When the predictable umbrage over white rapper Macklemore’s appearance in an apparently anti-Semitic stage costume broke out this week, my first instinct was to leave dumb enough alone. But gradually I began to feel more like the late Peter Falk as Columbo, pausing at the threshold of an exit door as an important query about a case slowly forms in his mind.
In the Macklemore caper, neither the charges nor the perpetrator’s alibi seemed to add up. Yet at the same time, this latest minor incident of idiocy-in-entertainment pointed to a wider pattern, a cultural crime spree that’s been going on in America for centuries—one that never seems to get nearer to being solved.
The Internet collectively face-palmed last weekend when photos were released of Macklemore wearing what looked like a stereotypical old-Jewish-man costume, complete with false hooked nose and beard, in a surprise show at the EMP Museum in his hometown of Seattle. Worse, the Grammy winner was performing his hit “Thrift Shop” at the time, which made it seem like he was wisecracking about cheap Jews and retail schmattas.
I’ve never thought Macklemore particularly savvy, but the idea that he deliberately went out in anti-Semitic costume seemed out of character. While neither his songs nor his persona appeal to me, what’s usually annoying is how painfully earnestly he strains to show what a sensitive, enlightened, big-hearted bro he is.
Most famously there’s his straight-dude-touting-gay-marriage anthem “Same Love,” which he performed at the Grammys while dozens of same-sex couples in the hall were joined in matrimony. But he’s also one of the few white rappers who’s admitted feeling conflicted about his racial position—in his early song “White Privilege,” he fretted about appropriating and “gentrifying” hip-hop: “I give everything I have when I write a rhyme/ But that doesn’t change the fact that this culture’s not mine … We still owe them 40 acres/ Now we’ve stolen their 16 bars.” Could this really be the same guy prancing around the stage in a shoddy Shylock outfit?
It took a few days for Macklemore to respond with anything longer than a tweet, but if his eventual statement is anything other than sincere, it’s an improbably masterful execution of a “play dumb” strategy. He explains in awkward prose that he’d just grabbed a random collection of costume pieces—including a “witch nose”—as a disguise, so that he could be unrecognized in the crowd before making his appearance. He describes the costume as one part Lincoln, one part Ringo, or maybe “Humpty Hump with a bowl cut.” He just didn’t realize, he says, that anyone could see it otherwise. Finally he apologizes to those he offended and says (again, rather awkwardly) that the silver lining is now he knows about the “incredible” Anti-Defamation League.
Like the ADL, I mostly buy Macklemore’s plea. It’s estimated that less than 1 percent of Seattle residents are Jewish, and friends in the area tell me they detect a consistent lack of awareness of Jewish issues and culture there. (This essay by Eli Sanders goes into depth.) So it is possible, in ways that seem unbelievable to people in Los Angeles or New York, that no one in his entourage sized up that look and caught any hints of Jew-demonizing medieval Christian woodcuts, Victorian stage caricatures (I flinch to recall myself as a high school junior, acting Fagin with stereotypical mannerisms in Oliver!), or the cartoon propaganda of Nazis and Jewish conspiracy theorists to this day.
Perhaps they should have noticed, however, that the particular costume nose they used was not actually a “witch” nose but, as reported by the Seattle Stranger, a “Sheik/Fagin Nose” (just to make sure all your Semitic stereotypes are covered). Granted, it did come from the same shelf as the witch noses.
Then again, maybe a few of them did note the similarity but not its dark undertones. Which must be the same rationalization that happens when Katy Perry poses as a “geisha” in her American Music Awards performance, or with a grab bag of Orientalism in her “Dark Horse” video, or as unfunny comedian “Yosef Shullum” telling rabbi jokes as in her “Birthday” video (which would be less disturbing if Perry’s preacher father weren’t given to sermons about Jews and their money). Or when Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips defends faux Native American costumery for his hipster friends, to the point of firing a band member for disagreeing with him. Or when Miley Cyrus uses a phalanx of twerking black women as stage accessories, and Avril Lavigne does the same with Asian girls.
Are we experiencing a bizarre epidemic of cultural appropriation? I don’t think so. What we’re undergoing is an escalation of awareness now that social media can circulate such images so widely and rapidly—along with critics’ complaints about them, and the backlash to the complaints, and the backlash to the backlash. The cycle can be numbing, and the temptation to indulge in the easy pleasures of condemnation and judgment—wanting not to miss out on joining each chorus of disapproval—tends to reduce all the cases to the same thing. But in fact, Macklemore’s ignorant boneheadedness isn’t alike with Coyne’s arrogant obnoxiousness, and Katy Perry’s ersatz SNL skit shouldn’t be too casually equated with her dad’s sectarian bigotry.