The Sad Machinery of Controversy Creation

Ben Haggerty is having a tough week. The artist known as Macklemore is coming off one hell of a year, however. His breakaway hit ‘Thrift Shop’ has amassed more than 533 million views. He went home with two Grammys this year after an incredible performance in which 33 same-sex marriages took place. In short, dude’s got heart.


But like any ascension, numerous detractors are trying to drag him down. Earlier this week this one website, more concerned with hits than content, helped create a controversy over Macklemore’s costume at a surprise EMP performance in Seattle. Charges of anti-Semitism blew up Twitter in seconds.

You can see the costume in the picture above, alongside a shot of Greg Jacobs’s costume in a video for his band’s 1990 hit, ‘The Humpty Dance.’ Both involve equally irrelevant masquerading. As far as I’m aware, Shock G’s enlarged nose never sent people into a downward spiral of racism and retorts. Then again, this was pre-Internet when journalists, for the most part, were actually writers.

I’m not here to defend Macklemore’s music. I like ‘Thrift Shop.’ It’s a fun pop song with an inspiring message. In fact, all of his music has an elevating quality, which is why he’s become so immensely popular. Before this past year—the man’s been releasing independent albums and touring since 2000—he was predominantly confined to America’s heartland and northern territories, dropping rhymes about dealing with addiction, supporting same sex marriage and the lunacy of brand name retail.

Critics railing against ‘Thrift Shop’ probably never took the time to watch the 15-minute documentary on the making of the video—perhaps the length was beyond their capacity for attention. The origins of this self-funded project, with the rapper himself loading up the rental truck with equipment, offer an insight into his creative integrity. He had no idea the track would blow up like it did. He was following his passion.

That gets lost in moments like the response to his EMP performance. Logic flies out the window. Why would someone who has spent fourteen years building a career uplifting his culture out of a tragic history of racism and bigotry decide to throw it all away to take a jab at Jews? He wouldn’t, and didn’t, yet people are more concerned with bolstering their own public image by taking down those who have achieved more success than them. And that’s a shame. 

In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr reports on the ways that the screen is different than any other technological medium in the past. The myriad distractions make it challenging to focus for long periods of time, resulting in what he calls an inability to engage in ‘deep thinking.’ As he writes,

With writing on the screen, we’re still able to decode text quickly—we read, if anything, faster than ever—but we’re no longer guided toward a deep, personally constructed understanding of the text’s connotations. Instead, we’re hurried off toward another bit of related information, and then another, and another. This strip-mining of ‘relevant content’ replaces the slow excavation of meaning.

Hence, Macklemore is a racist. No worries about what he’s stood for all this time.

I experienced this last week when writing about my recent experiences dealing with cancer. While the support was overwhelming, on the website’s Facebook page I read a number of such comments: my cancer had to have been caused by inner guilt; prayer would be more effective than doctors; magnets could prove more helpful than chemotherapy.

I’m predominantly immune to nonsense like this, but it does point to a deeper cultural problem. Instead of thinking through what is being written, people respond with whatever is in their head at that moment. This is a longstanding issue with the comments section on websites and blogs, detracting from substantial progress that could be made with constructive criticism and honest dialogues. 'Look at me' replaces 'let's investigate this.'

Hence, Macklemore. As long as he’s on the scene, others will continue to promote their own agendas at his expense. That says much more about them than him. Instead of standing on the shoulder of giants, it once again points to our sad trend of trying to bring them down to our level.

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