Musical Talmud:  "Suit and Tie" vs. "Thrift Shop"

Musical Talmud: “Suit and Tie” vs. “Thrift Shop”

Why “Thrift Shop” and “Suit and Tie” make a perfect pairing atop the Billboard chart.

As of this very minute, as I’m writing, the number one and number three songs on the Billboard Hot 100 are about clothes:  Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” and Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie.” (Number two, naturally, is “The Harlem Shake.”)

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There’s something kind of perfect about this pairing. Obviously, “Thrift Shop” is meant as a jokey commentary on the generally materialistic nature of hip hop, so there are thousands of songs about bling, status, and designer labels that it could be balanced against, but “Suit and Tie” is a better fit than most. Consider:  one is basically a R&B song with a guest rapper, while the other is basically a rap song with a guest R&B singer.* In both cases, the lead artist is white, and has a relatively high voice; the guest artist is black, with a relatively low voice. Musically, the end of each song is marked by a moody breakdown where the music gets rhythmically stripped-down and harmonically beefed up.  (Although “Thrift Shop” is generally the more interesting song, there’s something kind of special about “Suit and Tie’s” breakdown:  the change in the rhythmic surface is so severe that when the vocal hook comes back in, the song effectively transforms into a slow jam, thus inscribing the essential script of every Justin Timberlake song — i.e., “after we dance to this club hit, I’m gonna take you home for hot sexings” — into the music itself.)

Finally, if we consider the lyrics of the songs more closely, we find that they are opposed to each other in a more interesting and specific way that then simple materialism/antimaterialism argument that’s implicit in the songs’ titles.

Let’s start with “Suit and Tie.”

Thesis

Most materialistic rap and R&B songs are about conspicuous consumption, and have a very clear understanding of the point of conspicuous consumption. When people fly in a G6, or drink Cristal, or whatever, it’s not because they are aficionados of champagne and high-end aircraft. The whole making it rain thing — look, I don’t know enough about strip clubs to know why (or even whether) people actually make it rain, but as it’s presented to us in music videos, the goal is not to coax a more energetic performance out of the ecdysiasts. It’s to show off the fact that you can make it rain. “Suit & Tie” is quite unusual, then, in that the affluent surface is actually meant to demonstrate something other than wealth:  at the end of each verse, the lyrics swerve away from the materialistic to the idealistic, and more specifically the romantic.  By throwing on a suit and tie, Timberlake is attempting to “show [us] a few thangs about love,” (emphasis added). Not wealth, not style. Love. This is not exactly a new message — it is for instance the main way that diamonds have ever been marketed. But it’s new in hip-hop, even for a diamond merchant like Paul Wall, whose greatest couplet is “people’s feelings get hurt/ when they realize what I’m worth,” not “people’s feelings get hurt/ when they realize how much I love my wife.”

“Suit and Tie” is not even a materialistic song, really. Rather, it’s… Calvinist might be the word that I’m looking for? Certainly that’s what begins to emerge towards the end of Jay-Z’s verse, where he tries to get Beyoncé’s parents to bless their union by pointing out that, as a couple, they’ll go farther in their chosen careers. This is why Timberlake’s being on his suit and tie [expletive] qualifies him to teach us something about love, I think:  the signifiers of wealth don’t just mark him as wealthy, they mark him as part of the spiritual elect. But note that it is only “as long as [he’s] got his suit and tie” that Timberlake is qualified to teach us anything about love. When he takes them off — as he does for sizable chunks of the video — we have no reason to believe him about anything. Clothes make the man… capable of exemplary romantic sentiment.

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As exclusive clubs go, however, the Suit and Tie club is pretty easy to get into.The ritziest products mentioned in the song are Alexander Wang dresses, which go on eBay for something like $200-$500. That’s more than I’d generally pay for an outfit — but as a pricetag for love, it’s quite a markdown from traditional market values like “all the stars in the sky” or “unconditional acceptance.” And again, that’s the MOST expensive product they talk about. All Timberlake wants is a suit and tie. The thing we’re supposed to learn about love, I guess, is that as long as you’re willing to do your shopping online, it costs about $100 plus tax?

