A little over a week ago, the folks at NYU Press approached me about writing something for their blog, From the Square: something that addressed the “continuation of [my] work’s themes, or an op-ed piece related to LGBT issues” for June, aka National Pride Month. Because I’ve had a great working relationship with the press as an author and as a book series editor, I agreed to write a brief “thought piece” about a song I’d recently heard on the radio. About my visceral response to hearing its message, what it sounded like, and how it addressed—or failed to address—a queer pop politics resonant with my own point of view.
I wrote the piece with a very specific audience in mind: queer studies scholars, and folks who happened to have read my book, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries. You know, the typical readers of an academic press blog, which in my mind tapped out at a couple of hundred self-selecting folks, max. I wrote the piece with an eye (and ear) towards subtlety and nuance, as many academics—specifically literary and gender studies scholars like me—are wont to do.
I wrote about how Macklemore’s Billboard Hot 100 hit (which never broke the Top-40), “Same Love,” struck the wrong chord with me, because it opened with someone speaking from a gay/questioning perspective, before immediately discarding the possibility of a gay/questioning rapper by reinforcing the narrator’s heterosexuality and love of girls.
Regardless of how odious I found “Same Love,” and as much as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis aren’t pop stars who appeal to my personal tastes, my own, very short blog piece ended on an emotionally sincere and positive note. I described how Mary Lambert—the queer female artist who sings the vocal hook—moved me to tears with her voice and some, if not all, of the lyrics she sang. The takeaway (for those who didn’t read to the end, or had trouble parsing through my obtuse academic language inappropriate for a venue like an academic press blog) is that we find emotion, affiliation, and resonance in the strangest of sources, even when we are otherwise not inclined to do so. I liked Lambert’s hook and what she stood for as much as I chafed at Macklemore’s and Lewis’ message and performance.
And yet many readers fixated on the things I said with sarcasm and humor about Macklemore, Lewis and the privileged position from which they speak as white, heterosexual (as the song emphatically reminds us) men. Other readers considered me ungrateful, regressive and damaging to the cause for not embracing a positive song written on “my behalf,” and for “my benefit” as a queer person, at the same time they insisted the song wasn’t written for me: instead, they insisted, it was intended for potentially homophobic straight men who would actually listen to a “guy’s guy” and change their minds about how “evil,” bad and disgusting homosexuals are.
Straight allies were offended that I wasn’t on the bandwagon, simply because someone straight made an effort to NOT hate me and what I stand for. Gay people were worried that I would alienate potential allies, because rocking the boat or expressing a dissenting opinion about a “positive” representation would mean we were ungrateful. We wouldn’t want that because we need straight people to approve of us to get laws passed, and no one will ever stand up for us again if we demand more. All of them neglected the fact that we’ve bravely, repeatedly stood up for ourselves throughout the course of human history: that for the most part WE had to be the change we wanted to see, and sometimes that change required a disagreement or a full-blown fight instead of an apology.
On the one hand, the responses that ensued—the hate, contempt, sexism and homophobia spewed at me for critiquing “Same Love” for its half-baked notion of equality—took me by surprise. Who knew Macklemore had so many fans?!? On the other, the sexism, violence and homophobia from straight and gay folks alike—mostly men—were sadly predictable. Some of the more violent ad-hominem comments I refer to in this piece have since been moderated out of the blog’s thread, not at my request, but because the editors felt these comments crossed a certain line with homophobic and hints of sexually violent content.
It seems that in whatever context, the fact that I am a “Gender Studies Professor” offends nearly everyone, because I might actually force people to think about their sexism and misogyny—gay men and women included. Dick jokes and crude speculations about my hatred of penises abounded on Facebook from gay and straight men alike, irrespective of the fact that as a big old dyke, I don’t exactly have “peen” on the brain 24/7, nor do I use it as my measuring stick (so to speak).
I was accused of not accounting for Macklemore’s intentions or his “intended audience,” when readers obviously hadn’t bothered to take into account mine, or even to read all the way to the end of my piece. I listened to the damn song in its entirety a gazillion times before I disagreed with its premise and decided it wasn’t my cup of tea. Anyway, using the logic of intentions is deeply flawed. But saying something “academic” of this nature is sure to solicit more vitriol, so I should move on.
I was confronted multiple times over with the notion that I, as a queer person, should be grateful for any scrap of approval tossed my way by straight people because they have the power, and they have access to the “mainstream.” Self-identified “straight but not narrow” sensitive dudes were the most freaked out about what I had to say, and I can’t imagine they’re just huge Macklemore fans, despite what a good jam “Thrift Shop” is. If you’re really not so narrow, why do you have to go through the trouble of telling us you’re straight first? Are you genuinely disturbed that you aren’t reaping praise simply for being sensitive and empathetic? Is the bar for being a “good guy” set that low?
It’s telling that nearly all of my detractors rushed to Macklemore’s defense and no one even bothered to mention Mary Lambert, or her centrality to what I wrote about the song’s resonance with me as a queer woman. Both gay and straight people suggested I was suffering from internalized homophobia, and accused me of being an “unhappy,” “bitter,” “man-hating” “grumpy cat” (which I hadn’t realized was an insult). Touched as I am by the trolls’ concern for my happiness, since when did political dissatisfaction and a difference of opinion mean we lacked joy, love, friendship and a sense of humor?
If expressing my discontent with how I’m spoken for by a straight white rapper is internally homophobic, then so be it. I have no shame in being a homosexual who demands more from her allies than empty lip service in a song that is actually kind of dumb (except for the vocal hook). I’m not saying people shouldn’t listen to it or like it. If they want to play it at their weddings, gay or straight, more power to them. I’m just saying I want more, better, smarter. If that ain’t gay pride, I don’t know what is.
This is not to say that the only feedback I’ve received has been negative. In fact, I actually appreciated and learned from some of the numerous exchanges I’ve had in response to this piece on Facebook (dick slinging misogyny aside), and I’ve happily dialogued with anyone who was willing to address me sincerely and directly from beyond the shield of internet anonymity, regardless of whether or not they agreed with me. I’ve taken this time to write a follow-up for this blog in an effort to collate my responses to some of those conversations with genuinely engaged interlocutors.
I’d like to close with a happier tale of one particular exchange I had on Facebook with Christina Torres, one of my former undergraduates at USC, who now works for Teach for America. She considers herself an ally to queer causes, and she asked me point blank: if Macklemore’s route isn’t the way to go, then what is? “How can we better educate allies (including myself) on how to be good allies (or is that even important)?”
I told her I could go on at length about the many ways one might ally with LGBTQI politics and people without pulling a Macklemore, but the simplest answer I could share in the truncated format of a Facebook wall comment was that allies should go the extra step and radically CHANGE HETEROSEXUALITY; dare to imagine beyond a certain kind of normativity, and challenge the power that adheres to these very categories. Why do we continue to rely on the idea that “sharing privilege” will make things better? Why not make things better by undoing privilege; by abdicating the power that inheres in classed, racialized, gendered, sexualized categories? Radically reconceptualizing what is “normal” gives us plenty to do before writing songs about being gay but not really; about liking gays, while asserting staunchly that one has been all about the girls since ‘pre-K.” Everyone seems happy with the fact that Macklemore’s song provided a “start,” despite the fact that these battles have already “started” over and over again. Sometimes a start ISN’T enough, and any ally worth their salt should realize that for us to demand more from them is not ingratitude or a sign of self-hatred, but a glimmer of that hard-won thing we call “pride.”
Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at University of Southern California. She is co-editor for NYU Press’s Postmillennial Pop series and is also co-editor-in-chief of The Journal of Popular Music Studies.