Song of the year
One New Year's Eve, when I was a teenager in the 1970s, I got caught up in the excitement of listening to a radio station's countdown of the year's top hits, and decided to make my own list. That much is easy to explain; what is less easy to explain is that I've done it every year since. Anyhow I now have a considerable time series of my musical tastes. My early choices tended towards mellow songs ("Stop and Smell the Roses" by Mac Davis was the inaugural song of the year) or novelty records ("Convoy," "King Tut"). Since then I've gotten hipper, or at least less mainstream, but the choices have remained visceral. My criterion seems to be mostly what recording gave me the most pleasure that year, with perhaps an idea that the track would be the most memorable in the future. Often I'm wrong about that. Rare has been the song of the year that is clearly tied to that year. I imagine most of my choices are interchangeable, except that the musical styles might give them away as the product of a certain era.
For 2013 my song of the year is "Same Love" by the Seattle hip-hop artist Ben "Macklemore" Haggerty and his collaborator Ryan Lewis. It is a well-crafted track: Macklemore's spoken patter weaves in and out of the soulful singing of Mary Lambert. The chorus, "She Keeps Me Warm," was written by Lambert and has since been completed and released by her as a single in its own right (Spanos). Macklemore manages to maintain both a conversational tone and the rhythm of the piece. If they should choose in the future to collaborate on a track about national parks, or art museums, or the baseball trading deadline, it would be well worth a listen.
What sets "Same Love" apart from the 2013 pack, though, is the topic, as well as how the artists address it. Gay marriage is very much a topic of the current age. Ten (I hope) or at least twenty years from now, it will be so uncontroversial that songs about it will seem as quaint as the doomed inter-class romance described in the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack," or the generation gap in "Signs" by the Five Man Electrical Band, do today. Twenty years ago, the song would have been too far ahead of its time. The only top 40 hit I can think of that dealt sympathetically with homosexuality was "The Killing of Georgie" by Rod Stewart, a ballad about a hate crime which hit #30 on the U.S. pop charts in 1977. (I can't remember: did Stewart openly say Georgie was gay, or was it just implied?) "Les Boys" by Dire Straits, a track on their extremely popular 1985 album Brothers in Arms, is openly sympathetic but the gay men he describes are goofy and alien. I have more examples of pro-gay folk songs from the 1990s, including "Home is Where the Heart Is" (Sally Fingerett), "Radical" (Catie Curtis) and "Oh, Baby I Love You So" (Ann Reed), as well as a line in Greg Brown's "The Poet Game," but these were hardly big-time pop hits. [I missed Melissa Etheridge's #8 hit from 1994, "I'm the Only One," which celebrates a gay relationship (McKinley)]. For the record, "Same Love" hit #11 on the U.S. charts this year (Caramanica).
It's also important to me that Macklemore's presentation is so straightforward and common-sensical. I can personally identify with his journey on this issue. He does not ape the confrontational style of, say, Glenn Beck. He's not looking to fight some culture war, just explaining his position. As the song progresses we see how his thinking evolved from his early fears to a recognition that there is more uniting us humans than there is dividing us ("Whatever God you believe in/We all come from the same one..."). That recognition is critical to sharing the world and creating community in the 21st century. And, with a nod to Parker J. Palmer, such unity comes from discussion and a willingness to empathize, not from slogans and shouting.
"BN Albums of 2013," http://public.coe.edu/~bnesmith/albums13.html
"Same Love" Video : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlVBg7_08n0
Jon Caramanica, "A Singer Whose Context is 'Love and Heart,'" New York Times, 12 November 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/13/arts/music/mary-lambert-breaks-out-on-her-own.html
"Macklemore Releases 'Same Love' Video in Support of Gay Marriage," Huffington Post, 4 October 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/04/macklemore-and-ryan-lewis-same-love-gay-marriage_n_1937384.html
James McKinley Jr., "Stars Align for a Gay Marriage Anthem," New York Times, 30 June 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/01/arts/music/stars-align-for-a-gay-marriage-anthem.html?_r=0
Brittany Spanos, "Mary Lambert on Critics of Macklemore's 'Same Love:' 'I'm Gay and Part of the Song Too!'" The Village Voice Blogs, 15 November 2013, http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2013/11/mary_lambert_qa.php
Chart positions pre-2000 from Joel Whitburn, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits: Complete Chart Information about the Artists and Their Songs, 1955-2000 (Watson-Guptill, 7th ed., 2000).