Whether you agree with his occasionally self-righteous lyrical sloganeering, you do have to give it up to breakout Seattle rapper Macklemore for being an artist who made it as a success almost completely on his own terms, without a label, without compromise and without toning down his message for anyone. In an era in which rockist claims of artists “selling out” have largely fallen by the wayside—as we think they should, since such notions are usually archaic and reductive—the rapper born Ben Haggerty stands as one of the last remaining successful crossover artists for whom moral and artistic integrity is clearly a priority, something as closely associated with his name as socially progressive lyrics and skronky sax riffs.
That’s what makes the recent announcement (and accompanying promotional video) that “Wings,” off Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ The Heist, so jarring and unexpected. It’s surprising in the first place to hear Macklemore allow one of his songs to be used for obviously commercial and promotional purposes—after being burned by major labels and the big-business machine in the past, you’d think that Haggerty would be more careful with his music than to let an institution like the NBA co-opt it. But hey, the guy’s a basketball fan, he’s probably pumped about the Sonics returning to Seattle, and we can’t blame him for wanting to be part of All-Star Weekend, basically the NBA’s yearly version of Mardi Gras. He looks good in his Chris Paul All-Star jersey, anyway.
What makes this such a newsworthy occurrence is the song used. “Wings,” sometimes styled as “Wing$,” was obviously chosen by the NBA committee for its subject matter, in which Macklemore begins by talking about growing up idolizing Michael Jordan and relishing his Jordan Nikes:
On the court I wasn’t the best, but my kicks were like the pros
Yo, I stick out my tongue so everyone could see that logo
But at the end of the song’s first verse, the lyrics take a dark turn:
And then my friend Carlos’ brother got murdered for his fours, whoa
From there, the song evolves into a screed against the materialist culture that inspires kids like himself to so covet these big-name sneakers as a status symbol:
We want what we can’t have, commodity makes us want it
So expensive, damn, I just got to flaunt it
The final verse ends with Macklemore directly calling out Nike, and pointedly disassociating himself with the brand for good:
But see I look inside the mirror and think Phil Knight tricked us all
Will I stand for change, or stay in my box
These Nikes help me define me, but I’m trying to take mine, off
Doesn’t exactly sound like NBA pump-up music, does it? Or something that the NBA, for whom Nike is an extremely close business associate, would want to use as part of a promotional campaign for one of their signature events?
Well, here’s the thing. The promotional video released of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis jamming out the song in their All-Star jerseys, in between shots of the NBA superstar likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony doing their on-court thing, features a heavily edited version of the song. Gone are the lyrics about Macklemore’s friend getting killed for his sneaks, as well as the rapper’s final denouncement of the Nike brand. Instead, the edited version puts a greater emphasis the song’s chorus, which when viewed outside the context of the song at whole, sounds like traditional NBA aspiration rhetoric:
I want to fly
Can you take me far away
Give me a star to reach for
Tell me what it takes
And I’ll go so high
I’ll go so high
My feet won’t touch the ground
Now, the big corporation deliberately misusing a pop song for their own purposes is a tale as old as time, and wouldn’t be the cause for much outcry in itself. But by appearing in the commercial themselves, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis appear to be giving the commercial their OK, which is sort of like Bruce Springsteen performing “Born in the U.S.A.” in an ad for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign. And even if somehow, the NBA deceived Haggerty & Lewis about the way the song would be used in the commercial—which, given Macklemore’s retweet of NBA.com’s tweet promoting the video, doesn’t appear to be the case—the idea of giving this anti-Nike song over to the NBA forany purpose is a disquieting one.
Perhaps there’s more to the story we’re not yet seeing, and of course, the financial and promotional considerations for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis by being involved in such a campaign are likely so gargantuan that it’d be naive of us not to at least mention that as a legitimate factor here. But damn, letting an edited version of one of your most powerful songs be used to promote an event heavily associated with a company that the song decries, when your artistic brand is built on such a foundation of righteousness…if that’s not selling out by just about the purest definition possible, we’re not really sure what is.