Sexuality and Identity

The Summer of Our Innocence

Steve Grand’s “All-American Boy”, a country-rock song of unrequited love in small town America, has attracted almost 2,000,000 views on YouTube. The song’s success is all the more remarkable because it tells the story of a young gay man’s yearning for his straight male friend.

Faithful to its title, the song is filled with images from classic American films—a convertible rumbling down a country word, two friends sharing a flask of whiskey on a path in the woods, campfires and sparklers, boys at the swimming hole.

But the song is also an all-American success story of the self-made man. Grand was working as a music director for a Catholic church in Lemont, Illinois before his viral hit on YouTube, his only claim to fame being a gig or two as an underwear model and a Gaga cover. He funded “All-American Boy” himself, maxing out his credit cards to pay the $7,000 production costs and recruiting friends to ride up with him to Wisconsin to play in the video.

The story is simple. Two young guys, each with a girl at his side, are sitting around a campfire with friends celebrating the 4th of July. At some point, the singer’s companion—he’s clearly too uninterested to let us to think she’s his girlfriend—gets up and leaves, at which point his friend abandons his girlfriend, too, and comes over to join him.

The affection depicted between the two men is almost palpable. Perhaps it’s the topaz light of the campfire or the seductive melody of the song, but you can sense the expansive comfort these two guys feel in each other’s presence. Night segues into morning, and when we next see them the guys are riding off in a convertible with the friend’s. girlfriend. Later, after she leaves them on the roadside, the two head to a lake where the one friend strips down and jumps in. His friend hesitates a moment but then joins him. After the obligatory water-splashing scene, the protagonist swims up to his friend and kisses him, a pass his buddy declines in a refreshingly casual and unperturbed way.

Not all critics have seen the song as a simple, endearing story of unrequited love. Mark King in LGBT Nation is pissed at the gay media for lavishing Grand with praise while ignoring the way the singer purportedly reproduces the lamentable stereotype of gay men as “sad predatory drunks”. Blogging for Slate’s Browbeat, J. Bryan Lowder writes that the song’s narrative of the lovelorn gay man pining for the strapping straight guy is a clichéd throwback to earlier, sadder times. Lowder sees in the video the persistence of an outdated motif in which gay men are portrayed not as predators but as unhappy misfits “hovering on the periphery of straight parties and coupling, yearning for a chance to get in on the action, instead of finding love and happiness among our increasingly legally protected selves.”

In his piece for the Chicago Examiner, Kevin Griffin takes the gay news media to task for the positive coverage they’ve given Grand and his song. Griffin claims that the gay press have been irresponsible in “endorsing a gay man who seeks to stand by and support the ideas and organizations out to destroy the LGBT community,” a reference to Grand’s work for the Catholic Church and the cover he’s given the man who was his clinical psychologist during the five years he underwent straight-to-gay conversion therapy. Although Grand has clearly distanced himself from this harmful and almost universally discredited attempt at “repairing” a person’s sexual orientation , the singer still has positive things to say about his therapist. For Griffin, this is inexcusable.

Scene from Steve Grand's "All-American Boy"

Scene from Steve Grand’s “All-American Boy”

I don’t know why Grand isn’t angrier with his so-called therapist. Perhaps he still has issues to work out. But I don’t think I’m to judge.

Grand grew up in a house in which the ordinary sounds of the outside world were missing. His home was an uncabled space of cultural silence in which no radio played and even watching TV or playing video games was discouraged. He was outed to his parents at the age of 13, who dispatched him to straight conversion therapy. He was subjected to this psychically damaging practice for five years.

That he has emerged from such difficult, if not traumatic, circumstances a man who claims and seems to be comfortable with his sexuality (and comes across in interviews as a very likeable, humble guy) says something. Even if, as Griffin notes, he has “work to do” to claim his place as a gay hero, a role by the way he has never claimed and I imagine does not wish to claim, Grand has endured and worked through a lot of shit. Though there are certainly more horrific stories of gay adolescence, his was a much more burdensome road to self-acceptance than what I and many of his critics, too, I imagine, have had to tread.

Griffin also thinks the theme of Grand’s song—particularly the way the singer so innocuously depicts the aftermath of the kiss—is “dangerous”. The straight friend reacts with nothing more than a shake of the head and a quick back-paddle in the water. He is even seen later being physical with his gay friend—the jock’s friendly pat on the back, though here it’s a gentle slap on the abs. Real life isn’t like that, Griffin and Lowder argue: a gay man who comes on to a straight man is more likely to be beaten up (if not worse) than brushed off; in fact, it is dangerous to kiss a straight man. Both critics seem to suggest that an artist is obliged to faithfully convey this danger. It’s like diving off a cliff and not knowing the sea bottom. You need to show that you’re likely to break your neck, or otherwise indicate that this is risky behavior. Don’t try this at home.