This, in the end, may be why “Suit & Tie” is such an effective pop song. It’s democratic. You too can teach people something about love! You don’t need to break the bank or anything — just put in a little effort. As long as you don’t roll into the club wearing nothing but a grungy undershirt and a ketchup-stained pear of sweatpants, it’ll be an educational evening for everyone concerned. This is, incidentally, the most bourgeois version of egalitarianism imaginable. You too can be affluent enough to serve as a shining beacon to the great unwashed! Live the dream, American.

Antithesis

But if “Suit and Tie” argues that clothes make the man, “Thrift Shop” argues that man makes the clothes. The first time I heard “Thrift Shop,” I bobbed along with the music because I thought “Hey, shopping for party outfits at a thrift store! I can relate to that.” But the more carefully I listened, the more I became aware that thrift shopping, for Macklemore, is not really about the thing that thrift shopping always was about for me. I would dig through those mounds of trash hoping to find some rare and wonderful outfit that, through its funky kickiness, would transform me into the sort of person that kicks funk unstoppably. Ideally I was looking for something inherently cool, something no sane person would ever have thrown out. But if we are to believe Macklemore’s lyrics, he goes about it in quite a different way.  The most telling line in the song is “they had a broken keyboard; I bought a broken keyboard.” A broken keyboard is hardly a find! But Macklemore buys it anyway. He buys whatever they have, pretty much. How does that make him cool? Well, it doesn’t, because it doesn’t have to. He’s cool already. Consider the Pro Wing sneakers:  Macklemore asserts that he could “make them cool, sell those” (emphasis added). He is not transformed by his thrift shop clothes, rather, the thrift shop clothes are transformed by him.

The song is not about finding surprisingly good clothes in the thrift shop. It can’t be, because it is inimical to the very idea that clothes can be good! Macklemore lists a lot of clothes, but he doesn’t make any positive or negative aesthetic judgements about any of them. This is true even of the clothes that he rejects:  he “passes up on those moccasins someone else has been walkin’ in,” and suggests that wearing the same shirt as six other people in this club is “a hella don’t.” The aesthetic merits of the clothing are irrelevant. What matters is that someone else is associated with the clothing, making it less irreducibly linked to Macklemore himself — for it is only by being linked with Macklemore that clothing takes on value. What looks incredible? I look incredible. I might be in a big-ass coat, but that’s beside the point.

Synthesis

So far, ironically enough, the materialistic song has turned out to be democratic, while the antimaterialistic song has turned out to be meritocratic. On the face of it, “Suit and Tie” and “Thrift Shop” seem to offer contradictory ideas about how fashion works. But one could also argue that neither idea is coherent without the other.

Streep2006It may seem risible that an Alexander Wang dress can show us something about as private an emotion as love, but if some part of what makes the dress noteworthy is the unknowable essence of its wearer — Beyoncé, in this case — then the clothing’s ability to communicate is no longer so mysterious. By the same token, the reaction that Macklemore posits in his audience is not the sort of meta-aware one I’ve been suggesting here. The sneaker-heads would not be like “damn, he’s wearing some fundamentally stupid and outdated apparel, but the outsized force of his personality, coupled with the peacock-effect of wearing something nobody else is wearing, causes me to reevaluate his aesthetically jarring fashion choice as a ‘come up’.” No, they’re like “Velcros? Well dang, I bet those have didactic value for my love life.” So rather than showing us two different ideas about the nature of fashion, these songs show us two stages on the lifestyle of a fashion trend. And of course, that’s sort of how it works with coolness, isn’t it? Not just with fashion trends, but with hip hop music, and music in general, and really almost anything else. Nothing is ab nihilo trendy. Someone must cause it to trend.

