Creatively Lived and Limited

Micah Van Dijk

Early in November 2015, I spoke at a youth group exploring the topic of how Christians should listen to popular music. My main goal was to introduce these youth to a few tools that I have found helpful in my journey of discerning popular music. I asked the youth to suggest songs that we could listen to as a group and “Downtown” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis was one of the songs we explored that night. This song started a learning journey for me around creativity and the harm of misogyny.

“Downtown” is a hip hop song released in 2015 that builds its foundation upon decades of previous songs. Fifty years earlier, Petula Clark released a track called “Downtown” that also included a soaring chorus repeating the word downtown. The bass and rhythms reference Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s big hit called The Message from 1982.  “Downtown” even connects itself to the Canadian band Men Without Hats and the extended mix of their hit The Safety Dance through a nearly identical keyboard hook found in both songs. Along with these thoughtful interpretations of snippets of popular music history, Macklemore and Lewis add their own musical ideas to make  “Downtown” into a song that has the depth of history along with new sounds that invite us to dream of popular music’s potential.

To understand that creativity of Macklemore and Lewis better, we need to go back to the first story of creativity found in Genesis 1 where we learn the origin of our creative nature as humans:

So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Then God blessed them and said,
“Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it.
Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky,
and all the animals that scurry along the ground.”
(Genesis 1:27 – 28, NLT)

Men and women are created in the image of God, the ultimate creator, and have been tasked to govern the rest of creation. Since we are image-bearers of God, we also inherit his creative nature. In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch helps us understand what this image-bearing creativity looks like when he explains: “Human creativity, then, images God’s creativity... when it participates in unlocking the full potential of what has gone before and creating possibilities for what will come later (Crouch, 2008, p. 105).” Macklemore and Lewis reference the goodness of past popular music while pushing the boundaries of modern hip hop, inviting other artists to build upon the ideas found in “Downtown”. They are living out their image-bearing creativity.

However, Macklemore and Lewis also prevent other image-bearing creators from flourishing by glorifying a world that sees women as sexual objects. As objects, women are no longer fellow humans, but must obey the limiting rules set out by the creators of this song. Macklemore and Lewis chose to have men complete most of the action in their song and video including buying mopeds, riding motorcycles, confronting each other, singing and dancing. The few women that do appear in the video are limited to roles of smiling, looking beautiful, and surround Macklemore when he feels it necessary. Perhaps the most revealing moment of sexual objectification is when Macklemore raps:

“Got gas in the tank, cash in the bank
And a bad little mama with her ass in my face
I'm a lick that, stick that, break her off (Kit-Kat)
Snuck her in backstage, you don't need a wristband.”

Wikipedia helps us link objectification to broader misogyny in its definition of the word: “Misogyny is the hatred or dislike of women or girls. Misogyny can be manifested in numerous ways, including sexual discrimination, belittling of women, violence against women, and sexual objectification of women.”

One way that misogyny is harmful is how it limits the creative potential and image-bearing nature of an entire gender. Andy Crouch notes that dangers of prideful creativity. “When human creativity is defective and falls short of God’s intention… it neither honors what has come before nor creates fruitful space for the creatures, human or otherwise, who will come later” (Crouch, 2008, p. 105). In order to find space for their own image-bearing creativity, women have to ignore the limiting messages of this song and look elsewhere to find artistic inspiration.

Listeners are presented with a problem. On one hand, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are practicing image-bearing creativity that is unleashing past potential and future possibility. On the other hand, Macklemore and Lewis are limiting who has the opportunity to use their work. This problem is not just found among working popular music artists. As we seek to practice our image-bearing creativity in business, law, architecture, education, art, manufacturing, sales, parenting and more, we will be tempted to limit the image-bearing capacity of other human beings. And this problem has no easy answer.

I believe my response must be love, difficult as it might be to navigate. I do not want to rob Macklemore and Ryan Lewis of their image-bearing creativity by condemning their music, because then I am doing an injustice to them. And I also do not want songs like “Downtown”, along with male attitudes of misogyny, to prevent women from seeing that they are more than objects. They are image-bearers that can easily be the next humans to create art as good as Macklemore and Lewis — or better.

Let’s continue the conversation. How have you seen misogyny discourage or prevent women from exercising their image-bearing creativity?