#1: Thrift Shop, Postmodernism, and the Subjectivity of Cool
Warning: Song contains language that some might find offensive. I put link to unedited video and use unedited quotes. (I believe artists put what they believe will best express their ideas in to their artwork. To attempt to censor a piece of art is to play artist with another’s work. To interpret censored material is to interpret a work that is now even more removed from the artist’s intentions which increases the already high probability of misinterpretation.)
Song: Thrift Shop
Directed by: Jon Jon Augustavo, Macklemore, Ryan Lewis,
For those of you who don’t know me there are a few things that I am obsessed with: Theology, Apologetics, My super cute GF, Mountain Biking, Soccer, and Postmodernism. People that know me probably get sick of my POMO interpretations of life events but I can’t help myself. We live in Postmodernity; we might as well learn to speak the language. When in Rome, right?
Macklemore’s rather entertaining Music Video, Thrift Shop, is like a Postmodern primer. It shows you the basics of our culture in 3 minutes and 48 seconds. I would like to draw out some of the postmodern themes and then talk about the incredibly shifty nature of “being Cool”.
The first thing that I want to point out is the incredible diversity on display in the video. Multiple races, genders, sub-cultures and ages are included and not just included but put together in a montage that makes no attempt to try to categorize. This video is a postmodern people collage. Postmodernism loves this play of peoples. When Capitalism went global the strange foreigner across the water from you became your business associate. The products of one culture became the products of another culture. The speed at which we could travel and share ideas did not turn the world flat, it dissolved space all together (Paul Virilio). Distance is meaningless in the Postmodern world and this removal of distance makes the alien accessible. The old distinctions between people have become fuzzy at the speeds we travel. Macklemore travels at Postmodern speed. This means that time and space have both shattered. That’s why he can say, “No for real, ask your grandpa: can I have his hand-me-downs? (Thank you!)”. The distinction between the generations is one that is breaking down as the ideas and images are molded in to products that we can consume. Through media and the market we become absorbed and absorb the previous generation. For many people the distinction between genders is affected by this speed. This can be seen very clearly online. Information is spread so quickly that trying to determine whether the person you are talking to is actually a man or a woman is rather a waste of time. Macklemore echoes this breakdown when he says, “Your grammy, your aunty, your momma, your mammy, I’ll take those flannel zebra jammies”. Gender becomes less and less important at postmodern speed. Productivity, efficiency, and profitability are much more important than anatomy.
A second Postmodern notion at work in the video is the ripping of products and ideas from their contexts. Capitalism is driven by the desire to make profit. With contemporary culture’s huge swath of diverse cultures, time periods, ages etc. there is a tremendous repository of material for producers to draw from. It is all fair game; as long as it sells. The selling of products and ideas removes things from the original context and necessarily changes their meaning. A Thrift Shop is a collection of these items, called artifacts. It is row upon row of items that have been taken from their original time and place and organized for consumption. A Thrift Shop is a consumption museum (check out Baudrillard). We see Macklemore dressed in Batman footy pajamas and a Daniel Boone hat, mixing their meanings in potentially fascinating ways. Macklemore is seen wearing a gold medal, what did he win? Who cares!? It looks cool. It sells. He says that, “John Wayne ain’t got nothing on my fringe game.” John Wayne is a cultural product designed to be bought and sold. His movies cast him as a certain character. Macklemore is focusing on his role as a Cowboy. This John Wayne Cowboy boy is a romanticized reinscription of the actual men who made their livelihood in the American west. We have multiple layers of decontextualization at play here. Cowboys have been ripped from their context to make good movies, John Wayne has been made into a romanticized cowboy, this romanticized cowboy is now a cultural icon whose image is a useful criteria for understanding what is fashionable in certain subcultures. This ladies and gentlemen is the Third Stage of Capitalism (check out Fredrick Jameson on that) at its finest.
