My daughter and I both have a crush on Macklemore. They’re different crushes, but since the day The Heist was released, it’s been the only thing that either one of us has listened to. In the car, we sing along together. Loudly. Yup, it would make a great opening sequence in a Romantic Comedy, waspy mother and daughter rapping along to Macklemore in our Honda Fit on the streets of Seattle in our yoga gear. Yo.
Her crush is the regular kind. She’s only just now old enough to feel it, but still too young to really make sense of it. Mine is a different kind of crush. It’s almost maternal. I vacillate between imagining that he is my son, and I get to tell him how proud I am of him, or imagining that he is dating my daughter, and I get to tell her how much I like him. (In that version, obviously, she is about 10 years older than she really is.)
Either way, I have pretty much the same imaginary conversation with him. A conversation in which I acknowledge that he is such a good man. Not a perfect man. Maybe not the man I expected, but that I am utterly impressed by, and proud of, the values he so clearly states in nearly every song he sings.
I know how hard it is, because he is taking many stands that are diametrically opposed not only to the ecosystem of his genre—Hip Hop—but to the very ethos of our society. That what makes him a good man: that he is not perfect, that he has struggles and admits to them, that he sees what’s wrong in society and calls it out, that he takes a stand when it is hard, and that yes, he still has a damned good time. Even as he was breaking the mold of homophobic, materialistic, misogynistic asshole that Hip Hop seems to demand, he didn’t slingshot into the sanctimony and self-righteousness of perfection that is both unattainable and unappealing.
The unappealing part being perhaps the most important part, because it means that he has a chance to be heard by the people who most need to hear him. That is, young people—largely men—who are modeling their lives after a Hip Hop party culture, and need to learn a new tune. Because that consumer based homophobic, materialistic, misogyny just isn’t good for any of us—men or women. And if he, as a good man, is able to reach into the pockets of society that still foster that, then he has the chance to create great change. In a way that all the well-meaning folks like me, or campus activists, or religious leaders or anyone else just can’t. Because he can be like a Trojan Horse, get in, sing their song and change their tune
I imagine that I’d say, “Thanks, Ben.” “And he’d say, for what?” And my list would start:
1.Thanks for saying, in Starting Over, “I’d rather live tellin’ the truth and be judged for my mistakes than falsely held up, given props, loved and praised.” And in the same song, “If I can be an example of getting sober, I can be an example of starting over.”
Because in this day, when we put so much pressure on men (well, all people, really) to be perfect, and strong and brave we cause them to feel shame when they aren’t perfect and don’t feel strong, and are afraid. But those emotions are normal and human, and if we don’t tell men that, then they think they are failures. We don’t tell them it’s okay to talk through it, work through it and that in so doing we will get through it. I can tell them, but I’m just an old mom. They won’t listen to me. Thank you for telling them that. More than anything, thank you for that.
2. Thanks for the entire song Awake, but in particular for saying, “White privilege, white guilt, at the same damn time, so we just party like it’s nineteen ninety nine, celebrate the ignorance while these kids keep dying.”
I think that a lot of young, white, privileged people might think about this stuff now that you said it. And it’s okay to wonder if you have a right to fight “other people’s” battles. That’s a rather profound question, and the answer is yes. You can. Because the battle for human rights is complex and complete, it takes all of us.
3. Thanks for Neon Cathedral, and specifically for “Underneath this fragile frame lives a battle between pride and shame, but I’ve misplaced that sense of fright, this crown of thorns is perched atop my spine, but listen closely as I testify, dependency has been a thief at night.”
For those of us who have lost chunks of our life to dependency—whether our own or that of those we love—this is so real. And I cannot imagine a better way to ask of many of your listeners, deep in their inebriated party culture, what they are losing. We all build exteriors, images, personas, but what’s underneath them? For so many there is fear and shame. Maybe you gave people permission to admit that. That, as I think you know, is the first step to creating fundamental change in ourselves – and our culture.
