Steve Grand, 23, seemed to come out of nowhere earlier this month when he released his song "All-American Boy" and its accompanying video, an instantly iconic treatment of the oldest story in the gay world: falling for a guy who seems to feel the same way, but who ultimately does not. Like a microcosm of the reaction to Brokeback Mountain in 2005, the video was mostly enthusiastically received—1.6 million YouTube views and counting, national TV appearances—and yet has had its share of detractors, most of them gay.
At least some of the criticism of Grand is simply misplaced, resting squarely on the otherwise extremely helpful Buzzfeed piece that almost single-handedly got his name out to the world. In the post, Grand was tagged as "the first openly gay male country star," even though he was not the first, nor does he pretend to be a country artist, nor is he a star—yet.
But several other negative reactions made the Grand phenomenon more interesting to me than it might have been otherwise (readers of my blog know I'm rarely drawn to singer-songwriters, no matter how talented or cute). An inflammatory piece at The Bilerico Project (which was initially headlined in such a way as to imply the singer himself was a "sad, predatory drunk") accused Grand of trading on his looks, demonizing his "pouty lips and sculpted abs," while selling a Boys in the Band-like "self-loathing" message. It was even suggested that Grand's actions in the video could have led to "some serious gay bashing," the implicit message being that this bewitching Billy Budd would've had it coming. (The author of the piece later said his only regret had been maligning The Boys in the Band.)
"Oh, Mary, don't ask."
On my own Facebook page, one person said I should ask Steve which thing about him did he feel made him more of a gay stereotype, the fact that he cries a lot (Grand's Good Morning America interview had a touching Johnnie Ray moment) or the fact that he's been through ex-gay therapy, as if either were something to be ashamed of. Still other armchair critics of the right way to be gay have sniffed at the video for making Grand's character seem powerless (love and lust are apparently signs of weakness...God forbid the character turns out to be a bottom!), have said it was wrong for Grand to work with [Work Unfriendly] an actor who did porn (it's apparently wrong to have anything to do with porn actors unless you're watching them fuck their brains out for too little money) and have complained that smoking is glamorized.
In short: Hey, pretty boy, how dare you not be the kind of gay person I want you to be?
Considering the self-aggrandizing, materialistic, superficially sexual, outright obnxious things that pop up in most every other enthusiastically adored music video today, I saw Steve Grand's achingly vulnerable song and video as honest. The most dangerous thing he does in the video is jump into that fetid swamp. But anything for love...
Born in the U.S.A.: Scenes from "All-American Boy."
What also interests me about Steve Grand is the fact that he didn't come from nowhere—no one does. His backstory is one many gay people can relate to: He fell for a camp counselor at 12, was outed to his conservative parents by an instant message they discovered and was sent to therapy to try to overcome "unwanted same-sex attractions." They were unwanted, but not necessarily by Grand. He has cycled through various identities—his days as a model and as cover artist "Steve Starchild" are readily documentable via Google—and has settled on being himself.
So forgive me if I take umbrage at the critics who think Steve is less than perfect, because it seems clear to me he knows he isn't. This "bad role model" has survived Catholicism, parental disapproval, ex-gay therapy and body issues to emerge as an unapologetically out performer, unafraid to be vulnerable, which in my opinion makes him a wonderful, if humbly relucant, role model for young people, gay and otherwise.
Everyone is so heartbroken when a troubled gay teen commits suicide, so why not cheer one on when he is able to rise above his struggles, embrace who he is and give back to the world in the form of art?
As I found over the course of three conversations, two on the phone and one during his quick visit to NYC for a CNN interview and some business meetings, Grand is the least marketed singer you've ever heard of, has no media training, has only a family friend as an advisor, isn't wholly comfortable with so much as profiting from his music (his YouTube account, as of this writing, seems to have no ads) and, unlike so many of the young performers I've spoken with in the past 15 years, cares more about making a personal connection with his audience than he does about scoring a merchandising deal or getting free clothes to wear from designers.
He's got talent, humility and sincerity—even without the abs, I think that's a good recipe for the right kind of gay...