The third distinctly Postmodern aspect I wish to discuss is that of Irony. We are all very familiar with the hipster who desires to do things simply for the irony of it. This is a uniquely Postmodern phenomena. It is a result of an extremely effective global capitalist marketplace. As I mentioned before Postmodern Capitalism removes artifacts form their original context in order to manufacture them. Again, this is not limited to merely physical products but also to ideas, and stories. When ideologies become massed produced out of their context they lose their power. For many people this calls in to question whether they had power in the first place. This movement and the questioning of the original truth value of ideologies is called, “The Death of the Metanarrative.” One natural response to this death is irony. If stories are simply fads, then it does no good to take them too seriously. Instead, it is “better” to view them as a sort of joke that will be funny for a short period of time and then go out of style. This allows the Ironist (to borrow from Richard Rorty) to avoid attachment to meaningless stories. It is better to laugh at this bizarre vacuous culture than to be tossed about by its rapid explosions. Macklemore laughs at the sneakerheads ironically because he could, “take some Pro Wings, make them cool, sell those The sneaker heads would be like “Ah, he got the Velcros”” Pro Wings are already extremely inexpensive shoes. Buying them from a thrift store is ridiculous, but it could make them Cool. So cool in fact that sneakerheads would want to buy them. The irony of all this irony is that while it attempts to be a sort of rebellion against the system, Capitalism recognizes it as a potential market. This leads to the Hipster wearing extraordinarily expensive clothes that look like they came from a thrift shop. The Hipster perpetuates the system that he finds foolish and laughable (see William H. Vanderbilt’s Why Johnny Can’t Dissent).
A final and brief Postmodern idiosyncrasy is the movement of artistic production from the wealthy class and into the hands of the masses. This is on display in a couple of occasions in the video. Macklemore mentions, “They had a broken keyboard, I bought a broken keyboard” and Ryan Lewis is seen with a very retro turntable. With instruments of artistic production being mass produced the price of them goes down. This means that more people are able to produce art. Walter Benjamin touches on this in his essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. His example (he lived in the early 1900’s) is the camera. The camera allows the average man to “paint”. Macklemore’s own artistic career is the beneficiary of these kinds of innovations. He and his buddies would get together and use relatively inexpensive equipment to produce and distribute music. He has continued this theme of self-made art by not joining a record label (you go Macklemore!). The full effects of massified art, I would say, are yet to be seen.
My final thought from this video is about the nature of Cool. What is Cool? How does one become Cool? Macklemore’s song, especially the lyric, “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 bitch shit I call that getting swindled and pimped, shit I call that getting tricked by business That shirt’s hella dough And having the same one as six other people in this club is a hella don’t” seems to raise these questions. For a certain group of people paying $50 for a t-shirt is a must to be Cool. Macklemore disagrees. First of all this definition of Cool makes you a sucker. Second, this fashion is widespread, and uniqueness is a generally accepted criteria for Cool. However, these criteria are suspect. All Cool artifacts are products. No matter what you do you cannot escape the cycle of production and consumption (that should send all the hipsters back to their half-read copies of the Communist Manifesto). There will always be products and we will always desire to acquire them. People will always attempt to be better than other people. Thus we create in-groups and out-groups. This is simply another Metanarrative. In Third Stage Capitalism (seriously go look it up) Corporation produced products are the most readily available components for the creation of groups. This leads to groups being Cool. You cannot escape getting “pimped”. You are a billboard. Uniqueness is not really a criteria of cool either. The most unique thing is the singularity but Coolness requires multiple recognizers. Thus Coolness does not exist in uniqueness. Cool is not a thing. Cool is a Metanarrative. What is perhaps most interesting about the idea of Thrift Shops being the location of cool is that they provide an interesting mix of diversity and similarity. If everyone shopped at thrift stores there would still be tremendous diversity.
In any case the Postmodern world is basically a thrift shop. It is a collection of recycled ideas and products put forward for our consumption. Perhaps if we recognized this we could be a little bit more creative in our play with artifacts, rather than accepting them pre-packaged. If you will excuse me I need to hit up my local thrift store and find a Red Power Ranger costume, a colonial Revolutionary hat, and a rubber chicken.