If you’ve spent any time on-line at all today, you’re likely already inundated with think pieces, reaction editorials and general social media responses to Macklemore’s EMP performance on Friday. To recap, Macklemore showed for a party at Seattle’s Experience Music Project in “disguise” as what appeared to be an anti-Semitic caricature. Decked out in a moptop wig, a bushy beard and a long, hooked prosthetic nose, Macklemore performed “Thrift Shop” without incident and didn’t run into any controversy until Seth Rogen called him out on Twitter the day after:
— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) May 18, 2014
Rogen’s tweet set off a general debate about whether Macklemore intended to come across as a Jewish caricature, but that’s merely an unfortunate distraction from the more serious and less nebulous argument over whether Macklemore’s apology is sincere or not. Like a lot of public figures who have made an embarrassing PR mistake, Macklemore almost certainly did not set out with the intention of offending people. Even without factoring in Macklemore’s genuine attempts to be a more altruistic hip-hop figure, there’s the inarguable fact that Macklemore is a pop star who has rocketed to fame by being essentially a “harmless” rap act that non-traditional rap fans can embrace for his safeness. Macklemore, if nothing else, is a shrewd marketer who understands his appeal and the industry he works within; this is, after all, a guy who famously used a major label’s resources to get around having to be on a major label. Say what you will about Macklemore’s musical skills, but as a strategist with a handle on what people want, he’s tough to beat. But that shrewdness is part of why it’s so difficult to understand Macklemore’s follow-up actions.
Given how long it took the controversy to build (by internet standards, anyway), there is the chance that Macklemore figured the first few naysayers would be in the minority. That would help explain the glib dismissal of people’s reactions that Macklemore first offered up:
A fake witches nose, wig, and beard = random costume. Not my idea of a stereotype of anybody.
— Macklemore (@macklemore) May 19, 2014
This form of “apology” has become strangely rampant in the pop culture world, particularly in the comics community, where every comics pro accused of inappropriate actions, from Brian Wood to Scott Lobdell to Tony Harris, has rolled it out when faced with the ire of those offended. But what makes it worse is Macklemore’s official, follow-up apology, which includes Macklemore’s statement that “there is no worse feeling than being misunderstood,” a perplexing remark to make when dealing with anti-Semitism accusations. The implication is that someone offending you by seemingly mocking your people is bad, sure, but what’s even worse is when you’re being casually offensive and someone else calls you out for it.
Macklemore’s defenders– and defenders of these kinds of apologies in general– almost always resort to the defense that people are too easily offended these days and that they don’t even want an apology, they just want the satisfaction of “casting stones.” That view essentially argues that the feelings of the offended are less important than the person being offensive. It’s a depressingly selfish world view, though it is an exceptionally convenient way of avoiding responsibility for your actions. For these people, everyone else is the problem, and anyone who has the gall to call out someone for their questionable behavior is just a PC fascist, a buzzkill who wants to erode fun for everyone and is only out to punish the party people
But what happens in a case like this? What happens when someone who has marketed themselves as an altruistic artist striving for positive change makes a poor decision and doesn’t actually apologize for it but instead makes a series of moves that suddenly call into question their devotion to the positivity their marketing image is built around? Macklemore made a mistake, we all make mistakes, but his true error is in his betrayal of his own ethics and his ignorance in where the problems with his behavior actually lie. And that’s a mistake that could cost Macklemore more than face, it could cost him revenue by calling in to question the “safe,” “positive” elements of his brand. Maybe money will speak to Macklemore in a way that a plea for understanding of others’ culture didn’t.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.