A lot has been said about Macklemore's "Same Love," a explicitly and politically pro-gay anthem that recently received both Best Hip Hop Music Video and Best Music Video With a Message at the MTV VMAs — perhaps essentially meaningless awards, but still indicative of a big Cultural Moment.
Writing epic, rousing pro-LGBT songs has become a bit of a cultural trend: Lady Gaga has "Born This Way," Katy Perry has "Firework," and Ke$ha has "We R Who We R." While the only one to explicitly mention gay rights in her lyrics is Gaga ("No matter gay, straight, or bi,/Lesbian, transgendered life,/I'm on the right track, baby"), the music video for "Firework" features two gay teenagers making out, and Ke$ha has stated in interviews that "We R Who We R" was written after reading about a rash of suicides by gay teenagers. According to her, it's meant to be an anthem for “who haven’t felt accepted because of their sexuality," to encourage people to "[be] themselves unapologetically.”
Macklemore takes this concept a bit further: expending with the vague platitudes about "accepting yourself, no matter what that self might be like!!!" — a message that's intentionally nebulous enough to escape backlash or controversy — he tackles homophobia head-on. He told the New York Times that the idea to compose the rap came after (like Ke$ha) he read about a gay teenager who'd committed suicide after being bullied and that he'd also wanted to support his two gay uncles. As a result, he's become a symbol for queer hip-hop in the mainstream imaginary.
Some have taken issue with this. Le1f, a queer rapper, took to Twitter after the VMAs in a series of irate Tweets, the majority of which have been deleted. "news just in: gay people don't care about your video about gay people," he wrote. Also: "that time that a straight white dude ripped off my song then made a video about gay interracial love and made a million dollars." and "do proceeds go to any gay people? the HRC? Aids foundation? or does this straight white man keep the money?" and "I'm gonna write a song about disabled people, or the aboriginal struggle. cuz mama needs a new fur coat. oh wait, that's evil."
There's something unsettling and frustrating about watching a straight, white dude step in from the sidelines and decide to champion an issue — "Oh, wow, reading this article about a gay teen committing suicide makes me realize that it must be very hard to be gay! Let me just write a rap real quick to help that movement gain acceptance." Can we only palate rights movements once they have a privileged figurehead? And what right does a straight man — whose connection to the LGBT community is so tenuous that gay teenagers committing suicide from bullying was news to him — have telling the queer community that they're totally okay, don't worry, you're people too? As Tyler Coates argues at Flavorwire:
[T]he notion of a straight white man rapping about how it’s OK to be gay didn’t seem like the kind of thing for me. I mean, I know it’s OK to be gay. Most of those I know in the LGBT community know it’s ok to be queer, too. And here’s a surprise for the heterosexual world: most of us didn’t learn from you anything about understanding and appreciating ourselves. “Same Love” is Acceptance for Dummies, essentially, a song for those who need to be told by one of their own that those who are different from them are human beings, too, and deserving of the same respect as anyone else.
I don't want to denigrate what Macklemore has accomplished with this song: "Same Love" is the first song that explicitly embraces and promotes gay marriage to make it into the Top 40; it had a significant hand in passing Referendum 74 in Washington state; it features Mary Lambert, an openly lesbian singer. And, according to the New York Times, Macklemore did donate some of the proceeds to the advocacy group Washington United for Marriage. Furthermore, I cried a little bit while watching the music video at work (although I'm not the best judge of what constitutes as tear-jerking, since my eyes still well with tears every time I even think about the Budweiser Clydesdales Superbowl ad). The message is touching, and it's unarguably necessary.
The song's existence is a good thing, no question. But we have to ask ourselves: at what point does advocating for someone turn into speaking for them?
Furthermore, as Coates points out, it's troubling that the VMA category for "Best Music Video With a Message" exists in the first place. It's clear that artists stand to gain from taking up the right activist cause; as of now, supporting gay rights is profitable. This isn't to say that profit and good PR are the only incentives: Macklemore was very involved in passing gay marriage legislation in Washington State; Lady Gaga is a fierce gay rights advocate who has given millions to gay rights organizations; Katy Perry has long supported the Trevor Project and recently publicly called out the Australian Prime Minister for his stance on gay marriage; and Ke$ha has supported several gay rights organizations as well as the American Foundation for AIDS research.
However, as a straight man who intentionally wrote a gay anthem, Macklemore simultaneously has the freedom to adopt the cause and the distance from gayness itself to avoid being branded a "faggot" (N.B.: Lady Gaga and Ke$ha have both come out as bisexual). Macklemore is free to champion gay rights because he doesn't have to endure all the vitriol that gay rappers must endure on a daily basis. I think it's fairly telling that he declares himself straight in the opening lines of the rap:
When I was in the 3rd grade
I thought that I was gay
Cause I could draw, my uncle was,
And I kept my room straight
I told my mom, tears rushing down my face
She's like, "Ben, you've loved girls since before Pre-K!"
He goes on to lampoon gay stereotypes, but still — to me, this comes across as a bit "guys, stop saying 'no homo,' but also, no homo. Please download my single."
Being a gay rapper is wildly different than being a straight rapper-cum-gay rights advocate. When Le1f debuted his video for "Wut" — a song whose beat sounds a lot like the beat of Macklemore's "Thrift Shop," which was released 4 months after "Wut" — the homophobic reactions in the comments sections of mainstream hip hop sites were nothing short of horrifying. Bossip titled their article about him "See What Frank Ocean Started?" — because one gay artist spoils the bunch, as the old homophobic adage goes. Similarly, magazines and media outlets lumped every gay rapper into one category, regardless of the stylistic differences between them — because, apparently, when you're gay, you're always gay before you're anything else.
There are tons of queer rappers in the world; because none of them present the cheery, platitudinous take on the LGTB experience that Macklemore does, none of their songs have become a symbol for "gay rights in rap" the way that "Same Love" has. The idea that "gay rights are human rights" and gay love is just like straight love is easily consumable because it's simple and, as Coates insinuates, dumbed-down. There's no need in articulating a sentiment like "If I was gay, I'd think hip-hop hates me/Have you read the YouTube comments lately?" if you're a queer rapper, because, yeah, duh, that sentiment is your quotidian reality. It's not a shock; it goes without saying.
So, while it's great that Macklemore has taken a concrete statement about gay rights into the Top 40, it's worth noting that he hasn't taken the LGBT perspective into the Top 40 — and acting as though he's the first hip-hop artist to champion the gay cause is pretty specious. It's wonderful that a gay anthem written by a straight man for straight people has entered cultural consciousness! But we still have a long way to go: a gay anthem written by an actual gay person that explores the queer experience with more nuance and realism would be even better.