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Controversies of Billboard’s top 10

7 mins read

The year 2013 will be remembered for many things: Egyptian protests, national security scandals, new popes. For the people who watch the pop charts, however, 2013 will be remembered as one of the worst years for mainstream music in a very long time. There were a few surprises — a few 20th century throwbacks that were by far the best songs of the year, but for the most part 2013 was terrible. It was also the year that music criticism got socially conscious to exasperating degrees. No one could do anything right in 2013.

A controversy arose when it was shown that no black artist had a number one single in that year, as if that one bit of disconnected information somehow confirmed flagrant American racism in regards to music. Of course there is still racism in popular music, but Billboard is not the place to find it.

As I said already, 2013 was a bad year for almost everyone, black artists included. It just so happened that “black” music, in addition to oftentimes falling into the forgettable mediocrity that describes 2013, was also just not popular in 2013. And it probably had nothing to do with some sudden, widespread reawakening of racism.

The Hot 100 is comprised almost entirely of trends. There’s a handful of flukes that sneak through the cracks and inexplicably become hugely popular, but the charts are generally reserved for trends. For 2013, the bandwagon that everyone was jumping on was 20th century throwbacks and memes. That’s why we know about “What does the Fox Say?”

Let’s look at some of the most popular songs of last year: “Wrecking Ball,” “Harlem Shake,” “Thrift Shop,” “Blurred Lines,” “Cups,” and “Royals” are all memes, and that’s half the list. In addition to Robin Thicke’s song, “Locked out of Heaven,” “Can’t Hold Us,” “Suit and Tie,” and “Get Lucky” all took inspiration from the musical styles of past generations—lounge music, disco, classic rock, big band jazz.

Black artists didn’t release throwback or meme-worthy songs, at least none of the mainstream artists that the Chart was aware of the existence of. The early 2000s was utterly dominated by black artists because crunk was popular, and “Suit and Tie” probably wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the Top 10. What this all boils down to is: Calm down, the Charts will swing back around.

Another issue that people seem disproportionately concerned about is that Macklemore . . . exists. I seriously do not understand why his very existence seems to fuel people’s righteous indignation, but it does. He’s been in the public sphere for a year and people are already calling him culturally appropriative, straight-privileged, white-privilege toting asshole just because he had the gall to make music that actually got mainstream attention.

It’s gotten to the point where people don’t even seem to care about the music anymore, which is supposed to be the point of music criticism. There are objectively better rappers, but Macklemore brought an air of fun and lightheartedness to mainstream rap that hadn’t been there for quite some time—all of the non-stop party anthems missed the mark, and he didn’t. That’s why he got popular. His music was something new, to mainstream audiences at least.

There seems to be an air of alienation going on in a lot of Macklemore’s criticisms. Rap is “black” music, and he stole it because he got attention and took the spotlight away from black artists. The concept that you can steal music is a dubious one to me, but it’s made even odder in this case. White rappers have been a thing since the 90s. They’re still something of a novelty, but Eminem generally made both white and black people agree that, yes it is possible to be a legitimately good rapper and have a pale skin tone. You can call it cultural appropriation all you want, but most—if not all—modern music has roots in people incorporating black culture into their own music. The culturally appropriative deed was done a long time ago. If you’re going to complain about Macklemore, complain about OneRepublic and Taylor Swift too.

Then there’s the debate on whether or not “Same Love” is an acceptable song. But it seems like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Macklemore is in a place where he’s socially relevant enough to make statements that people will actually listen to, and being a rapper only emphasizes that because not very many mainstream rappers make social statements — at least not in popular singles. But he’s not part of the LGBT community, so him talking about the issue is derided as just another exploitative move by a straight white man.

This kind of reaction strongly discourages people from being allies — seems to come with a built-in Us vs. Them mentality that can only do damage, not encourage unity. Is it sad that no LGBT rapper is popular enough to get the message across to the masses? Yes. Does that mean that people in the genre of mainstream rap just shouldn’t talk about it if being an ally is something they’re passionate about? No. Personally, I think people focused on the social aspects of the music chart in 2013 because the music itself hardly left anything to talk about.

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