Sunday, March 10, 2013

Music March: Thrift Shop vs. No Swag

So I was planning the next few reviews for this blog, when I realised I had a lot of music-related stuff planned in my head.  So the way I see it, why not make a month-long special about it?  This was the conception of "Music March", made even better by the happenstance of the name of the month lending itself to an alliteration.  Now, please bear in mind that I will be away on vacation for the last week of the month, so

Question: what is swag?  Urbandictionary.com (NSFW) defines it as, "the most used word in the whole [adjective] universe".  ...Huh.  Actually, the site gives multiple definitions, including: "Orginally from the Scottish slang word "swagger" which was a description of the way some Scots walk (in a swaying motion), the word was then misinterpreted by the English as "the way someone presents themselves". Eg, whether someone looks cool."  Either way, the definition of swag may soon become meaningless, as there is a certain song which just came off of a four-week run at #1 on charts worldwide.  Did I mention it was also the first self-published #1 single since Lisa Loeb in 1994?  No.  Obviously I am talking about "Thrift Shop" by Ben "Macklemore" Haggerty.

"Thrift Shop"
  • Artist: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Wanz
  • Album: The Heist
  • Genre: Hip-Hop/Rap
  • Release 8 October 2012
  • Label: Macklemore LLC
  • Writer: Ben "Macklemore" Haggerty
  • Producer: Ryan Lewis
But this song reminded me of another I heard about a year ago, which also hailed the lack of traditional charisma.  It is the aptly named "No Swag" by a pop-punk outfit called UGHmerica.  Its three members have written songs for Ke$ha, Akon, Pitbull, and Bridgit Mendler (a.k.a. Arietty).  But "No Swag" made far, far less of an impact than "Thrift Shop" did despite the head-start; I can't find any mention of either the song nor the band on Wikipedia.

"No Swag"
  • Artist: UGHmerica
  • Album: non-album single
  • Genre: Pop
  • Release 25 October 2011
  • Label: Mass Appeal Entertainment
  • Writers: Jacob Kasher, Phil Shaouy, Clinton Sparks
  • Producers: Phil Shaouy, Clinton Sparks
Since we have two songs which are so similar in subject matter (Added Alliterative Appeal strikes again! ^_^), I thought I'd try a new format.  Rather than analyse each song's lyrics line-by-line like I usually do, I'm going to compare how certain devices are executed by each song.  For example:

The Music

Right off the bat, this is one of the sticking points preventing me from enjoying "Thrift Shop" to the fullest.  The backtrack relies heavily on a squeaky saxophone riff which is only one measure long but repeats for over half of the song.  So by default, I'll have to give the edge to the band who plays their own music.

The winner: "No Swag"

The Chorus

"No Swag" utilises a one-line chorus, which essentially repeats the following: "I've got no swag, swag, swag swag".  Dude, I know you're not trying to associate yourself with swag, but if you say the word so often, people are gonna make that connection anyway.  So that leaves us with "Thrift Shop"'s chorus, delivered by Michael "Wanz" Wansley in a baritone that helps him fill in the void left by the dearly departed Nate Dogg.  Kicking off with the line "I'm gonna pop some tags", it gives the song both a hook and a clearly-defined point, so that someone somewhere's gonna have it in mind as a theme song for their first visit to the Salvation Army.

The winner: "Thrift Shop"

The Verses

In the verses of "No Swag", the singer talks about some of the things he owns or does, such as driving a beat-up old car and wearing beat-up old shoes.  There aren't many lines, but my favourites are found in the first verse:
I think that driving drunk is bad
Now think about this: in our mainstream culture, events where alcohol is served are highly glamourised.  So much so, that the side effects such as the possibility of driving home drunk are ignored, and as such, in the back of the mind for people who partake in them, if at all.  So exercising common sense, such as being mindful of your state of inebriation, is shrugged off merely for the sake of shrugging off the "Stop Having Fun" Guys, unaware that the fun may come to a dead end.  Then again, guest rapper Jacob Kasher admits to smoking marijuana later in the song, so take that with a grain of salt.
And Spongebob is really [adverb] rad
As someone who's this close to becoming a Brony, I like your style.
I like hanging out with Mom and Dad
Okay, I will infer from this line that our man still lives with his parents.  And you know what?  I'm cool with that, too.  You have any idea how expensive it is to find a place to live?  Sure, I'd enjoy the power that comes from living independently, but to everyone who'd bash us for taking our time, enjoy your debt, ya morons! >:-)  Meanwhile, in the second verse...
I think recycling is cool
And cook-outs with friends out by the pool
Am I not what you consider cool?
Again, this makes me wonder why no one has time for recycling anymore.  And it doesn't even take that much time to get a separate trash bin and have a different truck pick it up!  Would someone explain to me why recycling has gone into the realm of the nerdy?  In the meantime, I'll be expressing disapproval over rhyming "cool" with "cool".  Seriously, I could write a dissertation over the lyrics to "No Swag", but I have to leave room for the other song, so I'll skip the rap verse and move on.

Much like Jay-Z and Kanye West's "[nouns] in Paris" from last year, "Thrift Shop" has a playful, sometimes bawdy sense of humour, with a handful of moments that are less than dignified, but still fun for the most part.  There's one moment in the song where the people are complimenting some guy for his Gucci clothing, and our protagonist is all "Yo, that's $50 for a T-shirt".  Oh, and for the record, that was the first line from the song that stuck in my head.  Good thing, too, because without these "jokes", there's not much to remember about these verses.  Much of the lyrical space is taken up with Macklemore rattling off the odd fashions he found on the discount racks -- much as other rappers do with luxury items, for example:
Velour jumpsuit and some haute slippers
[Adjective] brown leather jacket that I found digging
Hey wait a minute, that didn't even rhyme!  And that's not the only example.  Back on point, my other problem with this "Thrift Shop" is that the two verses are simply too long.  Let's do some simple addition: sixty seconds for a verse is way too long for me to remember.  Plus, the radio edit is *very* censored.

The Winner: "Thrift Shop"

The Message

So now that we've taken some lyrical samples, what is "No Swag" about?  The singers are freely admitting that their lifestyles do not fit in to what the mainstream culture considers desirable, but can't seem to decide what to make of it.  Clifton in the second verse affirms "I don't care what you think of me", whereas Jacob in the rap break laments "Please don't swag me up / just put me out my [adverb] misery".  Furthermore, according to their website theughmerica.com, they've attempted to start a "No Swag" movement, which encourages members to embrace who they are and how they live, to fly in the face of what is accepted by their peers.

"Thrift Shop" espouses many of the same values as the "No Swag" movement, albeit from a more pragmatic perspective.  That's pragmatic as in not only buying clothing with as little expense as possible, but pragmatic in that it plays to the traditional rap image, but with different subject matter.  If Macklemore's going to make a change in our public consciousness, he might as well do so with some degree of bragging and a catchy hook.

I like what both of these songs bring to the table.  They basically present the same lession, but with different approaches.  All things considered, I've decided not to give the edge to either song in this section, and indeed I'd recommend you check out both.  That is, if you haven't had "Thrift Shop" drilled into your psyche from all its radio play.

The Winner: Tie

The Call

"Thrift Shop": 5 out of 5 (A)
"No Swag": 4 out of 5 (B)

P.S. To whomever wrote that first definition of "swag", you lost me at "Secretly We Are Gay".  Because there's nothing wrong with that, I'm just saying.

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