Young Thug Is Glam Rock
Glam rock tended to get at sociopolitical issues in a circuitous way, rather than through overt, topical songwriting. Sound like anyone you know?
Photo by April Greer for the Washington Post via Getty Images
About a year ago, I saw Young Thug play a show at an ornate concert hall in Hollywood. This was after Prince died. (This— gestures vaguely at America—is all after Prince died.) Thug was later than usual, but when he finally took the stage, it was in a cloud of smoke. Then you saw the purple jacket, the gold rings, the white shirt straight from Purple Rain. He looked like he was from Paisley Park's Zone 3.
For nearly two hours, Thug ran through an array of his own hits ("Stoner," "Best Friend"), his collaborative efforts ("Lifestyle"), and the songs he tore away from headliners with scorched-Earth guest spots ("Hookah," may Tyga rest in peace). Even when he ceded the stage to guests, as he did with Yo Gotti for "Down in the DM," he hogged the spotlight, dancing like one of those inflatable guys from used car lots if that inflatable guy had also been voted prom king and was wearing a quarter-million dollars in jewelry.
It was a memorable set, to say the least. In the cab home, I spent a lot of time thinking about that outfit. When Thug first walked onstage from the wing, it seemed like something between a joke and a tribute. But by the show's end, he seemed like a guy who was wearing a lavish purple jacket because he felt like it, who just so happened to tear down a rap show without bothering to take it off, which is really the best way you could honor Prince, don't you think?
The reason we look to Prince (OK, one reason we look to Prince) and his contemporaries in the spectacular is for their unselfconsciousness in deviating from the expected. Where it describes a type of music, dress, or style more generally, glam rock refers to the explosion, in the early- and mid-1970s, of absolutely lavish shit. It was a move away from the more linear, more consciously artful rock that defined the second half of the 60s. There was glitter and gloss and colorful leather and huge riffs and massive hooks and so, so much hair. (For the uninitiated, basically, think Ziggy Stardust.) Much is made about performers' androgyny and non-traditional representations of gender, and while this was, in effect, often the case, glam rock tended to get at sociopolitical issues in a circuitous way, rather than through overt, topical songwriting. Sound like anyone you know?
Of course it does. Young Thug could pull off that purple jacket because Young Thug is glam rock.
Now, let me say a few things that will undercut the premise of this article. First, as you almost certainly have already typed into a comment box somewhere, Prince is not exactly the platonic ideal of a glam rock artist. But that's kind of the point, as I'll get to later. Second, look, rappers are not rock stars. Every headline you've ever read about how _______ Is The Last Rock Star is lying to you. Rappers are rappers and rock stars are (or, maybe, were) rock stars. The genres necessarily have a different relationship with fame and stardom, some of it due to the kinds of songwriting that tend to become popular in each. Beyond that, of course, are issues of race and class that outweigh nearly everything else. But there's still a connection to be drawn here.
The ethos of glam rock is about having "true moments and embracing the fucking situation," full stop. Who today embodies that better than Young Thug?
Today's bona fide rap stars are few and far between, and they exist in an era when record industry money has dried up. If you can afford to trash four hotel suites every week on tour without your label invoicing you, you're much, much more successful relative to your peers than you would have had to be in 1975. And once you hit a certain level of success in 2017 you sort of just stop trashing hotel suites.
Speaking of 1975, here's a quote I want to talk about, from the lead singer of the very popular rock band The 1975, Matty Healy, speaking to the New Yorker: "For every rock star move I make onstage, I do penance." Later: "I will have these true moments of embracing the fucking situation I am in and being what people want me to be, but then immediately followed by feeling like a fraud."
Glam rock, at least to me, looks at that second quote and scoffs. The ethos of glam rock is about having "true moments and embracing the fucking situation," full stop. Whether that means embracing campy production or dressing in outfits that look like they were cribbed from NASA, it's about chasing things that make you feel a certain way, and ditching the insecurity or self-regard that makes you want to apologize for it in the New Yorker. Who today embodies that better than Young Thug?
Since he became a point of national curiosity in 2014, Thug has confounded expectations over and over again, whether that has been through his wardrobe, his vocal approach and musical choices, or through his aversion to most press. To be sure, this reputation has led to an incredible amount of useless coverage: Thug's supposed weirdness has been grossly exaggerated, which at worst causes observers to treat him as a circus act and even at best obscures how well-rounded, honest, and deeply human his work can be. And while he does sometimes break longstanding conventions of song structure or performance, it's clear that this comes from a nerdish study of rap rather than an alien disregard.
Yet none of that serves as a qualifier or as a reason Young Thug doesn't channel the spirit of glam rock, and believing otherwise would be a fundamental misreading of glam and what it represents. Just because someone chooses to wear leather bodysuits on stage doesn't mean that their work—their performance that night, or another period in their career, or both—is worth disregarding or belittling. In most ways, isn't the sheen and gloss of Bowie or Queen infinitely more honest than the cynicism or practiced detachment you would need to explain away your excitement in the New Yorker?
Any discussion of glam is incomplete with discussion of how the genre bent gender, at least on an aesthetic level. As Thug once said, "Every time I dress myself, it go motherfucking viral." He wears dresses on album covers and tells Calvin Klein that he doesn't believe in gender. Much has been made about how we should view Thug in this area, and a bulk of that discussion is really just a debate as to what his intentions are—is he sufficiently sincere in his challenges to gender norms? Or is he merely a provocateur?
The answer, glam would argue, is that it doesn't really matter. Thug, like Prince and all his predecessors, should be free to try on whatever outfits he wants, literally or otherwise. You can lapse into white tees or fly back to Chanhassen whenever you want, but glam will always be there, waiting with the pyrotechnics.
Paul Thompson lives life to its glammest every day. Follow him on Twitter.