Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are one of the hottest acts on pop radio, 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.
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On June 30, 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 earlier. This week, it was No. 14.
On the strength of online streaming more than airplay, the song is now No. 2 on the Rap Songs chart, where lyrics in support of gay rights are almost unheard-of. Sales of the single have surged, and views of the single's video on YouTube had approached 58 million earlier this week.
Several radio programmers say surveys of listeners predict the song will continue to rise. "It's been phenomenal," said Tom Poleman, president for national programming at Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, which operates 850 stations, including Lexington's WLKT-104.5 FM, which has been playing Same Love. "Everything we are seeing shows it's going to be another monster hit for them."
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 Lewis' lush piano: "I can't change even if I tried," 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 teen who committed suicide after being bullied. He said he thought that the epithets routinely heard in rap music might be partly to blame and that denying gay adults the right to marry might 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, 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. When it was 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 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 Lewis not had a surprise radio hit with Thrift Shop, a comic song about 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 rose to No. 1 by early May.
A few stations went a different direction. Jeb Freedman, a disc jockey and programmer at alternative rock station KTCL in Denver, passed over Can't Hold Us and decided to spin Same Love instead. The song 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."