I’ve been reticent to say much of anything about Macklemore, and for admittedly precious reasons: as a white male, I didn’t want to come off as presuming to speak for anybody in the communities most impacted by the terms of the debate. The other — probably more relevant — reason is that I simply think his music is boring.
But now, in the wake of his performance at last night’s Grammys and his winning four statues, the controversies about both him and “Same Love” have reemerged. It seems clear that this song has for better or for worse become one of the most emblematic of the past year. Progressives and radicals are once again debating what the popularity of a song like this means, raising issues from appropriation to straight up plagiarism.
To be clear, both sides of this debate have valid points; what seems missing from the debate is a more unified view that takes each into account. Doing so might give culturally-minded radicals a better idea of the relationship between audience and industry, and (most importantly) how the latter should be approached and opposed. So, in order, a few obvious observations.
The popularity of gay-friendly songs in mainstream music is important. The performance of a song like “Same Love” on the Grammys telecast, as well as its existence on the radio, the charts and television is an expression of the contemporary push for queer liberation. It has positive knock on effects. Please note the wording here: I do not say that the song itself is an expression of the fight for queer lib (that really would be akin to saying that straight white folks are in the best place to express this struggle) merely that its existence — the allowance for songs like these to take a place as high as they have — is a reflection of this struggle. As we venture further into the superstructure we can see how this becomes at best more mixed, but it is worth taking stock the broadest implications of the song. It definitely means something that this was what was broadcast into millions of homes on Sunday night:
It is naturally riven with all the self-congratulatory spectacle of the music industry. But its message — problematic though it is — likely made it to some far-flung places where young people may not have access to supportive communities.
China Mieville, science fiction author and Marxist, recounted this in his talk on “Guilty Pleasures” at Socialism 2012, which directly relates to this particular conversation:
I was talking to a gay friend, and I was excoriating “Will & Grace” on the grounds that it’s crap and an appalling piece of queer minstrelism and, you know, really grotesque and so on and so forth. And he said to me “all true, but if it had been on when I was fourteen years old I would have felt a lot less lonely.”
This is prescient. Young LGBTQ people still deal with all of the realities of growing up in a society that remains virulently queerphobic: the isolation, the alienation, the shunning by family members and friends that can take a real toll. And this is to say nothing of violence; real, horrifying and quite common. Should the line be then that that working class queer folk should “consider themselves lucky” that these songs are out there? Of course not. But nor should we assume that a songs like these don’t make a difference in the emotional lives of ordinary queer kids. Saying definitively that hearing a song like this on Top 40 radio will save a young person’s life may be perhaps glib and melodramatic, but it would also be glib to dismiss such possibilities off-hand.
Macklemore does not shape the terms on which he enters the fray of political advocacy. Those terms, given that he is a recording artist, are shaped primarily by the record industry. That promoters have felt comfortable pushing singles such as these is, again, a sign of progress that should neither be overblown nor discounted, but there are no doubt countless strings that come attached.
Those strings are in the form of race and sexual orientation. It may say something that powerful personalities in the music industry see a song such as this as worth lauding. But it says just as much that they see a song such as this being performed by a straight, white artist as worth lauding too. This is just the nature of the music industry, and goes far beyond Macklemore’s reach.
That being said, he does have more agency than one might prima facie believe. Most artists such as him will at one point or another come up against the resistance of their record label, who may or may not be comfortable with putting out songs such as his. Not Macklemore. He owns the label that released his album, which has by now gone Platinum. This doesn’t mean that he’s now a millionaire; there are plenty of expenses he likely has coming his way particularly because he’s the owner of a label that has a grand total of one big-selling release on its roster, but questions about whether he’s giving any money back to the cause carry a bit more weight than if he were on some big label that was keeping him in debt well after his second release. Nonetheless, there are far more powerful forces that have been a defining influence on the shape of the music industry: distro companies, other major labels, radio stations and communications companies, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Unless he is somehow appointed head of NARAS tomorrow, Macklemore is playing their game.
The way that Macklemore has gone about explaining his stance against homophobia has been intensely problematic. There are two layers to this. First, he has frequently pitched his criticisms squarely in the context of hip-hop. It can be heard clearly in lyrics like “If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me.”
