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Top 40 Philosophy: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, “Thrift Shop”

Posted in Top 40 Philosophy

“Thriftshop,” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, ft. Wanz, was the song that really marked the comeback of the saxophone. We’ve just covered the most recent three songs in the revival, and now we’ll work our way backward to Alexandra Stan’s “Mr. Saxobeat.”

Today, we  have what is the best song of the bunch. “Thriftshop” made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and if somehow you haven’t heard it, watching the video below will show you why it was so popular:

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are an unusual team, in that they make explicit what is largely hidden in the way rap songs are attributed to artists. The rapper gets his or her name “up front,” while the person who actually wrote the music is only mentioned on the back cover (as it were). Rappers write their own lyrics, which is a serious step up from what most pop singers do, of course. But imagine if Chuck Berry or the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix had only written their lyrics, and had someone different write the music for each song.

There are important exceptions to the general rule about rappers, of course, like Kanye West and Sage the Gemini. And in many rock bands, one person writes the lyrics while another writes the music. One of the things I like about the contemporary hip-hop scene, furthermore, is how collaborative it is; the people who are good at “making beats” can do that, and the people who are good at writing and delivering lyrics can do that, and they work together to make complete songs. Instead of keeping everything “in the band,” it’s like “the whole scene” is working together to make the music we listen to.

I also like the growing trend of “producers” (i.e., music-writers/compilers) getting their own albums, with slates of guest vocalists (see, e.g., Zedd), instead of vocalists getting their own albums, with slates of guest producers. But I’m getting offtrack.

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The philosophical issue here is what we call “collective action” or “group agency.” It is easy to understand how a single person can do something. It is less easy to understand how multiple people can do something together. Take the construction of the Empire State Building. We often say of such structures that they were “built” by whichever king was ruling at the time, or whichever architect designed them, or whichever owner of whichever construction company was hired to construct them. But those are all (bad) metaphors. The buildings were actually built by a bunch of “nameless” construction workers. One product, with many producers who never get any credit.

So, should we say, “They all built the building”? They didn’t, if by “the building,” we mean “the whole building.” Each worked on only a part. Think of the cathedrals in Europe that were constructed over generations.

So, should we say “the companies” built the buildings? But companies aren’t people, as everyone keeps insisting. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis wrote “Thriftshop,” but Macklemore & Ryan Lewis aren’t a thing. They aren’t a person. They are two different people.

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The issue is complicated in two ways, at least with regard to “Thriftshop.” First, there is Le1f’s accusation that “Thriftshop” is a ripoff of his song, “Wut,” which we will examine next time. If Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have indeed stolen Le1f’s intellectual property, should we then say “Thriftshop” was written by a group consisting of three people, not just two?

Second, there is the issue of cultural appropriation. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are both white, and yet the music they produce is hip-hop, a genre invented by African Americans. The same is true of rock-n-roll, of course. And jazz. And blues. In fact, America owes its (is America a thing?) musical greatness almost entirely to its citizens who are of more proximate African origin than the rest (given the Out of Africa model).

Now, it is clear that every individual African American didn’t invent hip-hop, like it is clear that every construction worker didn’t build the whole of the Empire State Building. And yet, we all feel that rap is more “yours” if you are black than if you are white (contrast this with our current opinions about rock, in spite of its origins) just like we feel kilts and bagpipes are more “yours” if you are Scottish than if you are Chinese and souls are more “yours” if you don’t have red hair. (That last part was a joke.)

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The issue is complicated again, therefore, by the question of inheritance. None of us invented rock, and yet we have inherited it. (From God, perhaps?) None of us invented kilts, but some of us inherited them (and some of us wish we had inherited them, but didn’t, because our ancestors left Scotland a long time ago; or did we inherit them, simply because of our

[partial] ancestry?).

Many people have become very skeptical of the idea of inheritance, with regard to wealthy people at least. Many people have also become very skeptical of the idea of intellectual property, with regard to large corporations at least. Many people are taking cultural appropriation more and more seriously, however, at least with regard to members of more-dominant groups stealing from more-oppressed cultures.

The issues here are too deep and complex to work through in a single blog post, but I think we can all follow  Wheaton’s Law while we’re trying to get things figured out.

One Comment

  1. […] saying anything of value. It’s like the difference between “Wut” and “Thrift Shop” (both of which we just discussed). “Thrift Shop” is actually saying […]

    July 20, 2015
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