The Year In Pop: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Lorde Take On The One Percent (Opinion)
2013 had its opulence anthems, but we sang along to "Thrift Shop" and "Royals" more loudly.
Has hating the upper class ever been so cool in pop music? With America in post-"Occupy" mode, the middle class remains constantly suspicious of the wealthy. And for the most part, mainstream music fans didn't want to hear about the lifestyles of the rich and famous; the Rich Kids of Instagram were met with eye-rolls, and most envy was hidden instead of amplified. Instead of being told to throw some D's on a new Cadillac, listeners wanted to hear about the ridiculousness of spending 50 dollars on a t-shirt.
A pair of year-defining singles -- Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop" and Lorde's "Royals" -- mostly made their hay by railing against consumerism in a manner that included everyone, except for the one percent. Both rallying cries came from previously unheard voices, granting them a shimmering aura of authenticity. All this fury wasn't coming from a bottle-poppin' rapper or a bankable pop star; the masses really could believe Macklemore rocked scuzzy Goodwill sweatshirts or that Lorde counted her dollar bills amidst the rust and decay of the "torn-up town" she sings about. Sure, there were a "Suit & Tie" or two on Top 40 this year, but even those songs didn't revel in over-indulgence as much as they nodded toward an era of music that is no longer at the forefront of pop culture. The most surprising part of Macklemore's pro-DIY lecture on "Thrift Shop" is how unwarranted it felt within the context of modern hip-hop: wealth is still a talking point, but between Drake's soul-searching, Kanye's race talk, Eminem's devotion to the game and Kendrick Lamar's search for street-life meaning, the shiny-suit era is clearly long gone.
The Internet scrutiny of "Thrift Shop" and "Royals" followed each of their respective successes, of course. Meme makers quibbled over the non-thrift store prices Macklemore charged for merch on tour. For Lorde, the singer's background came into question. The New Zealander was certainly born into a family of cultural capital, her hometown of Takapuna is one of Auckland's wealthiest suburbs and the school she attends is highly affluent. If Lorde isn't royal, some argued, then who is?
Both stars were called out for their alleged misunderstanding of the materialistic hip-hop culture they were criticizing -- but if a hip-hop musician comes from an underprivileged background and dreams of wealth, who can blame them? "Around the middle of last year I started listening to a lot of rap, like Nicki Minaj and Drake, as well as pop singers like Lana Del Rey," Lorde told Interview Magazine in a 2013 story. "They all sing about such opulence, stuff that just didn't relate to me—or anyone that I knew. I began thinking, 'How are we listening to this? It's completely irrelevant.'"
It's certainly disappointing if Lorde hears nothing but opulence when she listens to these artists, but failing to connect with American hip-hop might just make her a kid from the other side of the world. She's not just calling out hip-hop signifiers like gold teeth and Maybach -- she's mocking jet planes, islands, and the joys of "trippin' in the bathroom." One could find any of those things by flipping on the Bravo network or following a few celebrities on Twitter.
Even if this precocious millennial isn't so poor after all, Lorde's background story is nothing new. Why was everyone suddenly so upset? Once again, the culprit seems to be our Internet-fueled self-awareness and the post-"Occupy" times we live in.
2013 still had its "Bugatti" and "Versace" songs, but people were singing along more loudly to "Thrift Shop" and "Royals" this year. The No. 1 ascensions of "Thrift Shop" and "Royals" proved that Americans want to hear different sorts of narratives -- the pendulum has not completely swung away from luxurious pop, but it is moving. Now the question is how exactly those narratives will change for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Lorde, since both artists have already transitioned from mocking superstar stylings to musical superstardom. Both artists, especially the former, have already followed up their breakout hits with further Hot 100 success. But as these 2013 poster kids accumulate not only new songs but new scrutiny into their personal lives, it will be interesting to see how much fans will hold them accountable to the manifestos that made them famous.
In 2010, M.I.A. munched on a gourmet truffle fry during a New York Times interview and the fallout from the resulting profile had many questioning her cultural validity. How could someone who can afford expensive food possibly identify as a left-wing ally of the third world? Surely one can be conscious and wealthy at the same time, but the masses that can build up (or take down) pop stars often don't think so reasonably. Macklemore and Lorde entered pop this year by connecting to fans by being convincing enough that they were just like one of them; now, they are newly minted members of the billion-dollar music industry. After all the sold-out shows and album sales, their next challenge is to maintain those connections to the masses, once it becomes increasingly obvious that being one of them is something they can no longer do.