*Actually calling “Suit & Tie” an R&B song isn’t quite specific enough. It’s a disco song. In fact, it’s a Bee Gees song. Listen to those electric piano arpeggios. Listen to that little brass section fill in the second part of the chorus. Listen to the close-voiced vocal harmonies. Listen to the way JT shifts into the extreme high register on “I guess they’re just mad cause they wish they had it.” Between this, and the “Call Me Maybe” beat, and Daft Punk issuing a collaboration with Gorgio Moroder, it seems like Disco may be having a covert little cultural moment.

 

Stokes has been writing for OTI since the very beginning. (No seriously, he wrote the first post on the site.) He’s probably the guy to talk to if you want to pitch an article about music theory or horror movies. Check out his 50,000 word exegesis of Cowboy Bebop, his threepart series on plotting in early video games, or his alternate rules for Monopoly.

17 Comments on “Musical Talmud: “Suit and Tie” vs. “Thrift Shop””

  1. Scott #

    Disco never died and it never will!

    Reply

  2. Amanda #

    “a ketchup-stained pear of sweatpants”

    This instantly gave me a mental picture of a pair of pants made out of a bunch of pears stuck together, like that Lady Gaga Kermit coat.

    Also, nice article, and I agree with Scott. Disco is awesome :)

    Reply

    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      Ha! Really, though, “a pear of sweatpants” would mean a giant pear-shaped wad of sweatpants. Which — yeah, don’t wear that out to the club either. But I should probably just learn to spell.

      Reply

      • Amanda #

        HAHAHAHA I like your idea better :)
        Don’t learn how to spell! If you do, what’s gonna prompt us to think of ridiculous things like a pear-shaped wad of pants? YOU’LL KILL OUR CREATIVITY!

        (also, if you feel like it, go bother Matt and Ryan and record another TFT with them. I really enjoy all the super smart music discussion… weren’t you guys gonna do a whole ep on that Mountain Goats album anyway?)

        Reply

  3. Nick #

    I had taken Suit and Tie to be about marriage (much as it’s partner, Mirrors, is about compatibility) – Justin gets dressed up, Jessica puts on “that dress I like”, they share a dance in front of the watching throng.

    Jay-Z could easily fit into the best man role, delivering a speech which boasts of their exploits, the money spent and the other girls, before cannily honing on mothers, fathers, sons and daughters as a capper.

    Also, I love disco.

    Reply

  4. Gab #

    Hey, weren’t you supposed to be listening to music recommendations from commenters? ;p

    Moving on, I can’t help but snarkily add that the cheapest tickets for the JT/Jay-Z tour right now run at $69.50 ($83.78 after fees and crap); the Macklemore/Ryan Lewis tour has tickets running as low as $30 before fees (and without student discounts, as they’re hitting some colleges). And there are a crap ton of various “V.I.P. packages” that run well into the thousand-dollar range for J.T.; not seeing anything like that for Macklemore.

    I dunno, if we’re going to compare the two, and if we want to broaden it to both being about relationships and such, having that meta-knowledge leads me to believe JT’s song is about how relationships are superficial- as long as I have a suit and tie, I’ll be loved, and people will listen to what I have to say because I look good. Everyone believes a dude in a suit, after all, because status symbols equate authority, so people will suck up to me and hang on everything I say. So let me show you a few things, baby. Macklemore’s is about how it’s the person that counts- it’s okay for me to have on this awful, embroidered vest, because the dude wearing it is a nice dude. And anybody willing to blow fifty bucks on a Tshirt probably isn’t worth your time, anyway. And that? Well, it’s f***ing awesome.

    Of course, there’s the fact that Macklemore is making millions off of the single, but again, at least going to see him live won’t eat up an entire paycheck (unless you buy out the venue or something).

    Reply

    • Gab #

      I do want to add something, though.

