Pop Culture Confessional is a column where our writers can divulge and indulge in their most deeply embarrassing cultural passion – and then tell you why it actually rocks. Everyone has a few dirty little secrets. Only the truth shall set us free.
Macklemore performed at my high school a couple of years ago. Nobody went.
Granted, the performance was scheduled for a rainy, typically Pacific-Northwest-y, shitshow of a day. The field where the audience was supposed to stand looked like raw brownie batter. Plus, my high school is full of workaholics, so most of us were probably holed up in the library studying for APs. But more than the cloudy weather, something hadn’t quite clicked for Ben Haggerty's stage persona yet.
“He was okay,” said one of the show’s few attendees. “Just another lame local rapper,” said another.
But now it's 2012, and this Seattle-based rapper is lame no longer. His latest album, The Heist, debuted at No. 1 on Itunes. What the hell happened?
Here's my hypothesis. Macklemore’s music got awesome when he perfected the bridge between rhyme and relevance – when he learned how to convey the moral messages of his hometown without falling back into homily. It got even better when he used his shiny new celebrity status to catapult those messages into the realm of national discourse. In short, over the last several years Macklemore has become a modern griot, a storyteller whose deep understanding of a culture enables him to translate that culture’s message for the rest of the world.
Yo, Suze – what is that cultural message, you hipster?
Okay. so I can confirm that the Seattle stereotype is somewhat true. Okay, very true. Seattleites are “hip,” and sometimes that hipness is annoying; like when it translates into sludge-black coffee, über-fancy sustainable water bottles and $5 lavender-flavored cupcakes. Such pretensions lead a lot of people to pronounce that word –hip– with an expression like they just swallowed a mouthful of stale PBR.
But most Seattleites aren’t like that, I promise. Most of us take our "hipness” a lot less seriously, at least when it comes to trivial bullshit like a perfect Rwandan light roast. But we also know when our hipness is a good thing; for example, when it helps galvanize social change.
Seattle is consistently ranked one of the greenest, most literate and most LGBT-friendly cities in America thanks to our progressive stances on hot-button issues like climate change, education and sexuality. We’ve started to recognize a lot of these ideas politically, too; a few days ago I voted for Referendum 74, which legalized same-sex marriage in the state of Washington, and for Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana.
Seattle is a greenhouse of progressive thought – pun intended. And Macklemore is its prizewinning plant.
Born in Seattle in 1983, Haggerty began his long-term obsession with social justice when he noticed the pervasive racial divide at Garfield High School, a local public school that boasts other kickass former students such as Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Lee. Since then, he’s worked at juvenile detention centers and with mentorship programs. All that activism in the face of intense personal struggle – he is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict – makes for a pretty wise, compassionate dude. And it shows in his music. Exhibit A:
"No other artists in hip-hop history have ever taken a stand defending marriage equality the way they have,” said ELLEN FUCKING DEGENERES about Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ song “Same Love,” which came out on July 18. In the song's opening lines Macklemore admits, "When I was in the third grade, I thought that I was gay," completely inverting hip-hop's homophobic stereotype with a vulnerable plea for tolerance.
But his raps aren’t always proselytizing. At least, not openly. Take "Thrift Shop," which, on the surface, is as gleefully irreverent as its title suggests:
"Thrift Shop" could have very easily degenerated into a fun little “Stuff White People Like.” With the help of a brilliant and culturally significant music video, however, it catapulted Macklemore into superstardom. In the opening shot, Haggerty rides a baby-blue scooter towards the camera lens in a bulky, salvaged cheetah-print coat, surrounded by a gumbo of Seattle humanity that agreed to shoot the video with him just for kicks. There's everyone from 8-year-old girls to dreadlocked bar-hoppers. And it’s clear from the way they dance through candy-striped bars and hop over old couches, that these very different people are having a very good time together.
Why shouldn’t they? After all, they’re hip to Seattle’s latest trend; the celebration of collective individuality, of people connecting through difference. That’s what propelled "Thrift Shop" to popularity, and that’s the larger cultural message I’m talking about with Macklemore. That message is even bigger than same-sex marriage or responsible drug policies, because it encapsulates both issues and more. It’s relevant to everyone and anyone who’s ever felt different.
And it’s what we’re listening to, I think, as a nation. This November, we re-elected a president who chills with Beyoncé and used to belong to a pot-smoking club; and this summer, we fell in love with an Irish hipster who raps about third-grade sexual disorientation. With Referendum 74 and Initiative 502, Washington and a few other states have begun to legislatively protect these kinds of differences. It’s not too long until the rest of the country follows suit. Macklemore isn’t just a sparkly performer or a supremely talented musician, although he is both of those things. He's also the human incarnation of Seattle’s cultural and moral hipness and a mouthpiece for social change. And his success in that role, more than his rippling silver mullet or his rocket onesie, is what makes him so fucking awesome.