounding me. At points the finger-wagging was so thick and sanctimonious that I struggled to keep a straight face: another of my live-texts was “If Bono was here he’d be like “hey dude cool it with your moral high horse people just here 4 the music”.
So I was feeling a bit queasy from all the sermonising, and the sheer volume of cheese that Macklemore foie gras’d down our throats didn’t help either. “You guys are fucking awesome!” he greased, actually turning it into a chant towards the end of the night (“You guys are fucking awesome! You guys are fucking awesome!”). Performers always vaseline their crowds, but this was high-level mutual-masturabtion stuff: “AKKLAND!”, he oozed, “You have been the best damn crowd on the WHOLE Heist tour!” (5500 kids who’d never heard this old chestnut exploded into shrieking orgasm). He made his way through most of The Heist (including ‘Wing$’, the anti-consumerism anthem he just licenced out for an NBA commercial), as well as the odd track or two off older EPs (“How many of you guys knew about me before Thrift Shop?” he surveyed. (Everyone lied, cheered.) “Awesome! Here’s a song from my VS. EP!”). The second half of the concert degenerated into an EDM dance fest full of Macklemore’s most unlistenable tracks (‘Gold’, ‘Victory Lap’) and I barely had the will to sit out the encore, feeling lethargic and out-of-place and craving the Tink mixtapes I’d been playing on the car ride in. I was curious, though, to see what Macklemore would finish with, given that ‘Thrift Shop’ had already played earlier in the set.
Well, the grand finale was ‘Thrift Shop’. Yup, HE ACTUALLY PLAYED THRIFT SHOP TWICE. As glitter rained down from the ceiling of the Vector Stadium and pink-suited Wanz got wheeled back out; as 16 year old bros slopped RTDs all over me while their girlfriends earnestly rapped lines like, “walk up to the club like “whaddup? I got a big cock”; I couldn’t help but let out a small, genuine chuckle. “This is the guy corroding hip hop at its very core?” I thought, laughing audibly to myself at that point. Pleeease. If this is its biggest threat, everyone can relax about the future of rap. Trust me on this one: hip hop will survive Macklemore.