      On a personal note, the first time I heard this song, I was actually really pissed off by it. When I was an undergrad, I was surrounded by trust-fund babies (and wasn’t one, myself) that thought it was fun and cool to go to the thrift store and talk about the deals they got. It’s not like they remotely needed to do so because of their financial situations- they’d py for it with the credit cards or monthly allowance their parents gave them. And they did it in a way that was borderline mocking people that shopped there out of necessity. They’d joke about how ridiculous some of the things they saw there were, never mind the fact that someone may end up buying it (or would have bought it if the student hadn’t) because they needed it to suffice (such as yeah, a really ugly sweatshirt with a cat and flowers embroidered on it). This really hit home when I saw a kid in the nurse’s office in the school I volunteered at wearing a shirt from an organization on my campus- a kid I knew personally because of my work, and thus knew was on free lunch. It was just really hard to respect the students I was in school with when they’d joke around about the “great find” (“great” in a semi-sarcastic way) from the Goodwill when there were people living within walking distance of their dorms that went to the same store because they had to. It wouldn’t have been as bad from my perspective if they had ever recognized the low-income housing nearby, but they didn’t. They even did things like call the Safeway (grocery store) near the campus the “ghetto” one and would complain about it being dirty or the “gross-looking” people that would shop there. They were too caught up in their own little worlds to realize poor people existed so close to them.

      So when I first heard the song, I heard it as some rich, white asshole completely overlooking the social group the store he’s raiding is meant to serve. Some of the things he says about what he finds are exactly the kinds of things my peers would say. He’s awesome because he found this crazy stuff in the thrift store, but there’s no recognition of anyone that may have bought it for other reasons. And notice, when they show people at the store in the video, they’re all his friends- they may be wearing stuff meant to look second-hand, but they also have uber makeup and such. None of them are real people, they’re his dancers and yes-men/women. And I think that’s kind of messed up.

      Blah. I could write an entirely counter Musical Talmud about this for you, but I won’t- this reading of the song, of course, doesn’t really have anything to do with yours, so I’ll stop now.

      Reply

      • Dan From Canada #

        Any damage Macklemore might be said to have done at the expense of people who need to shop at thrift shops because they are the only place selling things they can afford is completely negated by the benefit to society that comes from a popular artist in Hip-Hop writing songs about how you don’t need expensive designer clothes to be cool.

        And maybe a few jerks go to a thrift shop and say some insensitive things while they are there that upset someone shopping there because they need to. But those jerks are going to say insensitive things everywhere else too and upset all kinds of people. They are jerks, that’s what jerks do.

        But every kid who listens to Macklemore, and hears that designer clothes don’t make you cool, that drugs are bad, that gays are cool, and that you don’t need expensive shoes is going to make up for a jerk. Because they may be saved from becoming a jerk themselves.

        Reply

        • Gab #

          Dan, I’d have to disagree- not entirely, but with the “completely negated” part. It’s great that Mackelmore is doing positive things for other marginalized groups, and I agree about that, absolutely. But doing so while marginalizing poor people isn’t the best strategy, and, from a perspective intent on social justice, doesn’t negate that marginalization- if anything, it reinforces common social practices and structures. It shouldn’t take indirect mockery of poor people (by mocking the things they use to survive) to promote the other causes within the song. It’s counter-intuitive to promote, say, gay rights at the expense of anti-poverty movements or poor people. And so if a person hears the song and is less likely to “become a jerk,” I’d say they’d avoid being a jerk about the things you mentioned other than the way poor people are perceived- but if the song making them not be a jerk is jerky towards poor people, then, well, they probably aren’t going to not be jerks to poor people.

