Stars Align for a Gay Marriage Anthem
- United States 06/30/2013 by James C. McKinley Jr. (NY Times)

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are one of the hottest acts on pop radio these days, having scored No. 1 hits with the lighthearted novelty song “Thrift Shop” and its bouncy follow-up “Can’t Hold Us.”

That is no small feat for a rap duo from Seattle without a major-label contract, but their single “Same Love” has the potential to be groundbreaking in a different way: it is the first song to explicitly embrace and promote gay marriage that has made it into the Top 40, gay-rights advocates and radio executives said.

“The fact that a song solely dedicated to the message of marriage equality is climbing the charts and quickly becoming a popular song across the country is a big deal,” said Charlie Joughin, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights organization. “It’s indicative of a changing attitude.”

Radio programmers say “Same Love” seems to have captured the nation’s mood, reflecting growing support among young adults for gay marriage in polling. It also hit the charts in February, just as several states began taking up the issue and the Supreme Court was considering challenges to the federal Defense of Marriage Act and to California’s ban on same-sex marriage.

On Wednesday, the same day the Supreme Court handed historic victories to same-sex couples in both cases, “Same Love” rose to No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, up from No. 65 three weeks ago. On the strength of online streaming more than airplay, the song was No. 5 on the Rap Songs chart, where lyrics in support of gay rights are almost unheard-of. Sales of the single surged 23 percent last week from the previous week to a total of more than 788,000 copies, and views of the single’s video on YouTube had approached 53 million by Sunday.

Several radio programmers say surveys of listeners predict the song will continue to rise. “It’s been phenomenal,” said Tom Poleman, the president for national programming at Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, which operates 850 stations. “Everything we are seeing shows it’s going to be another monster hit for them.”

Support for gay rights is certainly not a new phenomenon in pop music. Frank Ocean, a singer in the hip-hop collective Odd Future, broke down barriers in R&B last year when he released “Channel Orange,” an album with songs about his love for a man. Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was a chart-topping song in 2011 that generally affirmed acceptance of homosexuality, and artists like Katy Perry, Fun and Kacey Musgraves have made support for gay rights part of their public personas.

Going farther back, Melissa Etheridge, who is openly gay, scored Top 10 hits in the 1990s with songs about her lesbian relationships, “Come to My Window” and “I’m the Only One.”

But Macklemore has offered up an overtly political message in favor of gay marriage from the point of view of a straight man. “This is a song that has the most unequivocal pro-equality message to ever be expressed in a major single, and it’s really reached a wide range of audiences,” said Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for GLAAD, a gay-right organization that tracks media.

In the song, Macklemore takes other rappers to task for using gay slurs, ties abusive language to bullying of gay teenagers and mocks religious leaders for opposing gay marriage. He states plainly where he stands on the marriage question: “No freedom till we’re equal/ Damn right I support it.” Then Mary Lambert, an openly lesbian singer, delivers a stirring chorus over Mr. Lewis’s lush piano. “I can’t change even if I tried,” she sings, and “My love/ My Love/ My Love/ She keeps me warm/ She keeps me warm.”

In a telephone interview, Macklemore said he composed the rap in March 2012 after reading a news article about a teenager who committed suicide after being bullied. He said he thought the epithets routinely heard in rap music might be partly to blame, and that denying gay adults the right to marry might also contribute to despair among gay teenagers. He also wanted to write a song, he said, to support his two gay uncles and his gay godfather in Seattle, all of whom are in committed relationships.

“I just wanted to hold myself accountable and hold hip-hop accountable and bring up an issue that was being pushed under the rug,” he said.

From the start, the duo intended “Same Love” to have a political impact. Released as a single in July 2012, they offered it as a theme song to groups working to pass Referendum 74, which legalized same-sex marriage in Washington State. Some profits from the single were donated to the advocacy group Washington United for Marriage. In October, Macklemore and Mr. Lewis released a video for the song with a rosy depiction of a gay marriage that political organizers said helped influenced the vote.

The same month, Ellen DeGeneres, who is gay, invited the duo to perform the song on her show. Still, the single probably would have faded into obscurity after the state referendum had Macklemore and Mr. Lewis not had a surprise radio hit with “Thrift Shop,” a comic song about the joys of bargain hunting. When that song hit No. 1 in February, it created a fierce demand for more tracks, radio executives said.

In March, the duo’s radio promoters started urging radio stations to play “Can’t Hold Us,” a playful rap about having success without a major label deal that eventually rose to No. 1 in early May.

A few stations went a different direction. Jeb Freedman, a disc jockey and programmer at the alternative rock station KTCL in Denver, passed over “Can’t Hold Us” and decided to spin “Same Love” instead. The song had moved him, he said, and seemed timely because a bill allowing gays to enter civil unions was up for a vote in the Colorado Legislature. “We poll our audience constantly with Web surveys, and the response was unbelievably positive,” he said. “I thought it was going to be polarizing, but it wasn’t.”

Mr. Freedman persuaded program directors at alternative stations in Los Angeles and Dallas to play the record, and stations in San Francisco and Seattle then followed suit.

By May, “Can’t Hold Us” was cresting to No. 1, and Top 40 and Rhythmic stations in several big cities had begun dropping “Same Love” into their playlists, often pegging it to political events. KROQ in Los Angeles added it the day of the Supreme Court hearings on California’s Proposition 8. KDWB in Minneapolis played the record the same week that Minnesota approved gay marriage. By last week it was playing on about 260 stations.

So far urban hip-hop stations have been slow to add “Same Love” to their rotations, although it has been getting airplay on a few, like WPGC in Washington, D.C. Peter Rosenberg, a D.J. on Hot 97 in New York, said his listeners had applauded his decision to play the song on his Sunday night show. He predicts that “Same Love” will become a hit on urban radio, too.

“I’m not saying that no one will resist,” he said. “Hip-hop still has some catching up to do on this issue.”

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Macklemore performing in the Netherlands in June

 


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