Number Ones: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis 'Same Love'

'Same Love'
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (ft. Mary Lambert)

The new #1 single in Australia this week is 'Same Love' by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (featuring Mary Lambert). It replaces Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's 'Thrift Shop' in the top position, which this week is at #3 after 7 weeks at #1 and going five times platinum.

There's been an odd trend recently where Australia has been ahead of the game compared to the U.S.; it's only this week that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have risen to #2 on the charts in the US with 'Thrift Shop'. Where the chorus vocal on 'Thrift Shop' was sung by Wanz, the vocalist on 'Same Love' is Mary Lambert, a Seattle songwriter who describes herself on her twitter profile as 'hella gay,' and who recently put out a poetry volume entitled '500 Tips For Fat Girls'. As with 'Thrift Shop', 'Same Love' appears to be self-released but distributed (and promoted) by Warner Music. The song was produced by Lewis, and written by Macklemore and Mary Lambert. The prominent piano part is played by Josh Rawlings.

'Same Love' is of course explicitly a political song, written to support a (successful) referendum in Macklemore's state, Washington, to legalise same-sex marriage. Protest songs—and especially protest songs where teachers have gotten suspended for playing the song—don't usually light up the charts. As far as I can tell, the last Australian #1 that you could classify as an explicitly political protest song (with the possible exception of 'Born This Way' by Lady Gaga, though that's more celebration than protest) is 'Where Is The Love' by Black Eyed Peas/Justin Timberlake in 2004, a protest song in the style of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' ( originally ummed and ahhed about releasing the song because he was worried about being perceived to be selling out, which is hilarious in hindsight).

Before that, the most recent protest songs at #1 in Australia were 1995's 'Zombie' by the Cranberries, which was about the political troubles in the band's native Ireland, and Julian Lennon's 'Saltwater' from 1992, which was a big hit, I suspect, because it sounded uncannily like the kind of 'environmental awareness' song that Julian's dad John would have written in 1992 were he still alive ('We're so ingenious we can walk on the moon / But when I hear of how the forests have died / Saltwater wells in my eyes"). 

So that's four protest songs at #1 in twenty years, and 'Same Love' is the first for almost a decade. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering their mass appeal, none of these other #1 protest songs take even remotely controversial stances on the topics they discuss. I suspect that even Gina Rinehart would basically agree that it's sad that the forests have died (though not sad enough, in her opinion, to stop mining because of all the $$$). Most people would kind of like there to be more love in the world. Most people thought the idea of Irish people fighting other Irish people (ostensibly because of different opinions on how much attention to pay to the Pope) was a terribly sad thing. And, basically, most people in Australia - and especially the overwhelming majority of the young people who buy singles - support same-sex marriage.

According to a Galaxy poll last year, 62% of Australians (and 81% of 18-24 year olds) support same-sex marriage. I mean, even the otherwise arch-conservative young Liberalette here supports gay marriage rights. Julia Gillard almost certainly must hate the fact that not supporting gay marriage was part of the price of getting the support of Joe de Bruyn, the head of the influential Shoppies union, in her stoush with Kevin Rudd (who incidentally voted against gay marriage last year) because it's probably actually costing her a point or two in the polls, all things considered, if the US is any guide.

Basically, the fact that a protest song like 'Same Love' is at #1 is proof that same-sex marriage is inevitable sooner rather than later. This is doubly so because 'Same Love' isn't an obvious chart-topper. The piano part/chord progression (which is almost identical to the rhythm and chords of the intro to John Mayer's 'Waiting On The World To Change') is catchy in its own way, but it doesn't beat you around the head the way that Flo Rida's whistles do. The sound of the song reminds me most of 'Susan's House' by Eels (or perhaps the indie-ish whiteboy rap of the likes of Aesop Rock), what with the piano and the way Macklemore more or less just talks over the beats, rather than trying very hard to get a good flow happening.

The right-on sentiments in his lyrics aren't expressed particularly artfully, and there's a lack of vivid imagery in the song; it sounds quickly written, and probably was. It's reasonably but not exceptionally catchy (where 'Thrift Shop' really was insidiously catchy). The "I can't change" bit at the start of Mary Lambert's chorus is memorable, though the chorus as a whole doesn't stick in the mind quite as strongly as Thrift Shop's "this is fucking awesome" hook. It's also not exactly the kind of upbeat party music that regularly finds a place amongst the top of the charts (I mean, and Britney Spears have spent the last 5 weeks at #2).

The best part of the song, by some measure, is Mary Lambert's chorus. She sings her part of the song beautifully, with real feeling. When she sings "my love, she keeps me warm", it's not an attack on religion or the right-wing -- it's not some glitter-strewn Mardi Gras party thing that straight people don't quite get (not that there's anything wrong with that...etc), it's just that she loves who she loves. The simplicity of her words very effectively create empathy for same-sex relationships; almost everybody has experienced not being able to help who you love, and almost everybody has experienced the relationship between physical warmth and love. Where Macklemore comes off tonally as a little self-absorbed and preachy, for better or worse, Lambert's vocals really brings home the anguish that the current legislation causes the LGBT community.

So, as far as I can tell, 'Same Love' being at #1 isn't because of its musical genius or because it's making the kind of music people want to hear; it's not that they're not putting up with the lyrics because they like the rest of the song. The song is almost certainly a hit specifically because of its message; it's in the right place at the right time. Same-sex marriage, along with climate change, is one of the main progressive cause célèbres of our time; while Australia has plenty of other issues that also merit sustained public action, this is one that (young) people seem to feel closest to their hearts.

So why isn't gay marriage legalised in Australia yet? Beyond the existence of homophobes and old people who dislike new and bewildering changes that wouldn't have happened in their day, the main issue is, of course, religion. Macklemore addresses this, rapping that 'And 'god loves all his children' is somehow forgotten / but we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago'.

I personally feel that the strong resistance on this issue from church leaders is because they remember a time when they had a bigger part to play in people's everyday lives. When they were more respected in secular discourse; when more people valued their opinions on moral questions. They remember a time before anyone paid attention to that 'militant' atheist Richard Dawkins saying nasty things about them; when they didn't get openly contradicted by sinful young women like Catherine Deveny in public. And the part of Australian life that church leaders do still get some say in is in matters of marriage. Marriage ceremonies are one of the few times that the majority of Australians actually see the insides of a church.

So when people argue - against 2000 years of tradition and a variety of allegedly unambiguous Biblical verses - that gay marriage should be legal, many (though not all) church leaders see it as an all-powerful secular society trying to attack and diminish one of the last centres of power that religion still has. Either that, or many religious leaders are old people who dislike new and bewildering changes that wouldn't have happened in their day. Possibly a combination of both. The Catholic Church, a church with a long history of wielding political power, is using all its influence to stop same-sex marriage from happening. It's probable that Joe De Bruyn's Catholic principles are the reason why Gillard doesn't support gay marriage, while Tony Abbott refused to allow his Cabinet ministers a conscience vote on gay marriage because he's a leader with Catholic principles. But there will come a point where Tony Abbott will not have that kind of power, and where a Labor leader will not have to rely on the support of Joe De Bruyn. Soon.

Anyway, perhaps the most controversial part of the song, in some internet circles, is the bit where Macklemore criticises the hip-hop community for overusing words like 'faggot' and 'gay' as insults. Macklemore is, of course, a white dude. While he claims to identify as part of the hip-hop community, there is some skepticism about whether this should be taken seriously. His two big hits specifically criticise hip-hop culture and, well, 'Same Love' sounds more like Eels than Eazy-E. Additionally, in the US at the moment, there's this weird situation Macklemore is at #1 in the R&B/hip-hop sales chart (where chart compilers Billboard have made some reasonably arbitrary judgements about what genre consists of) and absolutely nowhere in the R&B/hip-hop airplay charts. That is, people are buying 'Thrift Shop' on iTunes, and it sounds like hip-hop to Billboard, so they put it in their hip-hop chart. However, the radio stations listened to by black people (i.e., where the data for the airplay charts comes from) aren't touching Macklemore with a ten foot pole. Black people—or at least their radio programmers—don't seem to be too knocked out by the white dude telling them that bling is stupid, or that they're being dicks when they use words like 'faggot', what with that fairly long history in the US of white people telling black people what to do.

