The first time I heard Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” on the radio, I was driving on an ill-lit road in South Florida at around 9 p.m. After hearing the “prelude” to the hook, if you will, where Macklemore repeats the word “what” for what feels like an eternity, I started to feel like I was in the twilight zone. And then the actual song started. I remember feeling like I was going through some kind of epistemological break: I couldn’t make sense of what I was hearing; I didn’t know what was happening to me or to my car radio.
Only a few days later, some of my students mentioned the song to me. When I expressed my confusion about it, they laughed and assured me that it was just a “stupid song about going to a thrift store.” Most of the time I have to take my students at their word, because without the help of Urban Dictionary, I normally fail miserably at understanding contemporary slang.
It’s been a few weeks since I first heard the song. Now I actually kind of like the beat. I like the sax. And I like the hook. I still don’t understand what most of it means, even after reading the lyrics and watching the music video several times. I do know that Macklemore makes scatological references, refers to his genitals and uses an abundance of profanity. Generally, I don’t like to listen to this stuff, but sometimes, when it’s a choice between falling asleep at the wheel or listening to vulgar music, I’ll take the vulgarity. At least it will keep me awake. That, and Top 40 is my guilty music pleasure. And I’m always hoping to hear the latest breakup song by Taylor Swift.
So the past couple of times I heard “Thrift Shop,” I was struck by a couple of lines near the end of the song. Chronicling an exchange about his outfit at a club, he raps:
They be like, “Oh, that Gucci? That’s hella tight.”
I’m like, “Yo, that’s fifty dollars for a T-shirt.”
Limited edition, let’s do some simple addition.
Fifty dollars for a T-shirt? That’s just some ignorant b—- s—.
I call that getting swindled and pimped s—.
I call that getting tricked by a business.
So it was here that I knew I was not doing a good enough job teaching my students to do textual analysis, because this is not just a stupid song about going to a thrift store. As I mentioned before, I am not familiar enough with current slang (or old slang, for that matter) to make much of the rest of the song, so I could be wrong about this. But here it seems clear enough to me that Macklemore is calling into question the way that our culture thinks about fashion and, concurrently, status. He calls attention to the way that we are, most of us, getting “swindled and pimped…[and] tricked by a business.” I say “we”; certainly I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I am. I know I am getting swindled and pimped every other Friday when I hop online — with my paycheck barely coming to rest in the bank — and start to buy clothes I don’t need and won’t use. Macklemore has called me out. And he does it in the middle of a song about the joys of thrifting.
I don’t know how Macklemore lives his life. I don’t know if he really cares about America’s obsession with status. I don’t know if he drives fancy cars or wears expensive clothes and jewelry. I know he successfully refers to R. Kelly and (maybe?) insults the elderly. In no way am I condoning this. But if Macklemore is willing to expose our/my own sad and seemingly growing trend towards what Solzhenitsyn called “endless materialism,” I’m okay with that, and I wish more people were okay with it too.
Laura enjoys Anthropologie dresses, singing, London, books, biking, eating, writing, 30 Rock, hot tea, and the ocean. Despite these interests — or perhaps because of them — she is still looking for what she wants in life. She took a Master’s degree in English, where she focused on Early Modern literature and the poetry of Edmund Spenser, and (again, because of this) is currently working four jobs.