Gore Vidal once called our nation the “United States of Amnesia,” a country continually torn from our past and our own roots. Maybe it’s the American penchant for progress or own frontier spirit, but Vidal wondered what gets left behind when you can’t remember where you’ve been. Vidal wrote, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”
I remembered the late author’s words last week when a song by Steve Grand became a viral YouTube phenomenon seemingly overnight. In a clip entitled “All-American Boy,” which blends Blue Valentine and an American Eagle video, Grand pines for an unattainable hot guy in the typical “doomed romance” way. The object of his affections is straight, and the video is gay enough to push the envelope — without having to “go there” by depicting actual gay romance.
Like Brokeback Mountain before it, this sense of straddling the line (“playing it safe” by being gay without being “too gay”) allowed it to be a crossover video sensation. As of this writing, “All-American Boy” has racked up just under a million hits on YouTube — no small feat for an unsigned artist. It might be pennies for Lady Gaga, but that kind of exposure makes careers for an up-and-comer. With the intense amount of media coverage of Grand, who recently did a stint on Good Morning America, there’s a lot more hits where that came from.
Grand is the perfect face for viral success, in a year where Macklemore likewise broke out by resembling less a rap superstar than a hunky airplane pilot in a fur coat. Grand’s physique is of the Captain America variety, and those Steve Rogers looks landed him not one but two BuzzFeed articles, heavily showcasing his male form. Before making it big on the internet, Grand was well-known around Chicago for doing the same, covering Lady Gaga songs on YouTube with a shirt hanging open.
Steve Grand calls himself “not much of a singer,” but his PR sense is on point. He comes pride float ready.
In turn, the internet — doing what it does — has been quick to brand Grand the “first-openly gay country singer.” In the same way that Baauer’s instant success streamrolled the actual history of the Harlem Shake, Grand is being given credit for something he didn’t build. Openly gay musicians have been making music in the industry since the 1970’s, since Lavender Country released the first gay-themed album all the way back in 1973, and former country music singer kd lang (who had since switched to pop) announced she was a lesbian back in 1992. Melissa Etheridge has long fiddled around in the country genre, but her soul is rock music.
In 2010, however, country music singer Chely Wright broke the glass ceiling on out entertainers in the business by being the first solo artist to come out during her career. Although Lavender Country’s front man, Patrick Haggerty, was gay, the band only printed 1,000 copies of their first album. After coming out, Chely Wright made the cover of People magazine and inked a book deal, but quickly faded into obscurity. Grand’s sexuality is quickly becoming something to hang a career on, but Wright’s bravery ended hers. In the past three years, she’s been less than a blip on country music stations. She’s been invisible.
That’s not surprising, in an industry that’s far to the right of the mainstream radio audience, where Macklemore, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga can have huge hits by courting gay listeners, but what’s sadder is that Wright continues to be largely ignored within her own community. Wright was the Grand Marshal of the Chicago Pride Parade in 2010, less than three months after making history, and almost no one I knew had the slightest idea of who she was. “She’s some kind of singer,” a friend explained.
I wanted to be angry, but I couldn’t blame him. After Wright’s coming out, I saw only a fraction of the obsessive barrage of think pieces that have popped up in the last week on Grand — like the Huffington Post, where Grand’s story has remained the top trafficked article. This is Grand’s first song in the country genre, and he’s being credited already for changing an industry he’s not even in yet. It’s like calling someone Jewish because they went to a Bat Mitzvah once.
This is not Grand’s fault (and he’s been slightly bashful about all the attention he’s received), but instead it shows our continued forgetfulness when it comes to our own cultural history. The media’s treatment of viralness, always looking for the next big trend, similarly allowed for the steamrolling of the actual history of the Harlem Shake, a dance rooted in early 80’s hip-hop. Instead of recognizing its place within black culture, the dance became a sideshow curiosity, a bunch of white people freaking out on camera. Look, even Matt Lauer’s doing it!
This happens all the time in the entertainment industry, where appropriation and borrowing is the norm, and Wright isn’t alone among women for not getting the credit she deserves for blazing trails. Although Modern Family’s Mitchell and Cam have received much due for helping change “hearts and minds” about same-gender relationships, less attention has been paid to Callie and Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy, the show’s wildly popular lesbian couple. When Callie’s original female love interest, Erica, was written off the show (due to network interference), fan complaint was so widespread that “Calzona” was born.
At a time when the show was declining, the couple gave fans something to root for — even if the media wasn’t paying the right amount of attention. Despite the show’s wide popularity, for well over a decade, neither has been nominated for an Emmy. Jesse Tyler Ferguson has been nominated for three, and Eric Stonestreet won twice.
The same thing has happened to Brittney Griner, who came out earlier this year after being the first pick in the NBA draft. Considered “one of the most dominant basketball players in recent memory,” her admission was met with a shrug and a reminder to pass the cheese. Neither the basketball community nor the wider public took notice. However, when Jason Collins came out, a little-known veteran basketball player nearing the end of his career, folks compared him to Jackie Robinson. Old teammates and coaches fell over themselves to congratulate him.
What’s the difference between Brittney Griner and Jason Collins? Why didn’t anyone seem to care all that much? Jim Buzinski, the co-founder of OutSports.com, put it bluntly to the New York Times: “Because it was a woman.” According to site editors, a video of Griner saying that she’s a lesbian (on camera) pulled less page views than a piece speculating that a male sports star might come out.
There’s a term for this in the community, “homopatiarchy,” a culture in which queer women continue to be disenfranchised and marginalized in the industries they helped make a mark in. This willful amnesia forces out those who got there first, those made it possible for Grand to be out and proud in the industry. If he’s successful, Grand will be the first country singer to get famous because of his sexuality, rather than in spite of it, a huge shift in the post-Frank Ocean music era. We should celebrate his success, but we must be mindful of who that pride leaves out.