In a week Steve Grand went from being an unknown to the latest viral celebrity after uploading his first music video, “All-American Boy,” to YouTube.
The song, a country-tinged pop-rock ballad, could have easily gone unnoticed as just another innocuous love song from an aspiring singer.
But Grand, who effortlessly oozes All-American boy appeal (dashing good looks, plenty of muscle, boy-next-door charm), turned heads for singing his tale of sweet, unrequited love -- for another man.
The 23-year-old singer-songwriter doesn’t have a label, manager, agent or publicist to back him, which makes amassing more than 1.2 million views in 10 days (he uploaded the video on July 2) an impressive feat.
“This is all very grass-roots. All I did was upload the song on YouTube and share it on Facebook. It got around pretty quickly,” Grand said by phone from Chicago, apologizing for sounding tired due to lack of sleep after a whirlwind of press interviews.
“[I thought] if it’s good, it’ll make the rounds," he continued. "If it’s not good, it won’t and I’ll try something different.”
It made the rounds, and beyond ...
In the music video Grand is longing for a close male friend. They share a night of tender moments – stolen glances, affectionate touching, skinny dipping – that lead to a quick kiss. But Grand’s pal, despite perceived flirtations, is straight and returns to a girlfriend.
“He smiles, his arms around her / But his eyes are holdin' me, just a captive to his wonder,” he sings.
The clip is raw and a heartbreaking tale of love that surpasses sexual orientation -- though it's a story that countless gay men can likely connect with.
Grand financed the video himself, even maxing out a credit card in the process. “I took everything I had, and everything I didn’t have, and made this video with that. There was no Plan B,” he said. “There was no going back.”
The video, which despite its polished look only cost $7,000, caught the attention of major outlets like BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, the Associated Press, Billboard, Slate and ABC's "Good Morning America," which interviewed the singer.
Most outlets have championed Grand as a “gay country star” – a label he’s only partially OK with.
“I actually didn’t set out to write a country song," he said. "I’m not really concerned with labels, honestly. I was really surprised when I saw I was being labeled as a a ‘gay country star’ and people saying I was the first."
“There have been people that have done it before, and I certainly don’t want to take anything away from them. It’s not important to me whether I’m the first or not,” he continued. “I just wanted to create something really beautiful that resonated with people all over the world. The song has done all I could ask for.”
While Grand isn’t the first openly gay singer out there, his country-tinged song is widely gaining traction for its groundbreaking potential in a genre that has been particularly shy about breaking gay acts.
When country singer Chely Wright came out in 2010 atop a tidal wave of publicity that included a high-profile magazine cover, talk show blitz, memoir and album, her album sales dropped by as much as 50%. As for k.d. lang? She hasn’t been synonymous with the genre since she came out in the early '90s.
But those are women. Grand is in rare company, and although Canadian country singer Drake Jensen came out after his 2011 debut the singer hasn’t garnered the sort of attention Grand has.
But Grand didn’t always welcome his sexuality.
Raised in a Catholic family, his parents discovered he was gay through an instant message chat in eighth grade. They then sent him to "straight therapy," which he did for five years.
“They’ve come so far,” he later said of his parents. “Even with this video, it’s just amazing how much they’ve totally embraced me and who I am.”
After briefly studying at Belmont University in Nashville, he enrolled at University of Illinois at Chicago before deciding to pursue music full-time, doing everything from playing at church events to modeling to earn cash. A few sites recently dug up his hunky pictures from his time in front of the camera. “I didn’t end up making very much,” he says and laughs. “I wasn’t standing around in my underwear all day making hundreds of dollars.”
Of finally deciding to pursue his dream of singing, he said, “I spent a lot of time alone, figuring out who I was. I realized I had no idea who the hell I was. You can’t be an artist and you can’t have a message until you have a good idea of who you are and who you want to be.”
Admittedly self-conscious and critical of himself, he decided in June to do the video for “All-American Boy,” which he wrote and recorded most of the instruments for. He'd already been crafting his own music with the help of Max Steger of Chicago indie rock band Empires. He was also playing covers at a tiny Chicago bar but had ambitions of being more than “a cheesy cover artist.”
As for the song, and especially the video’s, overtly gay themes, Grand says there were people who told him he’d be pigeonholing himself, and would limit his appeal. But he didn’t care.
“The world never sees change until people say … I’m going to just do it,” he said. “I have to do it. That’s why I went all in.”
“I’m not going to play it safe. There’s no room in the world to play it safe. You have kids killing themselves,” he continued. “Sure, there’s been progress politically, but there’s all these rural places in America, especially, that are are very homophobic.”
Grand is still adjusting to the newfound attention, even after "out" celebs like former 'NSync member Lance Bass and actor John Barrowman have saluted him.
He’s been inundated with emails and offers, including from a few labels. But his focus is on releasing an EP within the next few months, finding a manager and landing a few TV performances of “All-American Boy.”
“[The video has] really resonated for those people who haven’t had a voice,” he said. “I feel this giant responsibility to be there for them, even if I’m never on the radio because people aren’t comfortable with a guy singing about a guy – or because I don’t write poppy enough music. ‘All-American Boy’ is hopefully just the very beginning of a career for me.”
Watch "All-American Boy" below: