January 27, 2014

Why Macklemore Isn’t The Problem

People are really upset that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won 4 of the 7 Grammy Awards they were nominated for, anger that’s even more pointed by the fact that everybody’s favorite rapper Kendrick Lamar was nominated for 5 awards and took home none. Hip hop heads all over used Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ win to protest the fall of hip hop. This is the end of hip hop, this is the end of music, forget Macklemore and his boring music. (Sometimes, the critiques are even more hateful.)

But this anti-Macklemore vitriol didn’t start last night. Ever since Macklemore and Ryan Lewis became a household name with a timely viral music video that has been seen nearly half a billion times, people have used their rise to fame to shout out loud about the demise of hip hop, cultural appropriation, and straight white male privilege.

And it’s not just anger coming from hip hop fans. It’s anger for songs like “Same Love,” a track about gay rights which has made a lot of gay activists, queer performers, and gay people themselves really angry that a straight white male is using his all of his socio-cultural privileges to rap about stuff that’s not even relevant to him.

People are angry because they see Macklemore as the Great Cultural Appropriation Artist, a form that has a storied history in popular culture. But at the risk of alienating practically everyone, I think we need to slow our critiques of him down and leave Macklemore and Ryan Lewis alone because they are not the problem. Even if you hate their brand of hipster pop rap, it’s their brand, they make great music and are good at what they do. The real issue is the whole system that prefers artists like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and lets them to the top to the exclusion of others.

So if you want to get mad — and I hope you are pissed as shit — get mad at the system, not the artist.

It’s worth noting that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, as well as their highly rated record The Heist, are entirely self-produced and self-released. As far as I know, they are not attached to a major label like nearly every other artist who was nominated this year. The Heist succeeded partially because of the music video for “Thrift Shop,” which has by now been seen almost 500 million times. That’s a lot of views for an artist that is not signed to a major label and doesn’t have that kind of machinery behind them.

This makes Macklemore and Ryan Lewis artists of the “attention economy,” an economic system that is based not on money or talent but on how much attention you can drum up in the culture. The basic premise of the attention economy is that because we are all so connected to each other via the internet and social media, and because we are literally inundated with information and ideas and things to consume at all times of the day, the real task of any person who wants great success is to grab attention. But we can only pay attention to so many things. If you can capture our attention it, you can be a star. Release a sex tape. Have a political scandal. Get a viral YouTube video — anything that will get people talking about you. The more attention you can get, the more people talk about you, the more interviews you do, the more you circulate, the more famous you get, the more products you sell.

We used to say that “talk is cheap.” But in an attention economy, sometimes talk is all there is.

I’d like to believe that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis wanted to create a good record, having no clue that in a year they’d end up where they are today. People drop records all the time, but only a select few make it. Case-in-point: Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP, called ARTFLOP by many, was a record that came with a lot of hype, promises and buzz, but which went practically nowhere. So you might say that despite their obvious talent, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ rise to fame was a complete accident.

The gays are mad at Macklemore because of a song he did about gay people, upset that he speaks out about gay rights issues at every chance. But isn’t this what Lady Gaga is doing and has based her entire career image on? Why is it different when a straight white guy does it, particularly in a homophobic music and celebrity industry where virtually no males, of any color, are speaking out about gay issues?

So you might say that despite their obvious talent, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ rise to fame was a complete accident.

The problem is that the amazing queer rappers out there that do exist are not getting recognition they deserve. That’s not Macklemore’s fault. But what would happen if Macklemore and Ryan Lewis did a song with Mykki Blanco, or Big Dipper, or Le1f, or House of Ladosha, all mainstays on the queer hip hop scene? What if he used his newfound cultural influence to highlight some of those artists, turning speech about gay rights and recognition into action?

We could talk for days about the white appropriation of black music and of black cultural forms and, to be clear, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis sweeping the rap categories at the Grammys is not the same thing as Miley Cyrus and Twerk-gate. But that conversation would get us literally nowhere.

At the end of the day, the Grammys are awards voted on by peers in the music industry. So the fact that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis swept the rap categories has less to do with them and more to do with the voting body who willfully overlooked talented folks like Kendrick Lamar.

Macklemore
Macklemore

And, honestly? For real for real? Who the fuck cares about a fucking Grammy? Yeah it sounds nice when you’re introduced on television and it looks great on the reissue of your record. But if you are a talented artist, who believes in the work you do, who makes the best music you can, and if those are the kinds of artists you are drawn to, so what if they don’t win some dumb award? One of my favorite musicians didn’t win in his category, but do you see me going apeshit about it?

It’s like Jay Z said when he accepted his umpteenth award: “I wanna tell Blue that, look — daddy got a gold sippy cup for you!” That’s all a Grammy is: a sippy cup!

So if you are mad — and you should be — go out and buy the music of your favorite hip hop and queer hip hop artists, don’t download it illegally. Write blog posts about them. Introduce your friends to them. Pitch stories about them to your favorite music magazines and blogs. See them when they come to your town or city. Engage with them in meaningful ways. An angry Tweet or a scholarly blog post about cultural appropriation is not going to make a single dent in a cultural system that, at the end of the day, cares about sales and whiteness. Real talk. TC mark