Essay: In Defense of Macklemore and “Same Love”

Sections: Award Shows, Music, TV

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“Same Love,” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, is something groundbreaking. It’s a song, a rap song, getting major radio play and winning awards, that explicitly and unambiguously defends and extols same-sex love, while calling out hip-hop’s history of homophobia. It even begins with the lyric “when I was in the third grade, I thought I was gay.”

The song, first released as a single in the summer of 2012, has enjoyed a surprisingly long shelf life, building momentum in radio airplay throughout this past summer before winning MTV Video Music Awards last week for both “Best Hip-Hop Video” and “Best Video With a Social Message.” On those awards, so scandalized by Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke and “twerking,” the performance of “Same Love” was an unquestioned highlight:

Gay rights and gay pride anthems are nothing new; Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” was so clearly meant to be one that Ms. Gaga was criticized for pandering. Older songs like “I’m Coming Out” and “YMCA” were as well, though the times dictated some ambiguity. But “Same Love” is unique”- it’s lyrics speak frankly and truthfully about the subject, and it’s a good enough song that’s not overly preachy.

But now there’s some backlash against “Same Love.” By homophobes? The opposite, actually.

An openly gay rapper named Le1f, took to Twitter last week to rip Macklemore, while also accusing Macklemore and Lewis of ripping off a song of his for their earlier hit “Thrift Shop,” the tweets have been deleted, but according to various media reporters, Le1f accused Macklemore of profiting off of the plight of the gay community.

 Another essay last month, in the Village Voice, by Jay Stephens, while praising the song’s “good intentions,” accused Macklemore of “failing to take into account the socio-historical climate he is attempting to address.”

I can understand these arguments- and “Thrift Shop” is somewhat similar to Le1f’s song, though not egregiously so- but I disagree with them. That’s because I’m generally uncomfortable with the notion that an artist “can’t” or “has no business” making a certain statement, or recording a certain type of song. As for the idea that white performers don’t have any business performing rap? I kind of thought that became a moot point around the time “Licensed to Ill” was released.

Would the song be more effective coming from an openly LGBT performer? Perhaps it would. But then it would be a different song told from a different voice. And it’s not an either/or. Nobody ever said there could only be one hip-hop gay rights anthem. There’s more than one way to argue for LGBT equality, and more than one way to write a rap song. I hope there are many more songs like it, performed by many artists of many genres, races and sexual orientations.

Whether or not Macklemore is himself gay has been a matter of some conjecture in the media, although if the lyrics of “Same Love” can be taken at face value, he is not, and he referred to a female fiance in a recent appearance on Chelsea Lately. It’s also worth noting that Mary Lambert, the singer who perform’s the song’s first-person hook- “I can’t change/even if I tried/even if I wanted to”- is openly gay.

But regardless of the the singer’s orientation, isn’t releasing a popular pro-gay anthem preferable to, you know, not releasing a popular pro-gay anthem? Or, for that matter, releasing an anti-gay anthem?

It just shows how much the culture has changed, for the better, in a relatively short period of time. Barely ten years ago, another white rapper, Eminem, included violent, anti-gay lyrics on a couple of his songs, and having done so failed in any way to derail his path to the top of the music world. It’s hard to imagine, in 2013, a performer including the phrase “hate gays? the answer’s yes,” and not becoming a cultural pariah.

With so much cynicism being directed at music these days, both economically and artistically, from Miley on down, what Macklemore is doing, with “Same Love” especially, is legitimately refreshing. Both musically and politically, I’m glad it exists.

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