In fairness to the black hip-hop community, it's not 1992 anymore. Once upon a time, the massive amounts of casual homophobia and misogyny in songs like Dr Dre's 'Fuck Wit Dre Day' were run-of-the-mill. But if you still think hip-hop is as virulently homophobic as it used to be, you haven't really been paying attention. If we take the kind of rappers who are household names: Kanye West spoke out in favour of gay rights as long ago as 2005, while Jay-Z made a show of supporting President Obama when he came out in favour of gay marriage last year. Snoop Dogg, who voiced some of the homophobic lines in 'Fuck Wit Dre Day', now supports gay marriage. Eminem, who once made a lot of people angry because of his use of the word 'faggot'? You guessed it, he now supports gay marriage! Macklemore might not be getting played on hip-hop radio stations, but 'Thinkin Bout You' by Frank Ocean is #5 right now on the Billboard R&B/hiphop airplay charts. And in case you missed the hoopla about Ocean outing himself as not 100% heterosexual, 'Thinkin Bout You' doesn't try very hard to hide the fact that it's a song written by a man about a man, and is called 'Thinkin Bout You'. Which is getting a lot of airplay on black radio.

A black rapper, Murs, this year released a song from the point of view of a gay teenager. Mind you, this is not to pretend that hip-hop culture is suddenly totally right on: this tumblr has a fairly encyclopaedic list of hip-hop stars (including those mentioned above) relatively recently saying things that LGBT people will be offended by. Murs did get comments along these lines on YouTube: "lol @ this homo shit. murs is a wack ass fruit. fuck fags." But if an alien race were to judge all of humanity by the worst comments on YouTube, they'd fry us quick smart. You can find homophobic YouTube comments on videos by metal bands, by country bands, and by indie bands. Hip-hop can still do this better, but there are encouraging signs of real change.

Still, these arguments about hip-hop culture and definitions and genres are beside the point as far as the Australian fans of the song are concerned. For the great majority of people in Australia who listen to, say, Jay-Z or Snoop Dogg, hip-hop culture and the cultural faultlines that surround it are a distant abstraction, not a part of life. Plenty of young'uns who've heard and liked 'Same Love' will have typed "that's so gay" in a comment to a Facebook post by some teenager complaining about their parents on Facebook. If listening to the song makes these kids less likely to type that kind of thing, it's hard to see the song as a bad thing. After all, less comments like that could make confused young LGBT people feel a little less alienated, a little more likely to believe that it gets better.


Tim Byron

profile of TimByron

2 comments so far..

  • arimerialc's avatar
    Date and time
    Wednesday 23 Jan 2013 - 12:50 AM
    This is a thorough and well considered article, but I kinda feel like the conclusion you arrived at in the final paragraph is quite obvious to begin with, being that the main aim/success of this song is shifting perspectives and provoking change within mainstream youth culture, the key demographic to which the song appeals; rather than the more specific black hip-hop/R&B community.
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  • TimByron's avatar
    Date and time
    Wednesday 23 Jan 2013 - 11:04 AM
    arimerialc - thanks! Re: the conclusion, sure, obvious conclusion is obvious. There are definitely books that can be (and have been) written about how much a song can change minds and how worthwhile political songs are, what with the tension between mass appeal and saying controversial things, and writing about that would have been another 1000 words. But honestly I suspect that Macklemore wouldn't have dreamed that the song would appeal to kids in mainstream youth culture.
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