Meet Steve Grand, a country singer from Illinois. The 23-year-old rookie has been getting rather a lot of attention these past few days. Just eight days ago he unveiled his debut video, "All-American Boy," a self-financed paean to unrequited (same-sex) love and surnburst lakeside romance. It has since racked up more than 850,000 YouTube views — which means, yes, it's more or less gone viral. Now he's being heralded as the "first openly gay country star," or at least the "first openly gay male country star," or something. From RYOT News:
Steve Grand has just released his first single, “All-American Boy”. Apparently, he is sans record label, management or any type of industry support. He wrote and produced this song because he believed it was his song to sing and his message to share.
In a genre with a demographic that is predominantly assumed to be conservative, Steve Grand signifies the progressive movement of country music to a much more varied audience and reach. He is the first openly gay male country musician and believes his voice will speak for so many country music consumers who have struggled with their sexual identity.
Grand's story is indeed inspiring. Hailing from a Catholic family in the Midwest, the singer was sent to "straight therapy" for several years shortly after discovering his sexuality at 13. He self-financed his music video with $7,000, and according to a feature in the Chicago Sun-Times, his job experience "has run the gamut from modeling to supplying music for Catholic church events." Only a week into Internet stardom, he has developed a flair for the dramatic. "I would die a happy man today," he told the Sun-Times. "And it's the first time in my entire life I can say that."
But is rushing to call Grand the "first openly gay male country star" not a little, err, reductive, or even inaccurate? As is often the case with these sorts of bold media proclamations, the label brushes aside a bit of history in its eagerness. Most notably, it ignores Drake Jensen, a Canadian country singer who came out in February, 2012, and whose latest video, "Scars," details the pain of being bullied as an LGBT teen. Of course, you could argue that Jensen isn't exactly a star, and his video won't likely have the same viral appeal; as Salon's Daniel D'Addario notes, "his bearish physique isn't winning him any fans among the BuzzFeed set." (Did we mention Grand looks pretty good shirtless? He does.) But he is a country musician with the courage to have come out in a genre that isn't known for its social liberalism, and so deserves public acknowledgment.
Plus, there's the question, Is Steve Grand even a star? His video has been out a week and, as D'Addario concedes, a viral YouTube sensation is not the same thing as lasting stardom in 2013; Grand "could become a gay version of Rebecca Black or Tray Zonday, a Web-ready novelty act that doesn’t put the pieces of superstardom together." And then: Is Steve Grand even country? Absent any fiddle or twangy elements, "All-American Boy" is really an all-American power ballad, whose author hails from just outside Chicago. Replace the vocals and reverse some gender pronouns and you've got a Bon Jovi ballad, straight off of whatever album Bon Jovi released this year.
So can we retire the rush to label the "First Openly Gay [noun here]," a media trope that has exploded over the past year but is often as ahistorical as it is precarious? Most recently there was the story of Jason Collins, the first openly gay man in a major pro sport who is really only the first openly gay man in a major pro sport if you discount the story of Glenn Burke, who came out way back in the stone age of the 1970s. And last summer there were the dueling narratives of bisexual R&B star Frank Ocean and "queer rap" pioneer Le1f, who has publicly complained about the media's focus on his gayness. ("I am gay, and I’m proud to be called a gay rapper, but it’s not gay rap," Le1f told Fader last July. "My goal is always to make songs that a gay dude or a straight dude can listen to and just think, This dude has swag.") And, most infamously, there was Newsweek's attention-grabbing move to label Obama "the first gay president" in its cover story last May, a claim that would be historically specious even if President Obama were homosexual, since, as James Loewen smartly pointed out, James Buchanan already was our first gay president (probably)! Grand, similarly, is not the first openly gay country singer — and you need not dig into the annals of the 1850s to realize that.
That's not to scoff at or diminish Grand's sudden success. Quite the opposite, it's to point out that the insistence on framing him as the "First Openly Gay Country Star" only squashes the particularities and idiosyncrasies that could make him an intriguing figure to begin with. Otherwise, he's just a meme.