In my first book, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, I write extensively about driving around in cars listening to music; about commutes for pleasure in the Southern California landscape with the power to transmogrify nostalgic and wholesome American Graffiti-style cruising, into the kind of cruising Al Pacino polices and dabbles in (undercover, of course) in the 1980 thriller of the same name.
We cruise along; our drives down Southern California’s palm-lined, pot-holed thoroughfares are scored by songs of adventure, longing and regret. This is the only way I really listen to new music these days. Sometimes I sing along. At other times I surrender to the candied ambience of pop, becoming happily attenuated to its comforting predictability. But something happened recently that nearly jostled me out of the cushy bucket seats in the lesbionic/So Cal sorority girl Jeep I inherited from my mom. In what was surely part of the media ramp-up to June, aka “national pride month”—isn’t there something deeply sinister about that phrase?—I heard this on the radio:
It felt like a slap in the face.
As one who belongs to a generation of queers with a special ear for Cole Porter’s clever innuendo—queers accustomed to projecting our homo desires into popular love songs, and reading ourselves into the narratives of amorous legitimacy—the bald earnestness of “Same Love,” a “conscious” rap about rejecting gay stereotypes in support of same-sex marriage, felt vulgar. More crass than Katy Perry’s made-up confession that she kissed a girl and liked it. (At least there’s some fantasy swirling around in that formulation). Meanwhile, the carefully calibrated “politicized” verses of “Same Love” by Seattle-based white rapper, Macklemore and his creative class posterboy producer, Ryan Lewis, (featuring vocalist, Mary Lambert), felt lacking in any genuine allegiance with queers.
In the opening verse, as soon as the scenario is established in which the narrator, “Ben” questions his sexuality as a child through a tantalizingly Sedgwickian identification with his uncle, the mother corrects his misidentification and reminds young Ben that “you’ve loved girls since before pre-K.”
In fact, Ben’s gay (mis)identification is constructed as the source of his own preconceived notions—his stereotypical views—about what constitutes gayness: an aptitude for art (“‘cause I could draw”), a genetic predisposition (“my uncle was”), and a precocious anality (“I kept my room straight”). Just as his mama corrects him and draws attention to the stereotypes animating the proclivities that might lead him astray to being gay, he is corralled back to fulfill his destiny of becoming a straight-but-not-narrow male ally for people like his gay uncle who are targets of the religious right’s scrutiny and hypocrisy. (Read the lyrics in their entirety here.)
“Same Love” was produced in 2012, during the campaign for Washington Referendum 74, which would legalize gay marriage in the state. By all accounts, the song was written with a sense of local duty, as part of the effort to push Referendum 74 through. Furthermore, Macklemore wanted to respond forcefully to homophobia in hip-hop, perhaps even bolstered by events like Frank Ocean’s more ambiguous “coming out.” Though I don’t question the earnestness of Macklemore’s and Lewis’ intentions to help out queers like you, me, Frank Ocean, and Macklemore’s uncle, the rhetoric of “sameness” and the white male hetero privilege that affords such statements of equivalency feel totally patronizing.
“Same Love” is aptly titled, and unwittingly plays upon the classical tropes of homosexual narcissism, while also trotting out the newer rhetoric of equivalency, brandished visually during the HRC’s most recent campaign in which red equal (=) signs were posted on Facebook with rash enthusiasm. A graduate student in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, Emily Raymundo, wrote a smart and rousing screed about that particular phenomenon, so I won’t go on at length about why this mass display of hetero-allegiance with the HRC totally pissed me off. Suffice it to say this: nice as these gestures are intended to be, why does it take a thousand straight people on Facebook switching their profile pictures to legitimize a broader conversation about LGBTQIA issues? Maybe we don’t want to be “liked” by you on social media or in meatspace.
Why does it take a white dude who phobically disavows his own fleeting homosexual identification as just another instance of “buying into stereotypes” to make the case for gay marriage, and gay biologism on pop radio on our behalf? Maybe the music on the radio already feels queer to us, has already been made queer by us.
Why did so many pop critics, mostly male (because most of them are), jizz all over “Same Love,” including it in their year-end top-10 lists, and praising it for its depth and profundity?
“Same Love” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (featuring Mary Lambert) is the poppy end of hip-hop. It may well be the most profound ditty either genre has ever produced.” As a pop specimen, the song is nowhere near that awesome or deep. The rap feels labored, and the instrumental backing track sounds like the piano riff in “Seasons of Love” from Rent mated with the anemic, pseudo-blues chords from John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change.”
Aesthetic quality aside, all of what I’ve said thus far is pretty obvious. The fish was in the barrel so I pointed and shot. And I don’t even have time to get into the video and its homonationalist—nay, let’s just call it nationalist—depiction of the “life cycle” from birth, to love, to homeownership, to marriage, to death, intercut with Civil Rights-era documentary footage for emphasis. It’s so neoliberal, using that word would be redundant. So what’s the point of writing about “Same Love” during “pride month” for a special series of posts about LGBTQIA issues, if we already know this object is bad and its producers are, despite—or because of—their sensitive guy intentions, kinda douchey seeming? (See this video in support of my last claim.)
Because I heard it again on the car stereo later that same night.
Because I fortuitously managed to miss all the authoritative and conscious rap verses about choice, birth, religion and marriage to tune in just in time to hear Mary Lambert’s vocal hook ushering us out of “Same Love.” I heard a velvety lady voice that would be at home reinterpreting the deep catalogues of womyn’s music and lesbian balladry; a voice evocative of a postmillennial Joan Armatrading, leavened by a little Joni, a smattering of Stevie, and a healthy dollop of Sarah McLachlan.
It felt like it existed outside of the storyline, in the way queer things have always exceeded narrative’s normativizing outcomes. She sang of her love, not of a same or equivalent love: “My love, my love, my love she keeps me warm.”
She said nothing of marriage, but sang tenderly of a warmth, a feeling—the slightest adjustment of temperature and pressure, which requires no validation from the likes of Macklemore, and no expressive DJ roof-raising in the background from Ryan Lewis. Her voice quivered as it crescendoed its way through the final catechism, “love is patient, love is kind (not crying on Sundays…not crying on Sundays).” And on that Sunday, I cried a little in my car.
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.
 Gary Nunn, “Same love; different lyrics” for The Guardian (UK): http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/mind-your-language/2013/mar/01/mind-your-language-same-love.