I’ve been in a funk lately. A writing funk, a general happiness funk… basically I’ve been a walking avatar for a certain James Brown song.
Duke’s Saturday overtime loss to Syracuse — a symphony of raised and dashed hopes — can be blamed for a portion of this malaise, but my blog block dates all the way back to Grammy night. It started with a simple mistake — following along on Twitter. What I saw was as disheartening as it was difficult to detach myself from, this strange and sad parade of cynicism that was chuckle-worthy one minute, homophobic the next, and mean all the way through. I can’t imagine last year was all smiles and kittens, and I enjoyed the jokes about Pharrell’s hat as much as anyone else, but something felt different this time.
One difference is clear — I had an emotional stake in one of the groups that drew the sharpest criticism. I’ve been a fan of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis since October of 2012, when I discovered “Thrift Shop” via Reddit. I loved it for all the reasons listed here. It was fun and clever, with a message that rang true for me (“$50 for a t-shirt…”). Then I heard “Same Love,” and my respect for the duo grew. I think people of the same sex should be able to marry one another, and I saw the group’s participation in the campaign to sway Washington’s referendum on marriage equality as admirable. Doing the right thing. The song never seemed perfect, but it felt profoundly good to me, in the way that certain people or actions strike you as a net positive in/to/for the world. As a result, I watched the duo’s rise in notoriety with glee, like I was watching close friends succeed at the thing they’re most passionate about. Now, I’m watching with despair as their names and music are maligned in all sorts of ways.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about this, because there’s a lot to say, and it’s not the easiest subject matter to wade through. Race. Sexual orientation. Cultural appropriation. This is swampy stuff, and I have to admit to feeling a little out of my depth. I don’t have advanced degrees in any related fields, and my familiarity with the term “cultural appropriation” dates only as far back as the release of Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” video. I’m also biased in a way that I have to acknowledge and account for. Like Macklemore, I am white, male, straight and strongly in favor of marriage equality. Throw in a fervent love for crate digging at thrift shops and I may be the most biased person in this situation whose name isn’t Ben Haggerty or Ryan Lewis.
That said, there are a few things I have to say or I’ll be mad at myself for not saying them. You can decide how much weight they carry, based on the disclaimers I provided in the previous paragraph. I apologize in advance for how sanctimonious some of them are.
I guess I’d like to start where I first encountered Grammys-related negativity — Twitter. When I first tried to write this post, I thought about doing an acerbic “Guide to Tweeting While Watching the Grammys,” but I decided against it. Fighting snark with snark seems like the wrong way to go. But I do want to share the header for one of the tips I had planned to include:
When you’re tweeting in reaction to the Grammys, say things you’d be willing to say to artists’ faces.
This is violated in such a widespread way that it’s hard to fathom, like in a sci-fi movie when the scene starts with a shot of a seemingly large part of an enemy spaceship, but the camera keeps zooming out and zooming out until the breathtaking size of the thing finally comes into view and you’re absolutely terrified. No one is completely innocent here, and it’s human nature to take frustrations out by saying things to other people behind their backs, but is it too much to ask that you only say things online that you’d be willing to say to someone’s face? Presumably, the people you’re tweeting or blogging about have the Internet, so you kind of are saying it to their faces, only it’s more like you’re yelling it at them from a passing car, which has to be the most cowardly form communication in existence. If something mean and clever you said was retweeted a hundred times, would that make you happy? Would you feel guilty? Let’s say your one-liner got you a job writing an entertainment column for a local arts and culture magazine — would you feel pressure to keep the schtick going? Negativity drives web traffic like crazy, it’s true, but egging that on is like stoking the fire on (an apparently old-timey) runaway train — you’re only making it harder to stop.
I have views on negative music criticism that venture into the extreme (I need to be convinced on a regular basis that negative reviews hold value, even though I know deep down they do), and I know that some of these views aren’t entirely rational or defensible. But there is one point about the longer-form Macklemore bashing that I think is worth asserting, and it has to do with accusations that his music is exploitative. As I see it, there are at least two distinct levels to cultural appropriation. There’s the face-value fact of it: Did this white person write and record a rap song? Did this straight person join the campaign for marriage equality? That level is easy. Clearly Haggerty did both of those things. Then there’s the deeper, trickier level of what a person’s motivations are. If you want to say someone’s music is exploitative, you need to be able to show that there’s selfishness or malice involved. Unless you truly believe that white people can’t be rappers and straight people can’t campaign for LGBT causes, this second level is where you should be judging Haggerty for being (or not being) an exploiter of someone else’s culture.
The reason this is so tricky is that we can’t see inside people’s brains. We just can’t. We can collect facts, study artists’ behavior and watch them spend their money, but we can’t read their minds. If you’re a critic, and you’re claiming with certainty that Haggerty is exploiting a black art form or an LGBT cause — unless he told you something he didn’t tell the rest of us — you’re pretending to be a mind reader. I think we can all agree that a white person who raps solely for the purpose of gaining notoriety and/or making money is doing something wrong, and that a straight person who campaigns for marriage equality solely for the purpose of gaining notoriety and/or making money is doing something wrong, but do you really think that’s what’s going on here? The knowable facts aren’t in your favor. Haggerty has a gay uncle who is in a committed relationship, so it’s reasonable to think that he’s personally invested in the issue of marriage equality. He used profits from “Same Love” to help marriage equality pass in Washington, so money can’t be his only motivator. He’s made a great deal of money from his other tracks, and you could argue that the benefits from “Same Love” spill over, but given that only about half of America supports marriage equality, it’s not unreasonable to assume that taking this stand has negated some of those gains. Were he rapping purely for money or notoriety, releasing that track wouldn’t make sense. It would be an illogical risk. All the evidence I see points to an artist who is using a medium honorably to promote a just cause.
Then again, I could be wrong. He could be fleecing all of us. Furthermore, he could be fleecing himself! Reading other people’s minds is impossible, but reading our own minds is almost as tough. Haggerty could be telling himself that he loves hip-hop, and that he wants his uncle to be happy, while deep down in his soul he’s a ruthless Machiavellian who wants money and power and will write and record anything to get them. I have to admit if I’m following my own logic that it’s a possibility. I just don’t think that’s the case, and I think thinking that it’s the case is a sign of a type of cynicism that obscures truth. Criticism can be so rewarding and revealing, and everyone is entitled to his or her own interpretation of a song, but assaulting someone’s character without having any evidence to back your accusations up isn’t criticism. Say Haggerty’s music sucks. Whatever. Say Kendrick Lamar should have won Best Rap Album. I’ll agree with you, just as Haggerty did before and after the ceremony. Just don’t collect money for writing elaborate take-down articles in which you claim to know the internality of someone you’ve never met. It’s unethical.
Music has an amazing tradition of being on the cutting edge of tolerance and social justice. I never get sick of hearing stories about how music brings people together, about how Stax records was an oasis of racial tolerance in Memphis in the early sixties, about how musicians on opposite sides of contentious political situations can find common ground in the sheet music they’re sharing. Music must be at the vanguard of this stuff, and I saw in the “Same Love” mass wedding a bold renewal of that promise. There was meaning there that transcended the awards themselves. There were real tears of joy on those couples’ faces, and if you couldn’t feel the goosebumpy grace that those new husbands and wives exuded, I’m sorry. It wasn’t perfect. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are far from perfect. But I don’t think they’re the exploitative bandits people are making them out to be. I just don’t.
I’m posting “Same Love” below because I stand by it, and I’m determined not to let it go down as some sort of mistake. The mistake is staying silent when your friends and neighbors are being denied basic human rights. Let’s not forget it.