My posts about misquoting Shakespeare have made me more alert than usual to the way quotation and repetition feature in other media. Two songs in particular caught my attention, which seem to use citation to make their point, but are potentially undermined by it at the same time. Macklemore and Taylor Swift. But, naturally.
The first is “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Hip-hop thrives on reworking, unexpected samples, and self-conscious citations of previous artists, but Thrift Shop” has an oddly ambivalent relationship to this practice. The driving force behind the track is that horn loop, deliberately depthless and frozen, advertising its lack of originality. As Jody Rosen has pointed out, Macklemore’s rapping may be the brand here but Ryan Lewis is the star of the show, and the tune’s other major attraction is the hook sung by Wanz. The tension and interest is provided more by the producer’s deliberate selection and citation of samples than the performance of the rapper, the supposed “added value” of the song and the guy supposed to be directing its meaning.
Of course that hook by Wanz is only a sample in one sense: it wasn’t ripped off a pre-existing record. He recorded it especially for “Thrift Shop”, though the video goes to some lengths to frame it as a sample and separate the clip from Wanz’s presence. By the time he appears in the video, we’ve become used to hearing it in the chorus (and seen someone else lip-synch to it), so there’s something oddly incongruous about seeing the words come out of his mouth and realizing that they originally belonged to him.
Wanz is somehow framed as quoting himself by the video, particularly by the way he mimes being uncertain when to come in. His voice is out there in the world, and he looks as if he’s trying to get back into sync with it, emphasizing the way this song is structured around quotation and repetition. Tellingly, the singer actually met Lewis and Macklemore after they asked a mutual friend to find them someone who could do a Nate Dogg soundalike sample for their next song. So that disembodied voice which is variously “embodied” by the lips it appears to be coming out of is already a quotation, which was briefly attached to Wanz before being turned into a sample.
All of this is more significant in the case of ‘Thtift Shop” because the song’s basic message is one about originality and reproduction. Admittedly not a particularly original critique of hip-hop culture, but Macklemore’s celebration of cheap clothing is based on the idea that buying designer gear subsumes people into an anonymous mass. Though the immediate sneer – “I’m like, yo/ That’s fifty dollars for a t-shirt” – is about wasting money, he justifies it by remarking that the “special edition” T-shirt is being worn by six other people in the same club. The song (and video) suggests that “buying originality” is impossible, and offers instead a joyous romp through the second-hand charity shops where real individuality is to be found.
At first sight this is a pretty dumb position. Finding your own style by buying other people’s second-hand clothes is a contradiction in terms, but the track seems comfortable with being trapped in a postmodern loop of citation as solid and unvarying as that horn loop. There is no new thing under the sun, it seems to suggest, but why not enjoy it and avoid getting ripped off by paying over the odds for your own cultural situation? Citation and quotation are what the world is made of (particularly inside a hip-hop record), so why strain to achieve a spurious and ruinous originality?
The problem with this is that Macklemore has clearly hasn’t escaped from the strenuous pursuit of originality. He’s aware of the issues – and has tackled more important aspects of citation and indentity for a white rapper in tunes like “White Privilege” – but the style “Thrift Shop” presents is so in line with hipster chic. I mean, plaid shirts as a blazingly courageous act of anti-fashion?! I’m old enough to remember the 90s (and if I wasn’t, I can remember the Grunge Bop at college five years ago) and I have enough friends from New England to remain unslayed by a lumberjack check. Onesies? You can’t read a column by an upper middle-class metropolitan journalist without a casual mention of them. (And if you were really with it/unlucky and browsing Twitter at Christmas, you might have seen the Reverend Richard Coles and his husband in matching onesies playing literature charades with their Dachshunds.) The network of quotations which make up “Thrift Shop” undermines it, not because there’s a logical fallacy in being OK with the joys of citation, but because the tune wants it both ways. Somewhere Thomas Frank is weeping his frustration into his whiskey. Or pitching another book.