          To view Mackelmore’s song more positively, it can be called a starting point for a more universal, ideal social movement. Because movements frequently start out with a positive message, but the way it’s framed is later revealed to have its own marginalizing structures and powers embedded within its language, actions, etc. Feminism, for example, started out as a source of empowerment for women- but really for women that were white, upper-class, and from colonial powers: the rhetoric (usually) didn’t directly say women of color, poor women, or indigenous women, were of lesser value, but their unique experiences were left out of the discussion, thereby indirectly marginalizing them and further oppressing them (symbolically)*. Now, Mackelmore’s song is pretty awesome in that it does incorporate positive characterizations of self-identification and promotes anti-drug and even some anti-materialist perspectives; but in so doing, it ignores that there is an entire subset of the population relying on the resources he’s taking and sometimes making fun of. He never directly brings up poor people, but that is the problem. So the next step would be to incorporate that into the follow-up single, rapping about how thrift stores are cool because they help minimize this uber materialistic hegemonic discourse, as well as provide the needed clothing, furniture, etc. for people that live on next-to-nothing.

          *I say usually because there are instances where it was very overt, such as poor women and women of color being deliberately excluded from marches, meetings, and organizations.

          Reply

          • Dan From Canada #

            I guess I just don’t see where the marginalizing poor people is actually happening here.

            Sure these guys are going out to clubs and driving deLoreans. They have money, they don’t need to shop at a thrift shop. But just because they are having fun there, they are marginalizing people who shop there from necessity?

            He’s not bragging about finding something excellent that was being mistakenly discarded and then bragging about how he got, say, that same 50 dollar Gucci shirt for 2 bucks. Instead he’s “Savin’ my money and I’m hella happy that’s a bargain, bitch”

            I’m also not seeing where he even made fun of anything he found at the thrift store. The closest he comes is that he should have washed the leopard mink because it smells gross. So maybe he’s indirectly making fun of people so poor that they can’t afford to do laundry to clean the things they bought?

            Having gone back over the full lyrics again, the message to me is “You’ll never get a woman because you’re wearing a brand. Spending tons of money on clothes is stupid. Thrift shops have awesome stuff in them.”

          • Wendy #

            I’d like to disagree on the point that thrift shops exist to provide cheap second-hand clothing/furniture only to poor people. Goodwill advertises and encourages everyone to buy from their shops so that they can use the money raised to helped disabled and disenfranchised people find employment. St. Vincent de Paul encourages both donating and shopping; they need the money to provide services to the poor. Even if the shoppers are bargain hunters, their dollars go to support the mission. It’s just another way to donate, like a church rummage sale that lasts forever.

          • Gab #

            Hm, I think I know what’s happening. My guess at why what I’m saying doesn’t entirely make sense to you stems from differing conceptualizations of “marginalization.” I’m under the impression yours involves more direct action and deliberate intent, while mine includes that while also incorporating inaction, silencing, and indirect references, all of which can be either intentional or unintentional. From this perspective, then, marginalization doesn’t occur only by overt insult, but also by non-reference. See what I said about exclusion above.

            And I’ll concede that you’re right that I somewhat mischaracterized Goodwill and other second-hand stores by making it sound like their only purpose is to provide material goods to low-income people- you got me there. But this doesn’t change the fact that their cultural significance is one of charity, and who gets charity? Those in need. And Mackelmore never once says a thing about people in need. The only people he talks about are the people in the clubs he goes to- who he makes a point of letting us know are not in any way needy. Either that, or his friends, which we can only assume are of the same socioeconomic bracket as him.

            As for making fun of the stuff, it’s some of the word choices. Calling a jacket “dookie” colored is equivalent to calling it a piece of sh*t. The whole thing about taking the listener’s grandpa’s style is a backhanded compliment to the style itself- in other words, an insult- because when is telling someone they dress like their grandfather ever an entirely sincere compliment? And the thing about the smell of the garment can also be read as an indirect insult, too- it implies that the person that donated it was unable to wash it, or at least that anyone that takes it is so desperate that the smell doesn’t matter.

