Macklemore is a thrifty seller with NBA “Wings” promo

by Leonardo Castaneda

02_28_13_Opinion_Macklemore_MacklemoreMacklemore knows a bargain when he sees one. The star, alongside producer Ryan Lewis, of the hit song “Thrift Shop” recently landed a huge gig on the NBA All-Star Game intro. All he had to do was change the lyrics of the song “Wings” from his album “The Heist.”

As soon as the music video for “Wings” hit the Internet, a article pointed out the inconsistencies
between the two versions of the song. The original narrates Macklemore’s disillusionment as a kid when he realized the “basketball shoes” craze was little more than a consumerist scam. Among the lyrics that didn’t make the cut for the promo were, “Consumption is in the veins/ And now I see it’s just another pair of shoes,” as well as a whole verse about consumerism and a reference to a boy who was murdered for his Air Jordans.

Without going so far as to call him a sellout, the article calls into question Macklemore’s authenticity when it comes to the socially conscious lyrics that attracted his fan base. It’s not fair to judge the rapper based on one altered song. Still, the incident raises the question of whether a musician can actually sell out, or if that’s a spiteful label unjustifiably tossed around by angry ex-fans.

When I sit down to write a column, I usually have a clear idea of where I stand on an issue, but this time, I was torn. On one hand, Macklemore—and the countless other so-called “sellouts” before him—created their music and can do with it as they please. Fans don’t own him or his music. Those who buy a CD or go to a concert are purchasing a copy of those songs or the live experience, not the creative rights to the music itself. If Macklemore sees a chance to share his music with millions of people who may not have otherwise heard it, why wouldn’t he?

“We converted strangers that didn’t know who we were into fans,” Macklemore wrote in a recent blog post. “If that’s selling out to you, word.”

Reading his blog post defending his choice, it’s clear Macklemore was well aware of the possible implications and decided the parts TNT wanted to keep for the promo, mainly those about his love of basketball, were still valid.

He acknowledges the NBA has ties to the consumer culture he criticizes in the song, but so does everything else, from the clothes we wear to the phones in our pockets. It’s virtually impossible to do or buy anything without interacting with consumerism, and it’d be unreasonable to expect Macklemore to promote himself without interacting with that culture.

Still, the idealist in me can’t ignore the fact that this song meant something more than just a kid’s love of the NBA. The commercial might attract new fans, but then they’d like the song for the wrong reasons. New fans like the song because it’s catchy, not because its message resonates with them. If this isn’t selling out, then what is? And where do we draw the line?

I’m not a musician, so I can’t understand the balancing act between sticking to your beliefs and exposing people to your music. After all, there’s no point in producing an idealistically pure song no one will ever hear. For more perspective, I went to Richard Cavin, drummer of local deathrock band They Feed at Night, and asked him how he would act given the choice to be in a promotion a lot of people would see in exchange for changing his lyrics or image.

“If on the promotion the lyrics had to be omitted, but not on the record, possibly,” he said. “But image-wise, no.”

I asked where he would draw the line and what he thinks would constitute selling out. “It’s all about motives,” Cavin said. “and it’s very hard to say what a musician’s motives are.”

If we’re judging based on motives, I don’t think Macklemore sold out, if for no other reason than the fact he took the time to explain his decision to participate in the NBA promo. And there’s something to be said for being an artist so well respected for the social consciousness of his lyrics that people are afraid he’ll sell out. After all, no one every worries about finding out Ke$ha is really just in it for the money.

Watching a respected musician sell out can be a wretched experience for a fan. But as fans we owe them the benefit of the doubt. And if one day they do sell out, we should remember that even if an artist changes, the ideals that made those songs great in the first place don’t.