Photograph by Kai Z Feng
It was a mild Friday evening in Chicago, and Steve Grand was learning to enjoy his celebrity. The 23-year-old musician behind the viral hit "All-American Boy," in which country music's oldest template -- falling for the wrong man -- is given a welcome gay makeover, had gone from wedding singer to heartthrob in less than four weeks. Now he was the marquee name for a Point Foundation fundraiser hosted by the Hilton Chicago. During his sound check he sat in the midst of the Grand Ballroom and performed Elton John's "Your Song" -- just in case anyone needed a reminder of how far we've traveled from a time when gay musicians had to cloak their sexuality in metaphor and code.
There's something infectious about hanging out with someone whose life is on the brink of change. Grand was like a boy who'd won the golden ticket -- well-behaved and gracious, and enjoying every minute. It was one of his first public performances, and the fact that it was in an opulent Chicago institution that's received every president since Harry Truman spoke volumes about where America finds itself in this particular moment. His grandmother had turned up early to show support and had barely finished her first tumbler of whiskey before she was taking photo ops with groups of shiny gay men and declaring, to anyone who would listen, that "we're all God's children." That, too, was progress. Five years ago, Grand was enduring "straight therapy" at the behest of his Catholic family, and though they turned out in force that night, the mea culpa of repentant parents can also rankle. It's in childhood that we need their support the most.
"When you learn to hate yourself, it takes a very long time to undo that," Grand told Matthew Rettenmund in an interview for the blog Boy Culture. No kidding. For generations of gay men and lesbians, adolescence was a prolonged exercise in self-hate, and if that's now changing it's because the old structures are falling away. Which is why, interviewing Grand amid the rococo splendor of the ballroom that night, I was aware that he could not have existed a decade ago, when culture was disseminated from the top down and an out musician singing about same-sex love had little chance. Hard as it is to believe, even Boy George was closeted at the height of his fame. But the days when musicians had to beg, plead, and mortgage their lives just to get signed to a label, and then beg again to make a video that just might get shown on MTV, now seem a long time ago. When Grand spent his savings-- around $2,500--to make his video, all he had to do was hit "upload" on YouTube. The rest took care of itself.
Although I had brought questions of my own for Grand, most had been submitted via Facebook, from fans across the world. A young man in Iran wanted to know about his inspiration; a fan in Scotland was anxious to know if he might tour there; a teenager asked for advice on how to learn to love and accept himself "even though others may not." Over and again those questions reinforced the amazing power of technology to connect disparate people through one person's graceful exercise in self-expression.
There's a reason that we didn't talk about "viral videos" before broadband and smartphones turned anyone with a good idea into an artist. It's what Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this month's cover star, has discovered with hitRECord, his crowd-sourcing website. And it's what Grand discovered when he decided to make things happen for himself. At press time, "All-American Boy" had been viewed over 2 million times. Grand still lives in a 10-by-10 studio apartment with no kitchen, and continues to sing in church, but his voice has been heard in a big way. Whether or not you like what he has to say, we should all feel grateful he got the chance to say it. His creative freedom is also ours, and it's the clearest message to LGBT people around the world that when you raise your voice it does, eventually, get heard.
Watch Grand perform "All American Boy" at the Hilton/Point Foundation fundraiser: