The question is not, "Is Macklemore good or bad?" The question is, "Why is Macklemore?"
The flier for the event the writer attended.
I know the following three things about Macklemore.
1. He is an important celebrity in American culture.
2. He did a song which was supposed to take a stance defending homosexuality, and that maybe said song was also about the myriad virtues of thrift shopping.
3. After winning the Best Rap Album Grammy, he sent a notorious, shameless text message to Kendrick Lamar.
A few days ago I was driving through the middle of the country, somewhat close to Las Vegas, and saw that he was playing. I sensed that the time was right for me to learn all about him. I bought a ticket.
"I'm nervous," I told my friend as I sucked on a milkshake speeding toward Vegas on the I-15, looking out into the desert at a 150-foot long pile of burning trash in the not-so-far distance. "Just have a drink and have a good time," he said.
Entering the casino hosting the concert, the dominance of a smooth, thick, sultry red everywhere eased me into sedation. My footsteps picked up pace as I walked through the main gambling hall toward Surrender, the club the duo were set to play. I learned that the evening's concert was in commemoration of Surrender's four-year anniversary.
The club itself was a beach scene, but with no sand. There were pools and cabanas, palisadally set at a voyeuristic remove in a long sinuous curve above the main area. The opening DJ was a forty year old, tan guy playing DJ Mustard beats and EDM. The acoustics of the space were horrible: an entire side of the club was inhospitable because of beats bouncing off of the walls. At one point he played the beginning of the lovely, Balearic "Collard Greens," but after 15 seconds he did that thing bad DJ's do where they loop a single beat of a song and speed it up in preparation for a drop. When the drop came, it contained a transition to a totally unrelated track.
I tried talking to people, but they didn't want to talk to me. "What brings you here," I asked a dude. "Partyin'," he explained. At one point I thought I encountered a man counting cards—there were poker tables in a pavilion behind the VIP section—but he turned out to be so fucked up that his eyes just rapidly scanned, looking for something to latch onto.
After convincing my way into the VIP, a little plaza right in front of the stage between two pools, I walked around and listened to people's conversations. People were mostly talking about sex and each other. Russian men flanked the area. Right up front, there were like ten girls drinking these three old white dudes' Makers Mark, animatedly talking with one another and very occasionally patting their hosts on the leg or arm. Both parties seemed happy with the arrangement.
Finally, I was able to get somebody to talk to me. "It's gross how much these guys get paid," a man explained to his friend. "They get like a quarter of a million dollars per show." "REALLY," the friend drunkenly exclaimed. "They can't touch the kind of money we make, though," the other offered in response, measuring my reaction. "Really? What do you do?" I asked. "We're in the banking industry."
Eventually Macklemore and Ryan Lewis came on. The young business class lurched forward, drinks in hand, crowding the edges of the pools, vying for position alongside the VIP section. The dynamic between performer and audience was more intimate in this club than it would have been in a less exclusive venue.
I saw almost no one on Molly, in its zombified hyperreal stare. It seems like people didn't need it. People were definitely drinking, some people were rubbing their noses, suggesting recent cocaine intake, but that seemed more like a side-effect of the real high to be had in the room—the display of wealth. This is far from an original observation about Las Vegas, but it's still insane to witness in person. Everyone performed for one another in this humming, bombastic architecture, the style of which my friend Riley Gold brilliantly characterized as EDM in itself.
The concert, though, was mostly a blur. Everything that had already been speeding so quickly, all the jump cuts between people, the rapid absorption of materials, the manic energy, the imperious gliding and gazing—sped up even more. The music itself sounded like off-brand Drake. They had two horn players who were dissonantly off key. Some notes I took during the first song: "Out of tune horrible chords Mack pointing." He wore skinny jeans and a leather jacket. Lots of people had haircuts like him.
During the performance I learned that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are responsible for that song whose chorus ends with "This is fucking awesome" in a very low kind of video game nerd voice, with the goofy horn line that scans "Bar Mitzvah." I realize now that that horn line and the song in general are something of a sonic meme.
Considering that I'd never knowingly heard Macklemore's music before, I got to treat this performance like a Freudian stream of consciousness analysis. Words flowed from this man on stage like raw material, painting the colorful, confusing, and altogether extremely funny picture of Macklemore. I wrote down every lyric or bit of banter that was audible or notable, and the results are kind of amazing.
"It's a song about equality its a song about compassion
About following your heart not what people say is right or wrong"
"I was in the third grade, I thought that I was gay…
Freedom to be equal, damn right I support it"
When Mack played this song, I felt a surge of approval and maybe some kind of solidarity arise in the crowd, definitely not including myself. This wasn't a social solidarity that involved engaging with other people, but a kind of secret code—like a completely personal fantasy everyone was having about something social. There was a sentimentality that was confusing. People smiled and glowed underneath these huge buildings which occupied as much of our sightline as the performers. Everything was set or shadowed in gold light. Mack's guitar player was wearing an Uber shirt. Mack did a lot more pointing at things.