Gay bashing, of course, is real. Gay teenagers are victims of hate crimes. They are much more likely to be the victim of violent behavior than their straight counterparts. But we should be clear that these crimes are in no way provoked by the victims themselves. LGBT youth are not attacked because they’ve come on to their assailant. These are not cases of misread signs of affection or a misdirected kiss. They are incidents of hate steeped in deep-rooted homophobia and occasioned by nothing more than the mere fact of these young persons’ difference. Admittedly, coming onto an ostensibly straight stranger in a small country town is undoubtedly riskier than cruising a guy on the streets of New York, but the song is a story of two friends. Besides, I think most gay kids already have a highly acute sense of risk. This song is not likely to disarm them of their watchfulness.

I wonder if Griffin would have written his piece if the two guys wound up making love on the shore of the pond. I doubt it, but if he did, it’d be a tale of how two young men manage to reveal just enough of their desire for each other to enable the more self-aware of the two to help the other to acknowledge his desire. It would be a different story, the story of Brokeback Mountain say or Beautiful Thing, or any one of the dozens of scenes in film and literature in which one guy seduces another without knowing whether the object of his desire is gay. Depending on the outcome, the protagonist is either a sad, drunken gay or an enabler who calls forth his future lover’s true nature. However, the context of both stories is identical. It’s only the ending that changes the interpretation of the events leading up to the denouement. It shouldn’t, though.

How do you know?

It wasn’t easy for me in high school to discern which of my classmates might be gay. If anything I erred on the side of caution; I tended to think that there was almost no one like me. I wish I could have read my friend Simon better and known if he desired me. I wish I had had the courage to tell him how I felt about him, as the protagonist in “All-American Boy” does.

Like the straight friend in the song, Simon had a girlfriend, though it was just for a very short while just around prom time. I couldn’t imagine they had as much fun together as he and I did on our forays into the city, but there was no way of knowing short of asking him. So I interpreted Simon at will.

Communicating desire in the homophobic environment of a suburban high school is a bit like the bidding conventions in contract bridge, an elaborate system of cues to convey information about your hand without revealing the cards themselves. It only works if both know the conventions. Simon and I were each bidding our hands, but in a convention known only to the one.

I never really knew.

In Grand’s song, there’s just enough possibility adumbrated in the scenes leading up to the kiss to suggest the possibility that the friend will reciprocate, enough to justify taking a risk. Yes, it is a story of risk, but of rejection and the utter finality of closure it ushers in.

It’s a story that’s been recounted and sung countless times. This doesn’t necessarily make it less of a song and may explain in part why it works. Judging from the comments I’ve read (few of which, pace Griffin, talk about his appearance), it resonates with the experience of at least some of the viewers who have seen it. The song has become a viral hit not because of a “lascivious preoccupation with [the protagonist’s] pouty lips and sculpted abs”, as Lowder would have it, but because it tells a compelling story.

You might say, it’s too early for such a song. You could say it just plays into homophobic stereotypes of gay men as sex-driven predators who just can’t leave straight men alone.

If you watch the video, however, there’s nothing predatory or even pre-meditated about the protagonist’s behavior. This is no plan for seduction. We witness instead a sequence of chance events unfold that only then takes on the aura of fate when the last, the very last event occurs, the one that makes it impossible for things to ever be the way they were. Indeed, the two only wind up at the lake because the friend’s girlfriend gets bored watching them play catch and drives off. When they get to the lake, the friend strips off first and is in the water, while the protagonist waits at shore. He hesitates. It is no careful weighing of odds but a tugging of want and fear.

I would not want this to be the only song to talk about a man’s love for another man. It may resonate with a part of my history, but the experience it calls forth from memory belongs to a young and unsure self that I have long left behind. I find nothing noble in unrequited love and little poetry in the distress it engenders. I would not certainly want to live in this kind of world, an exile at the camp’s edge, to use Lowder’s image of the periphery. In the absence of other, more celebratory images of love between men, “All American Boy” would be less a song of unrequited love than a prisoner’s dirge.

Not every song or story needs to portray gay men as positive role models or provide images of a better world. It would have to do so, I believe, if it were the only narrative we had. But it is not the only song. More so now than ever before, we have songs that speak to a range of experience, positive or not, from Brett Every’s animated celebration of marriage equality in “Beautiful Day” to “End of the World’ , Matt Alber’s beautifully rendered lament of a relationship coming to end.

They include stories like the one told in “Scars”, a moving song with a gripping anti-bullying message by Drake Jensen, the first openly gay male country singer.

Quite coincidentally, right around the time that “All American Boy” came out, another song of unrequited love with a gay twist came out—Father Tiger’s contagiously happy “First Love”—was also uploaded to YouTube; in this song, a straight boy falls in love with a girl who eventually rejects him to marry another woman.

There could be hundreds more songs, I agree. But there are enough now to allow us a few that tell of unwise choices and thwarted love. This, too, is part of our experience.


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