One of the more remarkable results of the rise of industrial capitalism was that, for the first time in human history, the poorest classes of people gained access to luxury goods. Another remarkable result was that wealthier people who claimed to be allies of the poor told them this was bad for them. Recent developments in American popular music demonstrate that this paradox lives on. Last Sunday night, Macklemore and Lorde, artists who have built their careers upon songs attacking the desire for luxuries among African-Americans, received the highest commendations from the music establishment in the form of multiple Grammy awards. Their songs continue a long tradition, rooted in progressivism, of protests against the pleasures of the poor.
To understand this lineage we must first review the history of a revolution. In the early 19th century, the great majority of Americans were confined to farms where they had to produce their own food and clothing. Their homes contained little other than utilitarian furnishings. Their only source of entertainment was books, and most that were available were moral parables. They rarely if ever traveled more than a few miles from where they were born.
By the end of the 19th century, the material conditions of the poor were radically transformed. Most bought their clothing from stores and most owned clothes whose sole function was to make them attractive. They ate food that had come from all over the country. They drank cold beer and ate ice cream. In cities they shopped at department stores. In the country they purchased goods via catalogs and mail order. They read dime novels whose sole purpose was to provide them with fun. They attended amusement parks, movie theaters, and vaudeville shows. They went dancing. They rode on trains. Most importantly, when the poor acquired these new pleasures, they usually did so with no apparent shame.
During this revolution, self-appointed champions of the poor admonished their charges for indulging in what liberals today derisively refer to as "consumerism." Thorstein Veblen, the son of a wealthy Minnesota farming family, produced the most influential progressive critique of consumption in a series of books and articles, most notably the scholarly classic The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Veblen lamented that rising wages and the availability of consumer goods were leading working-class Americans to lives of undisciplined pleasure-seeking. Untrained in the art of restraint, when the poor did gain more than subsistence wages they spent it on useless fun. What others had "euphemistically spoken of as a rising standard of living" Veblen saw as simply the "cumulative growth of wasteful expenditures."
A host of progressive academic studies of working-class spending habits aimed to determine the exact degree of material wealth—and not one dollar more—that would provide, as one put it, "the power to ensure one's primary faculties, supply one's essential needs, and develop one's personality." The conclusion of most of these studies was that to avoid socially harmful "excesses" the "minimum amount of goods and opportunities" should also be the maximum amount. Typical was The Standard of Living Among Workingmen's Families in New York City (1909), written by Robert Chapin, the son of a college president, which labeled "visits to cafes, ale houses," tobacco, gambling and lotteries, "ornaments (personal)," "theater and "public festivities," and even candy, soda water, and ice cream for children as "luxuries" and "extravagances." Through the 20th and into the 21st centuries opposition to consumerism remained almost exclusively the domain of well-born do-gooders, often finding its voice in claims that advertisers create in common folk "artificial" desires for "useless" luxuries and "mindless" entertainment.
In recent years a principal target of these elitist and puritanical attacks has been hip hop, a subculture dominated by African Americans born into poverty who celebrate what Thorstein Veblen labeled as "conspicuous consumption." Until the rise of Macklemore and Lorde, the most prominent criticisms of hip hop's love of "bling" came from relatively obscure "conscious" rappers as well as intellectuals and political activists outside the music industry. But in 2012, Macklemore's song "Thrift Shop" rose to the top of the Billboard charts to become the millennial generation's anti-consumerist anthem. The message of the song is the early progressives' polemic presented in contemporary street slang. In it, the white rapper from the hip Capitol Hill district of Seattle whose liberal credentials include songs promoting gay marriage and opposing "wars from religion" proudly declares "Only got twenty dollars in my pocket," as he shops for clothes in a thrift shop. In the second verse he mocks rappers' attention to designer labels:
They be like, 'Oh, that Gucci—that's hella tight.'
I'm like, 'Yo—that's fifty dollars for a T-shirt.'
Limited edition, let's do some simple addition
Fifty dollars for a T-shirt—that's just some ignorant bitch shit
I call that getting swindled and pimped, shit
I call that getting tricked by a business
Like the early progressives, Macklemore believes he knows better than the poor what they should desire, buy, and value. And also like the progressives he believes that the highest value is found not in shopping malls but in places like museums:
See, I observed Escher
I love Basquiat
I watched Keith Haring
You see I study art
Naturally, the arbiters of contemporary liberal taste have recognized Macklemore as one of their own. "Obviously," noted an NPR interviewer, rapping about finding bargains in thrift shops is "not your typical hip-hop theme." Rather, she said, the genre normally features "bling and caddies and your gold grill." Macklemore explained, "hip-hop is usually an art form that is about bling, consumption" but "Thrift Shop" is "about, you know, just saving money. And I think that's something that's rare in hip-hop culture. It's usually about spending money."
The liberal intelligentsia has similarly embraced another pop-star critic of bling, the New Zealander and self-described feminist Lorde, whose hit song "Royals" raced to number one with its declaration that "we don't care" for the "gold teeth, Grey Goose," "Cristal, Maybach," "diamonds on your timepiece," and "jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash" that are hip hop motifs. "That kind of luxe just ain't for us," she sings. Asked by New York Magazine about how "people seem excited by the criticism of conspicuous consumption in 'Royals'" and what inspired her to write the song, Lorde explained, "I've always listened to a lot of rap. It's all, look at this car that cost me so much money, look at this Champagne. It's super fun. It's also some bullshit….Everyone knows it's B.S., but someone has to write about it." The New York Times' rock critic Jon Pareles described "Royals" as "something smarter and deeper" than typical teen songs "that are calculated to suit that market": "a class-conscious critique of pop-culture materialism that's so irresistible it became a No. 1 pop single."
Smarter and deeper than the hedonistic masses is indeed what liberal critics of the poor have always believed themselves to be. Perhaps this is why, as Lorde puts it, "We crave a different kind of buzz." She sings, "Let me be your ruler. You can call me Queen Bee….Let me live that fantasy."