Imagine a world where…
1. Justin Bieber and Beyonce performed together at a major event
2. During the show, Beyonce “accidentally” made an obscene gesture that kinda, sorta seemed planned by her and Bieber
3. When questioned about the gesture, Bieber threw Beyonce under the bus, allowing Beyonce to receive all the negative press by herself
4. Within the next several years, as Beyonce continued to suffer from the public relations hit, the Black community would begin to embrace Bieber while collectively forgetting about her.
Seems completely far-fetched, right? I’d even say that it was impossible. Like, not f*cking possible in a million Pharrell years. But that would make me a liar. Because this exact thing happened 10 years ago.
Janet Jackson may not have been as big then as Beyonce is now, but she was close. And Justin Bieber today might not be as big now as Justin Timberlake was then, but he’s close. But those are minor details. The major detail remains the same: Black America collectively “forgave” a 20-something White male for his role in effectively ending the career of a Black music icon.
There are myriad theories for why this was able to happen. You could argue that Janet was already on the downside of her career, and this was just a nail to a coffin that had already started to close. You could argue that the entire controversy was just another example of the double standard for male and female and Black and White performers. You could even say that Janet was blacklisted because she was the one who actually had a body part exposed.
While each theory has some truth to it, none really explain why Black people have been so quick to embrace Timberlake. I mean, he’s on every Black awards show, he works with the best Black artists, and he’s the White celebrity crush for like 17% of Black women.
The answer is simple: Timberlake has talent.
That’s it. Talent is the great neuralyzer; powerful enough to make us forget and forgive anything. It makes us liars and hypocrites. Excusers and enablers. Things we say that really, really, really, really, really matter to us like integrity and loyalty and even racial solidarity stop mattering once someone is talented and cute and makes us laugh with his dick in a box.
He’s cool with us because he’s cool.
Timberlake isn’t the only example of this happening. I’m sure many of us can think of suspect stuff we’ve let slide because of how much we liked a person’s music or movies or pizza. It happens to me, too. Quentin Tarantino has a long history of saying and/or doing racially problematic things, but I look the other way because I love his movies.
All of this helps me understand what’s happening with Macklemore right now.
Macklemore is literally everywhere right now. And by “Macklemore is literally everywhere right now” I mean “Think pieces tying Macklemore to White privilege and disingenuousness and cultural appropriation are literally everywhere right now.” Seriously, on my way to the bathroom earlier, I tripped and fell over a 1,100 word long piece comparing Macklemore to John Boehner and Joseph Caiaphas. It was sleep on the floor. I gave it a granola bar.
He has become both pop culture’s and Black America’s punching bag of the week. I even joined in the fray during the Grammys, tweeting that he was the only Grammy winner where the “get off the stage” music is better than his.
While the heat he’s receiving now will eventually die down, one thing is certain: He will never, ever, ever, ever receive the same type of embrace from us that Timberlake or even Eminem does. Never, ever, ever, ever. He’s not quite the male Miley Cyrus. But, as far as him symbolizing “everything that’s wrong with the music industry” and “White people stealing shit again”, he might as well be.
Which proves (again) that we’re all hypocrites.
The only thing really separating Justin Timberlake and Eminem and Robin Thicke — all White artists who’ve been embraced by Blacks despite doing and/or saying some racially problematic things — from Macklemore is that we think Macklemore sucks. We don’t diss him because of appropriation or undeserved Grammy wins or Instagrammed messages to Kendrick Lamar. I mean, we say that we do, and we do a very good job of seeming upset about that stuff. But, when you consider that some of the White artists we embrace have done much worse, the Macklemore hate comes down to the fact that we think his music is simple, saccharin, and stupid. If he was a little more talented, a little less awkward, and maybe a little more handsome, we could be convinced to look the other way. But he’s not, so we don’t.
Perhaps you don’t agree. Maybe you believe it’s not just about talent. That Macklemore comes off as fake and Timberlake seems authentic so that’s why we embrace him. And, you know what? I believe you.
Actually, let me rephrase that. I will believe you if you can do one thing for me: Name the last Janet Jackson LP.
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)