4. Thanks for “the greatest trick that the devil ever pulled was convincing women that they looked better in their make-up,” in The Thin Line.
This one always garners as knowing wink from my daughter, the last of her friends to still go to school with her clean-scrubbed face. I have yet to untangle the “us wearing it or them wanting it” conundrum that is make-up. I have no objection to a bit here and there, but when I see it worn as a substitute for self-esteem, a security blanket of sorts, it makes me sad. And I’ve never known a guy who really liked it that much, so thank you for being the first Hip Hop guy I know of to tell women that it’s okay to be who we are. Yes, I know, we don’t need your permission, at least we shouldn’t, but we live in the real world, and we still want validation. And permission. So thanks. I’m gonna keep working on this one too. But maybe you can get other guys to pay attention, start looking at women as, you know, real people. Not dolls. That’d be great.
5. I’d be remiss to leave out my daughter’s favorite song, Wings, though it is not so easy to pull a quote out. But in this song, you so beautifully dismantle the myth of consumerism that is at the root of so many problems. I find this oddly akin to the make-up conundrum. Do we think we need fancy things to attract mates, or do we think the good mates are the ones with the fancy things? Either way, consumer culture is killing us, we are in debt for products we don’t need, can’t afford and are destroying the planet to own. In the case of the Nikes of your youth, we were willing to kill people for them. And you pick this up in many songs, that the focus on money is dehumanizing us. Thanks. We can tell our kids this all we want, they won’t listen. Thanks for doing it for us.
6. Which brings me to Thrift Shop. Really, what’s to say. This is a masterpiece against consumer culture in a way that, well, shit, it’s been said. $50 for a t-shirt? That’s ridiculous. Being a billboard for some brand that doesn’t respect you? Absurd. Looking like everyone else, sad. I’ve been shopping at that Goodwill on Dearborn since I was a kid, all through theater school, raised my girls there. Sometimes because we had to and couldn’t afford anything else, and eventually because it was, and still is, truly our favorite store. My oldest can tell you that in addition to everything you talk about in your song, every dollar raised in that store goes to give job-training to people on the margins of society who need a hand up. That everyone in there is getting training for their new life. That we are keeping things out of landfills and slowing the production of waste from production. Virtuous cycle. Celebrate that.
7. And no, I’m not going to ignore Same Love, even though it’s been talked about everywhere. And here’s why: I have the queerest family on the planet. My dad is gay. My fiancé’s mother is gay. He has two daughters with a lesbian couple, intentionally. We are a family, living our queer lives in the same neighborhood that you grew up in. When that song came out, we all sang it together. When gay marriage passed in Seattle, we put that song on. While wearing clothes from Goodwill, in the Central District at their house, and driving back to our house in Genesee Park.
So you see, as much as I am blown away by your meticulous dismantling of pervasive myths of consumerism, homophobia and misogyny in general, it is easy to imagine you as my son, because you are singing the songs that define the very soul of my life. A life of love, joy and freedom that I want for everyone. In their own way.
Which is why, when my fiancé and I marry this summer, with our giant bi-racial and exceptionally queer family, and our friends who reflect inclusion and integrity and joy in just as diverse a manner, our wedding song will be “Can’t Hold Us.” Because in that joyful number, you say it all. This is the moment.
My daughter said to me, as we were driving around the other day, “I’ll never forget when this album came out, it’s just one of those albums, ya know?” I do know. It’s the moment that something changed. Someone became a Hip Hop star, and showed us a new way to be a good person. A good man. That you can be wild and crazy, and still kind and thoughtful. That you can be afraid, and that’s what makes you brave when you fight on anyway. That you can define yourself without selling yourself, and without buying the crap that the myths of masculinity market to young men.
You did something big here. You are not perfect. I am sure other people will point your flaws out to you. And it is up to you to decide what matters to you and what doesn’t. I don’t want you to be perfect. I don’t want anyone to be. I like that you remind us that we don’t have to be. And that’s what makes you good. Actually, it’s what makes you fucking awesome.