We sent an adult to watch Macklemore perform at Yale's annual music festival, and it made him realize that "tryhard" is an occupation.
Yale College, turn the fuck up. Nine months out of the year you are stuffed with brainy, bourgeois types down to talk Derrida, the Affordable Health Care Act and why Harvard sucks—today, you put aside those pretensions to bring it, whatever “it” is, with relentlessly alcoholic force, to the 2013 Spring Fling where Macklemore, number-one-charting artist of “Thrift Shop” fame, will be taking the stage in front of a thousand gin-soaked underclassmen (and a few reluctant grad students) to make them forget about their earthly troubles. Such spring festivals are bubbles-within-a-bubble, offering respite from a reality that’s already its own kind of respite from reality. Macklemore, whose entire existence seems a referendum on the difficulty of finding common space between bubbles, is perhaps the ideal headliner for such an event.
But we’ll get there in a moment. Right now I’m standing in the center of a verdant, dorm-ensconced field trying to soak in the feel of being somewhere that’s so desperately #college, packed with shutter shade-donning, neon tank top-wearing, way too young-looking kids running around and sneaking sips from illicitly smuggled bottles of booze. At the age of 24 I feel kind of old—maybe not as old as the people who actually brought a baby to the bacchanalia, but definitely way older than the dude dressed in a Pikachu costume who’s mutely shuffling to what sounds like a trance remix of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Otherside.” (I try to Shazam the particular mix, but my phone explodes mid-search.) I don’t remember my own college’s spring festival being stuffed with so many other olds, but that might’ve been part of the youthful bubbling effect: a complete ignorance of anyone other than myself and mine. Everyone here is concerned with two things: 1) staying stupid drunk 2) seeing Macklemore, to which there’s a particular irony considering his self-disclosed travelogue through alcoholism and drug addiction. Not that that matters, as one boyishly coiffed Californian sophomore puts it:
“I mean, when you get a bunch of fucked up college kids in one place I don’t know how much of a message you’re really going to get across with your music. But the guys who come and perform, I feel like it’s just about the music and not any kind of message. I’m sure there are plenty of people who will disagree with me.”
Messaging = irrelevant, drunk = important. Got it. When Macklemore takes the stage, he clearly knows his purpose; the ad-libbed requests for the crowd to get really fucking crazy because they are so drunk are capable enough, and cleverly enough he’s slurring his words in the cadence of someone sober who is pretending to be drunk around other drunk people—someone who knows how to play along, how to not feel uncomfortable nor make other people feel uncomfortable for having a legitimately chemical reason to not partake in the imbibing, which is both commercially savvy and philosophically disappointing.
A Vine of presumably anti-consumerist Yale students dancing to "Thrift Shop"
You know the type. I can only see him a little bit from where I am, but I imagine if you caught him in a one-on-one conversation you might be able to suss out a single moment in which the facade dropped and he revealed an exasperation at having to embed amongst so many lushes in order to keep his career going. Hence the somewhat cheeky set list, in which “Thrift Shop” is dropped no later than fifth (!!!) after a lengthy interlude where he puts on a fur coat he claims he inherited from his grandmother before the now-memorable “What, what, what” drops in and Wanz struts out in a cream-colored suit—God bless that someone named Wanz is recognizable in 2013—to pace the stage as Mac goes through the motions to the delirium of the crowd.
“Thrift Shop” gets the biggest reaction, then the gay marriage-championing “Same Love,” and then the rest. The former is a fun song, truly, which makes the hullabaloo about Mac’s white privilege—which he acknowledges in a song that’s literally called “White Privilege”—seem kind of tree-focused... but also not. His good intentions can also come across like irrepressibly dopey optimism, rewarded for pivoting away from stereotypical hip-hop homophobia by nature of being a white dude stating the obvious to already politically correct college kids. Oh, it’s hard to begrudge a guy who wants to help even if you have to pause and wonder at who might be gleaning self-awareness from these songs; as a mostly formed adult, I forget how little about anything I knew when I was super young, and maybe some rural 12-year old is learning about gender politics from “Same Love” or any of the “Game of Thrones” episodes when Renly and Loras make out. Good for that. Still, it’s a bit of a bummer that such highly celebrated college kid music is coming with entry-level insight like “It’s okay to be gay,” though I bet he’s made plenty of people feel proud for agreeing. Think about the presumably different life experiences between Subject One:
“I’m a huge fan of Macklemore. I just think he’s relevant. He’s like, I think he’s very appropriate for Yale. I think he’s all about, like, doing rap in a smart way and he’s crazy as hell in all the right ways.”