A theorist or activist he most certainly is not, but when one takes into account the ways in which hip-hop constantly has a double standard applied to it (just look at all the energy spent on criticizing Kanye’s misogyny while letting that of the Pixies off the hook) much of what the rapper says leads into some rather unsavory directions. This is from Wikipedia (and yes, you may now start to howl about how amateurish I am for “citing” Wikipedia):
Macklemore explained that the song also came out of his own frustration with hip hop’s positions on homosexuality. “Misogyny and homophobia are the two acceptable means of oppression in hip hop culture. It’s 2012. There needs to be some accountability. I think that as a society we’re evolving and I think that hip hop has always been a representation of what’s going on in the world right now.”
There is no “position” on LGBTQ lifestyles in hip-hop. At least certainly none that is hegemonic. Misogyny and homophobia are “the two acceptable means of oppression” not just in hip-hop culture but everywhere. Hip-hop is not the reason that queer kids are being assaulted and killed on the streets of New York and Moscow. Hip-hop is not the reason that women are cat-called, harassed and sexually assaulted. It is a multi-faceted, endlessly diverse art-form that spans poor communities of color across the whole planet, and it brings with it the baggage of society just like rock, pop, electro, dance, punk and every other style. The idea that hip-hop specifically has a “homophobia problem” smacks highly of those who blamed the Black community for the passage of Prop 8. Whether this is how Macklemore intends his words makes little to no difference — it is how they will be spun.
America’s cultural legacy is built on stolen Black culture, and this is not being acknowledge nearly enough in the mainstream. This is where the second level comes up: the criticisms of queer rapper Le1f. If Macklemore did indeed rip off the beat for “Thrift Shop” from Le1f, then it doesn’t bode well at all for Macklemore.
This past year has been a rough one as far as race and music are concerned. Of all the number one singles, not one was recorded by a Black artist. Awards shows have similarly snubbed artists of color all year. Because, you know, post-racial society and all…
Macklemore’s own public ideas on race have over the past year appeared, to be honest, rather mixed. He texted Kendrick Lamar to apologize to him for winning the best rap album Grammy (not an expression of racial ideology per se, but many have rightfully pointed out that Kendrick’s far superior song likely didn’t win because its author is Black). He dedicated his American Music Award to the memory of Trayvon Martin. He also has yet to utter a word about stealing Le1f’s beats, and has appropriated Mexican imagery and used Black women as props in one of his videos. In the context of this, statements coming from this Black, queer rapper cannot be brushed aside so easily in this. Particularly because there has long been a thriving queer subculture in hip-hop generally.
None of these factors — pointed to by many a commentator — exist independently; in fact, they depend upon each other. The promotion of a pro-gay song may be a signal of progress, but it’s progress that the establishment needs expressed in as narrow a way as possible. Piecemeal, incremental, and without letting on to the fact that different types of oppression always reinforce one another. Social movements may puncture the bubble of the entertainment industry, and may do so quite often; a fundamental change, however, requires it all to be turned on its head by collective power that puts everybody in, nobody out.
Those who focus on the positives of Macklemore’s success without acknowledging there are some serious shortcomings both in how he presents himself and is presented are implicitly saying that the struggle is almost over. Of course, it’s not. Far from it in fact.
Likewise, the side of the argument that speaks only of Macklemore’s skewed take on race and of how problematic his conception of straight allyship is forget that there is a whole edifice of power that he as an individual artist is powerless to change.
Both are dismissive of the ways in which the music industry, in its clumsy attempt at granting some form of concession or progress, may have also opened the door for cultural radicals to push a broader, more egalitarian-minded and artistically nuanced aesthetic. In order to do that, however, we have to speak of the contradictions in the same breath. If we can pull that off we may find ourselves capable of building something akin to a more radical counter-culture.
Case in point: Angel Haze’s version of “Same Love.”
A woman of color who outwardly rejects any label of sexual orientation, taking the beats of a white artist to tell her own story — which, I would argue, is notably more emotional and effective. The music industry has no idea how to handle her; they basically sat on her debut until she went rogue and released it online in defiance.
This is what it comes back to. It is all, if I may of course use a rather hackneyed paraphrase, bigger than Macklemore. It’s about how much room there is to build a culture that actually does speak for all of us. Perhaps the raging debate about the significance of this moment means that we’re a couple inches closer to that. Which isn’t to deny the thousands of miles we still have in front.