This is a picture of Macklemore live, but not at Surrender. Just roll with it.
The feeling of humming positivity remained throughout the show. It wasn't clear if the good feeling was at all related to the club's four-year anniversary. It didn't seem like anybody particularly cared. The celebration I sensed definitely had to do more with lines like "In the third grade I thought I was gay."
Macklemore told us that on the Las Vegas strip anything can happen. Another great thing about Vegas is that whenever you arrive there, you always see Cadillacs. People cheered and it was then clear that this was a reference to a song he was about to play. I wondered how he framed Cadillacs, such an overdone cultural symbol, such that people would care that he wrote a song about them. I couldn't hear the lyrics, but people got into it. The mood was vague—it's hard to look back and parse it out. Miss 2014, who I had seen several times that night—not hard to miss with a crown and sash—looked as irritated as ever.
I took mental note of the things Macklemore likes: Vegas, Cadillacs, thrift shopping, and defending homosexuality (or, what he understands that to mean). The next song he played was about the power shoes had over him as a child. I heard these lyrics: "This air bubble right here is gonna make me fly. I touched the net." "Stick out my tongue." "I wanted to be cool I wanted to fit in I wanted to touch the rim." "The Nike swoosh consumed my thoughts."
I asked a guy I was standing next to what the song was about and he told me, "Air Jordans." "Oh cool," I said. "Is it about consumerism?" "No it's only about Jordans," he insists. "Trying to touch the rim. That's all it's about." He looked back admiringly at Macklemore's performance. It was kind of unreal: pure devotion. The guy looked a little like Macklemore, or maybe I'd become a little delusional. But what did "touch the rim" mean to him? I tried imagining his childhood and how Macklemore was unlocking its secrets. I'll never know. It seemed like he really related to Macklemore, and I was reminded of similar feelings I'd had toward artists.
Soon thereafter, an image of a Frida Kahlo self-portrait flashed on screen.
A little later an image of Samuel L. Jackson appeared. Then Lady Gaga, and Usher. Was this a story about his becoming a celebrity? Based on how people continued smiling, this seemed to be part of the Macklemore shtick—he seemed to want everyone to share in his story, maybe even be a part of it, a character in it. A video started and Mack put on a wig and a funny costume like his character on the screen—we were now dealing with two Macklemores. In the video, he cavorts with girls for the camera, eating fruit. The physical and the virtual versions of the person competed for our attention—I felt euphoria at my attention being dragged around. I heard James Brown, Los Angeles, and Kobe Bryant mentioned. "Whip his ass in a game of basketball." "Best dance party in the world." "All you have to do is dance." Was he talking about a kind of cosmopolitanism people could relate to, or was it just music to pump the endorphins?
People seemed genuinely happy throughout all of it. A little happier then people usually look at shows, definitely. Eventually, though, things just got sloppy—it was then the beach scene really came into its own and started to make sense as a utopian envisioning. Even though we were under the night sky, for some time in Mackletown, after a certain number of drinks, we were at a removal from real time. At this point in my decodings of the imaginary of Macklemore, everything dissolved into numb hysteria.
At various points he also said:
"Pop your pussy. If you don't have a pussy pop your cock into a bootay."
"The roof's on fire, burn down the Vatican."
"The king—Michael Jackson."
"Pledge allegiance to the DJ—put your hands up."
After a while I became inundated with Macklemore. I had absorbed all I could. These were the last words I heard before I left, before he did his encore: "My name is Raven Booty. [This, I admit, could be an incorrect transcription.] Thank you for coming here tonight and jamming with your boy. And dry-humping a stranger… I need to go and make money to pay your mothers' child support. Peace!"
Ultimately, my question was this—and it may sound trite, but that may be part of the deal with seeing Mackelmore live, hearing his music for the first time in Las Vegas—who is Mackelmore? His picture doesn't add up concisely. He had all these weird things to say, as I've noted. The Frida Kahlo picture? The not-so-funny leftfield banter? What was that movie about, with all the other celebrities in it? Everyone seemed to know but me. On the one hand, he's this goofy, kind of endearing guy that has made millions of making people his fans, but on the other he's kind of transparently oblivious, as the Kendrick text certainly made clear. He was kind of like a cartoon character, full of energy—something out of classic Nickelodeon. He loves being a pop star, and the audience loved being in that presence—his imperfect performance of the part of the pop star, his totally confusing behavior was fulfilling something for them. It was like a last day of camp, a joyous culminating celebration, seeing all these people bobbing to his tunes—they seemed to all have something to celebrate with him.
Follow Alex on Twitter - @aliadarola