Collage by Alex Cook
I didn’t watch the Grammys on Sunday because WWE’s Royal Rumble was airing at the same time. The Royal Rumble matters because the winner of the 30-man contest gets to challenge for the WWE championship at WrestleMania, which could mean that he’ll spend at least the rest of the year as the face of the wrestling industry. Because Vince McMahon is a notorious muscle mark who fetishizes comic-book superhero bodies, the Royal Rumble was won by Dave Batista, a 45-year old bodybuilder/actor/douchebag who wears skinny jeans and used to have an absurd strip of hair from his lip to his chin. The fans shat all over Dave and booed him out of the building, while scathing reviews from internet marks drowned out the WWE hype machine.
The fans’ choice to win the Royal Rumble, Daniel Bryan, wasn’t even in the match. Daniel does not have Dave’s chiseled, oiled body or skinny jeans. He’s small by WWE standards—a vegan with an unkempt beard and sloppy hair. But he’s an incredible athlete and, if you’re willing to consider wrestling an art form, easily the most compelling artist on the current WWE roster. But Vince believes that the champion should have the kind of body that draws stares when he walks through an airport, regardless of what the fans actually want, so Daniel Bryan jobs out in a four-star match at the start of the show and Dave Batista wins in the main event.
Daniel is favored by the hardcore, old-school wrestling fans with refined tastes, the ones who subject matches to sophisticated critiques filled with insider jargon. These “smarks” (shorthand for their own self-ID as “smart marks”) can cite a long history of WWE favoring oiled muscleheads over superior artist-athletes. These are the fans who continually support WWE by purchasing pay-per-view events and action figures. Ironically, this means that WWE doesn’t actually have to make them happy, because there’s no threat of them going away. WWE casts a broader net when plotting its biggest matches of the year, appealing to casual viewers with mainstream stars like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, even if Dwayne has put on so much extra muscle that he can’t work a ten-minute match without getting winded or injured.
Kendrick Lamar is hip-hop’s Daniel Bryan, the greatest artist of 2013 and uncrowned champion for the hardcores. Macklemore, on the other hand, is the safe and corny industry choice. So of course Macklemore won, because the Grammys aren’t for people who take the culture seriously. Macklemore’s apologetic text to Kendrick could read like John Cena’s support of Daniel Bryan. John, the WWE’s longtime superhero who gets booed by the smarks, needs Daniel to validate him with the smarks.
Because WWE’s Royal Rumble was more real to me than the Grammys, I missed the awards and only learned of the Grammys-Macklemore controversy the next day, as my feeds became flooded with blog posts analyzing Macklemore’s various privileges: He is, as has been observed thousands of times by now, a white man criticizing hip-hop at large and a straight man co-opting LGBT issues, claiming universal power to speak to/for everyone.
I wouldn’t hit Macklemore with the “It’s not your issue, shut your mouth” critique, and I wouldn’t necessarily ask him to turn the song into a reflection on his privileges. As perhaps a better move than claims of silent neutrality or piling on disclaimers about how he recognizes that he’s white and straight, Macklemore could have offered his social intervention without presenting himself as hip-hop’s lone courageous voice against homophobia. If “Same Love,” even with its multiple problems that others have pointed out, had dedicated a few seconds to shouting out numerous queer hip-hop artists of color who resist the multiple oppressions from which Macklemore benefits, the song would have meant something different. Instead of positioning his song as the one reason for a gay hip-hop kid to not think that hip-hop hates him, Macklemore could direct that kid to the artists who had already made the kinds of spaces in hip-hop that Macklemore dreams could someday be possible. And it would have corrected the false picture that “Same Love” paints of this issue as one pitting homophobic black hip-hop against benevolent white LGBT communities. If Macklemore’s glaring weak spot here is that he speaks as an outsider, he could have deflected this criticism through alliance—actually making himself an ally—with insider voices.
To say it in wrestling terms, the question is who “goes over.” Going over can simply refer to winning the match, but there’s also a broader meaning: to put the other wrestler over means that you help him/her become significant to the fans. Because wrestling is a collaborative performance, you can only look as good as your fellow performer wants you to look. The best wrestlers to work with are those who are willing and able to put their opponents over, that is, to make their clotheslines and bodyslams look believable and devastating. It’s a special talent, and the wrestlers who are particularly great at putting people over are wrestling’s unsung starmakers. On the other side, some wrestlers have developed reputations for putting themselves over at the expense of others. Consider Shawn Michaels’ 2005 performance with Hulk Hogan; having been booked to lose to Hogan, a disgruntled Michaels ridiculously oversold Hogan’s offense, making a joke of the match.
When he could have chosen to elevate queer hip-hop and not seek the role of hip-hop’s salvific hetero white-boy conscience, Macklemore only put himself over. He’s hip-hop’s Dave Batista, who strolled in as number 28 in the 30-man Royal Rumble and got to flex and pose in triumph, while the smart marks were chanting Daniel Bryan’s name. Dave Batista couldn’t understand the utter disdain of the smarks, perhaps because it never occurred to him that the rightful star of the show had been excluded from the Royal Rumble, and that it was only through this exclusion that he could become the apparent main-event star for WrestleMania. “Same Love” isn’t so different from WWE anyway—both reveal that you can become a champion even when you’re just pretending to fight.