the folk-good song of the summer

Folk music is not dead.

I mention this on the eve of a folk festival that was originally slated to feature Neil Young, a man who apart from the song Ohio and an ill-advised album-length tirade against George W. Bush, has never exactly been a folk singer. Patti Smith, however, who in my folk-festival world would be headlining tomorrow night, is certain to direct our inward gaze to thorny issues. This is a good thing. And you won’t find much of it at Folkfest this year.

The mainstream has lost a few pop-music traditions in recent decades. Gone are the once-obligatory “answer songs” to hits of the day. Gone, for the most part, are the cash-in numbers recorded to capitalize on the latest craze, from streaking to Pac-Man to, uh, Wendy’s TV commercials. Gone too, it seems are instrumentals, once a common sight on the charts. Funny, given that today’s chart-toppers seem to have even less to say than the pop stars of old. Presumably, it’s just that today’s artists can’t shut up. And in the age of autotune, why would they? Topical songs, meanwhile — songs that chronicle this ever-changing world in which we’re livin’ — have long been absent from the mainstream.

Yet, there is hope for folk music. And it can currently be found hovering near the top of the Billboard charts on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. It’s called Same Love, and it’s an unlikely contender for chart supremacy, courtesy of rapper Ben Haggerty, aka Macklemore, with producer Ryan Lewis.

It is, by any measure, a folk song. A folk song. On the charts. Go figure.

Same Love has been a sleeper hit this summer, snaking its way into the top 20 (slightly higher in Canada) as all talk of pop music has centred on Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. But then, Thicke’s song offers much for pundits to discuss — from its musical nod to classic soul, to its thematic nod to attitudes toward women worthy of Mad Men. Songwriter Thicke the Younger is justly taking a fair bit of heat for it, which is likely aiding sales figures more than it is hurting them. A recent editorial in one Canadian magazine dared to question the amount of derision Mr. Thicke is taking, noting that hiphop is worthy of far more condemnation but is not receiving it. Not sure where that editorialist was when Kanye West’s latest album was released, but she can take comfort in the fact that he too was much criticized for his unenlightened attitudes. Indeed, there has been no shortage of scrutiny over hiphop lyrics over the past 35 years or so. If Mr. Thicke is receiving more attention at the moment, that attention is no less undeserved, and is arguably a reflection of mainstream media attitudes that hold that a misogynist rapper is only to be expected. A misogynist well-bred white boy, however… But as the artist’s dad could tell him, you take the good you take the bad you take them both and there you have the facts of life. The facts of life.

(The latest twist in media’s efforts to keep Thicke in the news is criticism that his massive hit song is too Marvin Gaye-ish. This has created an amusing situation in which many of the people condemning contemporary music for lacking substance, are railing against an artist’s channeling Marvin Gaye. Curiouser and curiouser, it is.)

Enter a remarkably enlightened hiphop number: Macklemore and Lewis’s Same Love. “When I was in the third grade [that’s Grade 3 to us] I thought that I was gay,” Macklemore begins over a pretty melodic backing not unlike the music to the inspiring standard People Get Ready. Go on…

He’s quick to reassure us that, on the contrary, he likes the ladies. (Phew! That was close.) Nothing revolutionary there. Well, admitting to having at any point suspected he might be gay: yeah, for hiphop that’s pretty revolutionary. But it gets better. Through three powerful and pointed verses, Macklemore calls out the “bunch of stereotypes” that had guided that third-grade suspicion, decrying hypocrisy and persecution within America’s religious right — “That holy water you soak in has been poisoned” — and, in perhaps the boldest declaration of a bold song, pointing a finger at his chosen genre. “If I was gay,” he opines, “I’d think hiphop hates me.” It’s a remarkable song, a folk song, whose message is summed up neatly in Macklemore’s observation that, “America the brave still fears what we don’t know.”

It’s a finger-pointing song. A good one. A welcome addition to the charts, an important statement at a pivotal time in America’s battle for gay rights, and a long overdue opening salvo in a hiphop argument.

Well done, Mr. Macklemore. You too, Lewis.

True, Canadians can be commended for being relatively enlightened when it comes to gay rights. We have same-sex marriage. Here in Ontario, we have an openly gay premier, at least for the moment. Of course, even as bullying has seemingly receded from the headlines, the connection between it and homophobia continues to be troubling. But as the record turnout for the recent Ottawa Pride parade indicated, Canada’s GLBTQ population has much to celebrate. Indeed, when it came to decrying human rights abuses, many of the participants rightly ended the parade by bringing their voice to the gates of the Russian embassy. It was indeed a proud moment. Unfortunately, Canada’s media preferred to concentrate on the 50th anniversary of a human-right march in a foreign land — albeit one with profound consequences for all of North America. A chance to draw parallels between that struggle and the ongoing quest for gay rights? Maybe the continuing, shameful abuse of our own aboriginal people? Well, it’s summer. A lot of media outlets are short-staffed.

Better we Canadians should just remember the day when a noble individual in another land had a dream for all Americans.

And listen to Robin Thicke.

So thank you, Macklemore (and, to a lesser extent, Lewis) for bringing folk music back to the fore. Just in time for a festival that celebrates same.

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