Does It Have to Be The Shoes?:
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Wings”
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
“It’s gotta be the shoes”—Mars Blackmon
These six words in many ways defined the late 1980s and 1990s, encapsulating the rise of hip-hop, NIKE, Michael Jordan, and the racial-class narratives embedded in each of them. For a teenager growing up in the 1980s, in many ways this phrase defines my generation. Rather than generation X, we are the “It’s gotta be the shoes generation.”
The problems inherent in such an ethos crystallized for me after watching the new video from Seattle’s very own Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
“Wings,” directed by Zia Mohajerjasbi, initially plays on the childhood memories associated with Air Jordans, ideas that likely resonate with many of this generation today.
I was seven years old, when I got my first pair
And I stepped outside
And I was like, Momma, this air bubble right here, it’s gonna make me fly
I hit that court, and when I jumped, I jumped, I swear I got so high
The joy of success on the court, of ballin’ like the big boys, was not a pure accomplishment, but one that was wrapped up in commercial ideas and commodification from the jump. The purity of being able to touch the net was never, in his mind, indicative of his own skills but that of the shoes. It had to be the shoes.
Yet, the tune (in the song and for the young boy in the video) quickly changes, away from childhood dreams and nostalgia for the sweet smell of brand-new kicks, to the painful realities about shoes.
And then my friend Carlos’ brother got murdered for his fours, whoa
See he just wanted a jump shot, but they wanted to start a cult though
Didn’t wanna get caught, from Genesee Park to Othello
Carlos’ brother, like other kids, in the 1980s, learned all too painfully about the value placed on a pair of shoes. Worth more than a life; worth more than a future; the quick transition from “wanting to be like Mike,” to fly, to stark reminder about those killed over Mike’s shoes is a powerful message. Here, Macklemore not only illustrates the value placed upon shoes but challenges listeners to think beyond the nostalgia for balling in new Jordans to remember those who died for those new air Jordans.
Yet, the song is not purely about the cultural meaning and history behind shoes, but a powerful commentary on commodification. It is a story of the valued put on shoes culturally, economically, socially, athletically, and stylistically, even though shoes are shoes.
We want what we can’t have, commodity makes us want it
So expensive, damn, I just got to flaunt it
Got to show ‘em, so exclusive, this that new shit
A hundred dollars for a pair of shoes I would never hoop in
Look at me, look at me, I’m a cool kid
I’m an individual, yea, but I’m part of a movement
My movement told me be a consumer and I consumed it
They told me to just do it, I listened to what that swoosh said
Look at what that swoosh did
See it consumed my thoughts
Highlighting the ways in which products define our sense of identity, demark coolness, and otherwise tell the world something about us, “Wings” laments the power ascribed onto shoes. It questions that stock we put into consumption and products, a process that merely enhances the stock value of companies like NIKE.
In this regard, the song and the video simultaneously show a process, the difficulty in challenging the marketing and message to say, “they are just a pair of shoes.” The allure of the American Dream, of coolness, and the product are seductive. In fact, this is part of the marketing strategies of companies like NIKE, which invest in the production of image and advertizing, all while minimizing costs of labor. In selling a dream, in selling hipness, athleticism, coolness, and an overall image, the shoes themselves and the conditions of production are erased and rendered meaningless.
Sue Collins, in “‘E’ Ticket to NIKE Town, describes this tactic as “commodity fetishism.” It is “the kind of “magic” that occurs when we displace value as a product of human labor by projecting it onto objects as if the value were inherent. Marx described a commodity as a mysterious thing because ‘in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves but between the products of their labor.’” She continues as follows:
Fetishism in postmodern consumer culture entails emptying commodities of meaning or ‘hiding the real social relations objectified in them through human labor’ to make it ‘possible for the imaginary/symbolic social relations to be injected into the construction of meaning at a secondary level.’ Production, then, empties, and advertising fills, and in this way use value is subsumed by exchange value. The Nike swoosh and the Jordan brand as cultural commodities not only constitute a symbolic code, they also take on a system of significations, coded abstractions realized by “ideological labor,” to borrow from Baudrillard. In the fetish theory of consumption, the so-called magical substance of consumer products is really part of a generalized code of signs, what Baudrillard refers to as “a totally arbitrary code of difference, and that it is on this basis, and not at all on account of their use values or their innate ‘virtues,’ that objects exercise their fascination.”13 In advanced capitalism, objects lose any real connection with their practical utility and “instead come to be the material correlate (the signifier) of an increasing number of constantly changing, abstract qualities.”
Whether in the pain and suffering of those who labor in NIKE factories, or those who died over the shoes, we can see the damages resulting from commodity fetishism. “Wings” highlights the production of consumers obsessed with shoes not as a functional tool but as a commodity that encapsulates a myriad of narratives and signifiers.
What I wore, this is the source of my youth
This dream that they sold to you
For a hundred dollars and some change
Consumption is in the veins
And now I see it’s just another pair of shoes
This song spoke to me in so many ways: its message resonates with my own childhood experiences and my constant pledge of allegiance to the shoes (and the matching hats); it connects to the persistent inner battle between my critical self that understands commodity fetishism and the realities of worker conditions and the consumer in me that wants; and mostly it speaks to me as a father who increasingly struggles in helping my daughter see those shoes, sweatshirt, jeans, etc as neither sources of joy nor signifiers of cool but simply clothes. I am hoping that her generation will heed the message of “Wings” and not follow in the footsteps of the “it’s gotta be the shoes” generation.