Written by Ashley Kelmore, Posted in Feminism
I didn’t enjoy Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s music when I first heard it a couple of years ago. Austin shared some of the songs and I just didn’t really get into it. We even had tickets to see them, but Austin wasn’t feeling great that night so we ended up not going. I know, that’s straight up blasphemy in Seattle, but before you click away please know that I have changed my mind. Sort of.
I heard “Thrift Shop” right around the time the video was released and was immediately hooked. It had a really great beat and wasn’t the typical topic of a popular song. After I heard it a few times I was singing along, and got excited to crank it up when it started to play in my car.
Now, depending on the websites and other outlets you frequent, you may or may not be aware that there were some detractors who point out how the song does sort of reek of economic privilege, and while I don’t want to discount that opinion, for the purposes of this post I’m more interested in looking at another sort of privilege that shows up in the song: gender privilege.
Yuuup. It’s (hopefully, likely) unintentionally, but it’s there, in this lyric:
“Fifty dollars for a T-shirt – that’s just some ignorant bitch shit”
Bitch shit? Really? Perhaps you’re rolling your eyes, thinking that this ‘P.C.’ (aside – the quickest way to get my eyes to glaze over is to call something “P.C.” as negative, as though respecting people is something to frown upon) stuff is ridiculous, and that bitch is just an adjective used to describe a negative, and has nothing to do with women. Shoot, I didn’t even notice or think about this until it was briefly mentioned on Radio Dispatch – a great podcast by New York-based journalist siblings John and Molly Knefel.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis aren’t as well-known back east as they are here in Seattle, and during a May episode of the show, John mentioned that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis became better known across the country initially for “Same Love,” the song about marriage equality and civil rights for all regardless of their sexual orientation. In it, Macklemore recites the following insightful lyrics:
“If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me
Have you read the YouTube comments lately?
“Man, that’s gay” gets dropped on the daily
We become so numb to what we’re saying
A culture founded from oppression
Yet we don’t have acceptance for ’em
Call each other f****ts behind the keys of a message board
A word rooted in hate, yet our genre still ignores it
Gay is synonymous with the lesser”
John and Molly pointed out the irony and ideological inconsistency with someone who could articulate the above observations about the treatment of gay people by using the f word regularly, yet seems to have zero problem with using a derogatory word for women a couple of times in a song.
What’s the deal?
In 2005, he wrote a song to address this (sort of): The song is called Contradiction, and includes these lines:
“I stand up for human rights, and treat others how I would wanna be treated
But every song can’t be seepin’ with freedom
‘Cuz the other side of me is sexist then people will feel that I’m preachin’
“Everything’s peace and love?” uhh, that’s somewhat misleading
Because this world is fucked-up and I’m a product to what I’m seeing
Not to justify, but just to touch on my being
I learn from these verses and my purpose gets surfaced with demons
Now I am sexist, I’m prejudice, I put that in my music
She said she heard that perspective, but before she turned around
She said “We have a flame, your fire’s ignited with sound
Are you building the empire up, or using your fire to burn it down?”
I kind of get that – he’s being honest, he’s trying to strike a balance, and he’s a work in progress. But I’m curious as to whether his position has further evolved at all. Does he continue to drop the word gay (in a negative way) or the f word in his other songs because he’s a contradiction? Or does he think that words that are hurtful to and reinforce negative images of gay people are worse than words that are hurtful to and reinforce negative images of women? And if he does – is he correct in that thought?
The Knefels (and I) are clearly not the first people to talk about the use of the word bitch in music. Some people might question why I’m choosing to pick on Macklemore. In all honestly, it’s mostly because I’m not cultured enough to listen to a wide variety of music. I tend to stick with U2, the Beatles, and the older stuff (Billie Holiday, for example). I don’t own much hip-hop or rap music, and I’ve not previously been thoughtful about the lyrics of the music I listen to. I listened to it, enjoyed it (or didn’t), and that was that. Spending more time learning about my (cis, straight, white, middle-class, able-bodied) privilege necessarily means that I’m going to end up evaluating and re-evaluating previous stances. I’m cool with that.
Now, because I’m certainly not going to end up in a conversation with Macklemore about this, I’m left with my own thoughts on the matter. Given my objection to the use of the word ‘bitch’ in a negative connotation and in such a flippant manner (a position I must admit has certainly evolved as I’ve grown up), should I stop listening to “Thrift Shop?” Can a person like a song that (even unintentionally) reinforces the status quo in terms of economic and gender hierarchy?
I want to say yes, but I’m not sure if that’s because I want to be able to keep listening to songs with great beats, or because I can really defend that position. I mean, I watch “Game of Thrones” even when there are some pretty questionable scenes about which the show runners are unapologetic. Is it enough to be aware of and discuss these scenes (or lyrics)? I’m not sure.