“There’s Nothing Wrong with America that Another Depression Couldn’t Fix”


Before yesterday, I would have thought my chances of encountering a popular rap song that rejects materialism were slim. But as I was working, I turned on my Spotify, went to the top hits playlist, and clicked on the most popular song. It was Thrift Shop feat. Wanz by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. It’s a song that, at least on the surface, celebrates buying clothes from thrift stores and rejecting the American obsession with expensive brands. I’m apparently way behind the times finding this song, but that’s a subject for another post.

Here are some of the lyrics:

Fifty dollars for a t-shirt, that’s just some ignorant b**** s***/
I call that getting swindled and pimped, s***/
I call that getting tricked by business/


I’m at the Goodwill, you can find me in the bins/
I’m that, I’m that sucker searchin’ in that section

Some commentators aren’t impressed by the song’s message. On the Spin blog Brandon Soderberg said that fans claiming the song is some sort of anti-consumerist anthem should think again:

Probably shouldn’t have to explain this in 2013, but when you didn’t have to wear hand-me-down threads or thrift-shop clothes your whole life, there’s a novelty to wearing them in your 20s so you have some extra beer money… 

The dynamic that this is a song rejecting conspicuous consumption is, for the most part, projected by its listeners. Macklemore’s embrace of the thrift shop is exclusively for wacky outfits to get him attention at parties, as well as something to lord over his peers in Gucci. He is, in the hierarchy of people poring over cheap-ass clothes in the Goodwill, only slightly above jerks who go there for Halloween outfits. At the top of this hierarchy, of course, are people who don’t have enough money to buy new clothes.

Soderberg might be right that “Thrift Shop” is just the kind of fake “slumming it” that might appeal to people who have never actually known real poverty. In that sense, it might be the flip side of old timey indie music popular among people who have never known manual labor. But the fact that Macklemore produced the song cheaply on an independent label might speak well for him.

Either way, the fact that a rap song about thrift shops should even resonate enough with Americans to become a chart topper is sociologically interesting. Remember we’re talking about the same genre that Riff Raff operates in (““Sometimes they don’t feel you / ’Til you pull up Lamborghini”).

It’s hard to imagine a song about thrift shops going viral before the recession hit us. Even if “Thrift Shop” isn’t really a successful indictment of mass consumerism, it has the appearance of one, which is definitely notable. And the power of popular music to shape culture is so potent that perhaps the song’s broadsides against materialism, as shallow, unserious, confused, and hypocritical as they may be, might actually have some effect on people, just by osmosis. Listening to the song, I thought of two things. 

The first was a remark made by Irving Kristol about America: “There’s nothing wrong with this country that couldn’t be cured by a long, hard depression.” This seems like a callous remark, because, well, it is. We shouldn’t be in the position of pinning for economic hardship and suffering. But if “Thrift Shop” is any indication, people may be in a state of mind to hear a message about frugality and restraint now that they would not have been before the crash. And that gives hope.

The second is an essay by James KA Smith on Brett McCracken’s book Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. In the essay, he makes a distinction between “poser Christians” who have adopted a hipster style (“incense, hemp clothing, Wendell Berry, and Amnesty International”) and true “bohemian” Christians who:

shop at Goodwill and Salvation Army because they have concerns about the injustice of the mass-market clothing industry, because they believe recycling is good stewardship of God’s creation, and frankly, because they’re relatively poor. They’re relatively poor because they’re pursuing work that is meaningful and just and creative and won’t eat them alive, and such work, although not lucrative, gives them time to spend on the things that really matter: community, friendship, service, and creative collaboration.

The challenge of the church is to help move people from poser to real, which doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t ever take high paying jobs or buy JCrew. It just means we need some degree of distance from these things, even if we end up giving them a qualified embrace. Perhaps Macklemore and his listeners are more poser than real, but while they already have their heads half-way down the Goodwill bargain barrel they might just listen to the words of one who told us to give up everything we have and follow him.

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  • Ian

    I was thinking about this song along similar lines last week when I was on duty at a boarding school for the extremely-well-to-do. Our student center transforms into a pseudo-nightclub when the snack bar is open and lately the kids responsible for music play “Thrift Shop” 2 or 3 times, at least, in a given evening. I highly doubt any of them have ever even been in a thrift shop, never mind entered one solely to seek ironic t-shirts. But I still felt encouraged that they were listening to something that celebrated those unpolished and cracked places where I learned as a kid to appreciate the things that I had (among other things, like the value of volunteerism and that we were not actually the poorest people we knew.) Who knows what might happen if some of them now dare to breathe the musty air of a church basement thrift shop instead of the trademarked corporate scent of a Hollister & Fitch Branded Environment because of this song? Probably not much, but it couldn’t hurt.