By the time you read this, Seattle rapper Macklemore will have performed the first two of three sold-out nights at Showbox at the Market. Meanwhile, super-earnest local folkies The Head and the Heart—signed to Sub Pop records in December amid a flurry of hype—will have returned from a successful tour of Europe to open stateside for The Walkmen.
These accomplishments are undeniable triumphs for both artists, and for one particular vision of Seattle’s musical landscape. But they’re also testaments to this city’s apparently insatiable appetite for a spoon-fed form of “sincerity.” Which raises the question: Is this a good look for Seattle?
Take Macklemore’s latest single, “Wings.” Over solemn piano chords, the 28-year-old raps in his standard “serious” voice—breathless as if on the verge of tears and over-enunciating like a pale impersonation of MLK’s pulpit oratory.
Make no mistake, Macklemore is a preacher. Or at least preachy: “Wings” is a morality play about why you shouldn’t fetishize expensive sneakers, because somewhere someone might die over a pair. There are strings, a children’s choir, and an overly obvious takeaway: Once the song ends, you’ll never lace up your Nikes the same way again.
To help pay for the filming of a “Wings” video, hundreds of Macklemore’s dedicated fans raised more than $18,000 on Kickstarter.com, a site that bills itself as the web’s largest funder of creative projects. And on a recent Wednesday night, the Capitol Hill native could be found sitting on a stoop lit by klieg lights, half-reading, half-rapping to a crowd of children at his feet: Seattle hip-hop’s great white hope as Sesame Street MC.
The problem here isn’t so much whether or not Macklemore is actually sincere—any decent art is almost by definition both sincere and contrived, and once you start guessing at creative intent, you’re lost. And I don’t doubt for a minute that Macklemore’s struggles with drugs, pride in his Irish ethnicity, and love for recently deceased Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus are genuinely felt. The problem lies in his reliance on hackneyed signifiers of sincerity, aesthetic tics and traps that shout from the top of Mt. Rainier, without irony, “I mean it, man!”
For Macklemore, such signifying shows most in his delivery, but also in his humorless verses and heavy-handed, heart-on-sleeve choice of sample sources: Red Hot Chili Peppers at their most maudlin, Arcade Fire at full, portentous bombast. Macklemore’s defenders might point to his occasional “zany” characters—a redneck Republican, a Eurotrash cheeseball—as evidence of their hip-hop hero’s lighter side. But even these broad caricatures present a problem: Macklemore has cordoned off all his levity to only a few joke songs, and a couple of sub–Mad TV eccentrics in the encores can’t make up for the hour of mawkishness that precedes them.
Then there are Sub Pop hopefuls The Head and the Heart, an attractively composed band of po-faced folk rockers who come off like Seattle’s answer to British banjo-and-suspenders blight Mumford & Sons. The Head and the Heart are clearly talented musicians and singers in the same way that Macklemore is clearly a technically fine rapper, and their arrangements are as pretty as their songwriting is inoffensively bland.
They sing about wanting to return to simpler rustic folkways that aren’t really their own (“I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade”), and about how awesome it feels to sing “hallelujah for the first time.” And while religious ecstasy and yearning for the pastoral are as worthwhile emotions as any to evoke, The Head and the Heart opt to sell them with theatrical displays of sincerity.
Their voices quaver precisely; they drum up crescendos that would make Arcade Fire (them again) blush; they stomp their feet and clap their hands and belt out in harmony in a way that tells the audience they are feeling it 110 percent and everyone is invited to join in. On a purely practical level, this stuff works—audiences do join in. But “heartfelt” is a hard thing to nail in music. Go a hair too far, and you start reducing the wonderful complexity of real emotion to the two-dimensionality of a Hallmark card.
Even in our televisual self-representation, Seattle looks hopelessly, monochromatically serious. Think of the difference between the Seattle of Lynn Shelton’s $5 Cover series for MTV and the portrayal of our sister city to the south in IFC’s Portlandia. The latter shows a city that knows how to laugh at itself; the former gives us a “reality-style” melodrama about fixing a broken-down tour van that manages to make even the Spits seem dour. (If it were a Macklemore song, someone would have to die offscreen before everyone could learn an important lesson about the value of community.)
Obviously, these acts don’t represent the entirety of Seattle’s music scene. But if they’re our great success stories or our most promising exports, what is the outside world going to think of us?
Luckily, there is hope. One only need look to the other side of Sub Pop’s roster to find Shabazz Palaces, an act whose mix of Afro-mystical obfuscation and blunt, real talk should be a model of how to bring sincerity to the stage without sacrificing nuance or play. You don’t doubt Shabazz for a minute, precisely because they don’t spread it on so thick. This is a good look for Seattle.
“I’m not trying to be corny,” Macklemore raps in “The Town,” his hometown anthem. It’s a noble goal (and a convenient slant rhyme for “Onry”), and one that he, and others in the city, should try harder to reach.