…and Subject 2:
“I think it’ll be fun but I’ve listened to his music and been a little bit underwhelmed. I don’t know. Musically I think the production is fine but I think his lyrics are a little bit didactic without actually having a lot of wordplay at all.”
…when asked where they stood on Mr. Lemore. You wonder what kind of communicative bridge is really being built when he’s got to bury an honest plea for smarter consumption in between telegraphed honky cracks. Yes, there’s a spiritual hangover that comes with being that kind of liberal, more preoccupied with how someone is saying something nice rather than whether they’re saying something nice at all, but such is the cynicism bred by living in a country where talk, no matter how noble, doesn’t add up to much on its own. You don’t need to be Toby Ziegler to think about how the hundreds of kids at the Spring Fling might be motivated in a more politically purposeful way than getting fucked on beer, but it’s the grace period before finals and no one wants to go farther than the warm applause for a truly pandering speech Macklemore gives before “Same Love” about how we’re living in the greatest era for civil rights in American history and how no government, state or person can tell you who you are because it’s up to you, the full text of which I can’t reproduce because the spirit of Glenn Greenwald temporarily possessed me and I blacked out from inchoate indignation. (Gay marriage in a handful of states is great, yes, but what about drone strikes, stop and frisk, CISPA, indefinite detention, etc? Come on.)
Yeah, I don't know about this one either.
Of course, tipping this domino starts a chain that leads toward complete chastisement of anyone who likes to have fun. (After all, I was also in the crowd. And I was not not drunk.) I shouldn’t assume that there weren’t kids in the field doing their part in their day job, and that there weren’t plenty of students stuck in the library stacks studying for a final or simply ignoring the debauched fuckboy convention in favor of literally anything else. This isn’t about “the kids” and putting aside the extreme gauche factor of ad-libbing “pisssss” before an R. Kelly joke, maybe it’s not even about Macklemore. There’s more to his music than the lead singles—a self-awareness reflecting “a pruned Rhymesayers” as one friend puts it, that could never make the radio without something as sticky and catchy as “Thrift Shop” leading the way. Maybe Macklemore is just a Trojan Horse for smarter consumption, period, assuming everyone’s going to listen to The Heist and get turned onto other artists like ScHoolBoy Q and Ab-Soul, both of whom are on the record.
Not all the way, because pop music doesn’t encourage that type of deliberate engagement, and because we’ll have to see how Macklemore responds to his newfound stardom after years in the indie world. It’s ironic that this show happened the same day as NBA player Jason Collins became the first male in a major sport to come out as gay, a relative landmark given the supposed atmosphere of virulent homophobia that could accompany any such announcement. There were plenty of stupid comments regarding Collins, but they were quadrupled by good vibes and acceptance. It was a unilateral win for all but the über-jaded media commenters wondering how much Sports Illustrated profited off the reveal, and you’d think Macklemore might’ve acknowledged it during any of his show banter. Instead, he used the moment to talk about another piece of NBA-related news: that the Sacramento Kings would not be relocating to Seattle and reviving the abandoned Sonics franchise, as had been predicted for months. “Get this on camera,” Macklemore beckoned. “Fuck David Stern*. Fuck Clay Bennett**.”
* [NBA commissioner]
** [Former Sonics owner]
So, yes: Macklemore is not the answer. (Surprise!) That’s alright, I guess, or alright enough not to be a spirited bummer about the whole thing. He’s good at playing to the fucked up crowd and turning them into molly-addled haunted hordes listlessly filing out of the field at the end of his second encore before the stunningly named RL GRIME can wind down the night with a set of spooky dubstep. Today, that’s all that matters. Turn up, Yale College. Turn up.
Jeremy Gordon is a noted fun-basher. He lives in Bushwick. He's on Twitter - @jeremypgordon