            Again, I’m not saying the song is entirely useless. I get the main message, that it’s stupid to be so caught up in ice and brand labels. Bargain shopping, in general, is great! And I agree with it, 100%! I bargain shop, I clearance-bin dive, I too go to Goodwill!

            But the material goods he uses as his contra to Gucci come from a location where some (but yes, as I conceded, not all) people go because they have to, not because they’re trying to make a point. And in his song and video, there’s absolutely no indication he realizes this. Like I said, he and his friends are in their own club-life world, and the song makes it seem like Goodwill exists for the lone purpose of mocking the blowhards he’s rapping about. What I’m saying is that Godowill can be used for that, sure, but that that’s not why it exists. That’s a secondary benefit/use. And ignoring its primary cultural significance, which is that of charity (even if not for those shopping, per se, but people that get monetary donations from Goodwill), is ignoring and thus marginalizing the experiences of those in need of that charity.

          • Dan From Canada #

            I just still can’t see it. I’ve -been- that marginalized person. I’ve lived three people in a one-bedroom apartment, eating mac and cheese several nights a week because it was only 49 cents a box, and buying all our clothes from thrift shops, second hand stores and goodwill.

            And let me tell you, 10 year old me would have KILLED to be able to point to a famous successful musician and say “See! Cool guys wear thrift shop clothes!”

            The fact that he doesn’t high-five some visibly “poor” person also rocking thrift shop clothes doesn’t come -close- to making me feel like I’ve been marginalized at all.

            I think to what 10 year old me would have thought seeing this video, and it’s “Wow, look at all those cool people doing something I was ashamed of. Maybe that means I shouldn’t be ashamed of it!”

          • Gab #

            Dan, like I said above, we have different conceptualizations of what “marginalized” means. Which, thus, leads to us being unable to agree on whether marginalization is occurring in the song/video. We have different criteria, so we’re going to come to different conclusions.

            And let me say that I had a similar background growing up- collection agencies, utilities being shut off, hand-me-downs and garage sail raiding, top ramen and hot dogs all the time… And sure, ten-year-old me would have thought it was great to see a “cool” guy wearing second-hand stuff, too. But ten-year-old me would have missed the nuances and not understood the backhanded nature of some of the compliments to those second-hand items because ten-year-old me wouldn’t know what a backhanded compliment was in the first place, let alone be able to recognize it. Since then, though, additional experiences I’ve had beyond what ten-year-old me knew at the time have led me to my current personal belief system, sociopolitical ethics, and internal ideology- which fosters my interpretation of both what “marginalized” means and when it happens.

            Keep in mind, I’ve been saying “from my perspective”-type things this whole time. I haven’t been trying to invalidate you, but rather emphasizing that from my own particular point of view, this song/video is problematic, and attempting to help you understand why. I’m not saying you’re wrong, nor have I been trying to- and if it seemed that way, I apologize. I’ve been saying I see it differently from you. That’s a nuanced, but important, distinction I hope you understand now. I must not have made it clear enough before.

  5. mim #

    Bit late to the party here, but I’d like to add that you also can reverse the interpretation when it comes to money and class. A common theme when talking about class is image, and how the higher classes can get away with more than the lower ones. Macklemore can be proud of his thrift shop finds, because noone is going to look down their nose at him and assume that he wears footie pyjamas because he has nothing else to wear. There is also the fact that most of the bargains mentioned are rather conspicuous consumption; a broken keyboard, the mentioned pyjamas and the mink aren’t likely o be practical items, rather cool statement pieces. Meanwhile, Suit and tie is about not taking empowerment for granted. You have to work for your status by wearing the right clothes, and notice that it’s only one garment. Not a ton of suit and ties, just a well kept set to look presentable, because it matters what other people think. It also considers prosperity when discussing marriage.

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    • Gab #

      Good point(s)! I think part of why the “thrifting” trend is pretty classist is because, like you said, the wealthier people can get away with the bad outfits, while lower-income persons, not so much.

      Reply

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