A Great Big Heart

If you regularly tune in to contemporary FM radio, you may soon come across a pretty little love song called “Hold Each Other” by the New York-based duo A Great Big World.  Keep an ear out:  If the melody doesn’t get your attention, the lyrics probably will.

It begins innocently enough:  The usual business about some girl who sets the singer’s heart aflutter.  “I was trapped inside a dream / I couldn’t see her next to me / I didn’t know she’d set me free.”  And so forth.

However, when we get to verse number two, something weird happens.  The voice on the record is different—but still clearly male—and the object of his affections is no longer a “she.”

“Something happens when I hold him / he keeps my heart from getting broken / when the days get short and the nights get a little bit frozen / we hold each other.”

Following a bridge containing no gender references either way, we return to the original vocalist and his initial female love interest:  “Something happens when I hold her / she keeps my heart from getting older.”  Fade out.

Happening upon this song for the first time, I assumed that whole middle part was just my imagination.  However, upon further investigation, I discovered that—lo and behold—my ears were working just fine.

The band behind the record, A Great Big World, is a pair of millennials named Ian Axel and Chad King.  They are known (if at all) for the heartfelt but slightly nauseating ballad “Say Something” featuring Christina Aguilera, but have otherwise kept themselves pretty well under wraps outside of their immediate fan base.

Accordingly, it had probably not been widely known that one of them, Chad, is gay.  (Ian is not.)  Although they divide singing and songwriting duties equally and their repertoire contains a fair share of love songs, Chad has opted not to draw attention to his homosexuality in his work because, well, that’s just how he is.

With “Hold Each Other”—the first single from the group’s forthcoming second album—he decided to do away with any such reservations and, perhaps for the first time, sing what he really feels.

Hence the song’s unusual linguistic structure, with Ian crooning about “her” and “she” at the beginning and end, while Chad waxes about “him” and “he” in between.

It’s a minor breakthrough in American popular music, and a triumph for humanity in so many different ways.

Certainly, this is nowhere near the first instance of a pop artist singing about his or her love for someone of the same sex.  Indeed, it was only this past February when Sam Smith won a bucketful of Grammys for a hit song, “Stay With Me,” that was based on a relationship with another man—a point Smith charmingly underlined in one of his many acceptance speeches that evening.

On the other hand, you wouldn’t necessarily know “Stay With Me” is about a same-sex encounter simply from listening to it.  The song contains no gender-specific pronouns and, if sung by a heterosexual about someone of the opposite sex, it would still make perfect sense.

Indeed, perform a sample survey of all the love songs written over, say, the last five or six decades, and you’ll find that a considerable chunk of them follow this same pattern, containing lyrics so general that they could—without changing a word—be sung by anyone, for anyone, irrespective or sex or orientation.

This leads us to an obvious yet critically important point, which is that love itself is universal.  Whatever form it takes, the need for an emotional and physical connection to another person is that rare trait that transcends every boundary across the human race.  The capacity to love and be loved in return is part of what makes us human in the first place.

Bearing this in mind, we might well ask if it even matters whether the pronouns and minutiae of a particular tune correspond to those of the person listening to it, or whether that’s irrelevant to how strongly the song resonates.  If love is love, then what’s the difference if the gender designations don’t completely match up?

It’s not such an easy question, especially when considered in a broader cultural context.  After all, the entire premise of the gay rights movement—and the central argument for legalizing same-sex marriage—is that gay love and straight love are fundamentally the same thing.  Once this fact was established once and for all, and marriage was seen as being rooted in love and commitment above all else, the case for restricting the institution to heterosexuals ceased to make any moral or legal sense.

Now that Team Gay has essentially won that argument—with a major assist by the U.S. Supreme Court—we have the breathing room to wonder if there is, in fact, something different about being gay and in love compared to the alternative.  Having convinced the world that our crazy emotional quirks are as deserving of respect as everyone else’s—no more, no less—are we now going to turn right around and claim that we are special?

To a degree, yes, we are.

Recent studies have concluded that, at best, maybe 3-5 percent of the world’s population is attracted exclusively to people of the same sex.  This is not going to change.  While the steadily growing acceptance of gay folks by straight folks has profoundly transformed and improved the day-to-day lives of the former (and the latter), the fact remains that same-sex attraction is a statistical oddity whose participants will always be severely outnumbered and, inevitably, feel a little off-kilter about their emotional inner wiring every now and again.

In other words, although the essence of gay relationships is identical to that of straight ones, the fact of being in this tiny minority—one whose very existence has never quite been explained or justified—means that the gay experience will never be taken for granted in artistic media the way the straight experience has.  There will only ever be so many openly gay musicians to tell this story, leaving those precious few who need to hear it with far less material in their iTunes libraries than they would like.

Which is all to say that, when a gay listener hears a gifted male vocalist croon matter-of-factly about the man who stole his heart—well, it’s kind of a big deal.

As it happens, “Hold Each Other” did not initially include the switch from female to male pronouns from one verse to the next.  It was only when Ian, the straight half of A Great Big World, asked Chad, “How are you going to sing this honestly?” that they decided to tweak the words as they did.  Chad himself was skeptical at first, saying in a recent interview, “My whole singing life, I’ve always wanted to sing about girls […] just because it’s what people do.  It’s what the pop world is like.”

However, once he realized that Ian had a point—that singing about loving a woman would ring false in an art form that’s supposed to be about honesty and truth—he knew that he didn’t have a choice.  If you’re not willing to come to terms with who you really are, then what’s the point of being an artist?

Indeed, what’s the use of living at all if you spend your time pretending to be someone else?

Reflecting on his 20-odd years of fighting for same-sex marriage in the United States, the blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote in 2012, “The point of the gay rights movement, after all, is not about helping people be gay.  It is about creating the space for people to be themselves.”

It’s a distinction that is narrow but deep.  You see, it’s not just about gays having the freedom to watch Glee and listen to Lady Gaga without embarrassment or shame.  It’s also about straight people watching Glee and listening to Lady Gaga without embarrassment or shame—or gay people playing football, joining the army or engaging in any other “straight” activity.  It’s about pursuing your own happiness and interests without concern for what other people—or you—might think.

Opponents of the gay rights movement often carp about how gay people should not be entitled to “special” rights and privileges.  They are absolutely correct.  Like black people, women and every other historically marginalized group, gay people ask nothing more than to be treated like everyone else.  Because, as it turns out, we are like everyone else.

A song like “Hold Each Other”—which allows both of its singer-songwriters to express themselves on their own terms—demonstrates both the hope for and the flowering of this radical idea that we call equality.  If a reserved male singer can summon the nerve to mention that the object of his affection is a guy—and if the rest of the world can accept that, yes, sometimes this does really happen—it means the efforts of the past half-century have not been in vain.

The truth is that, for the gay community, the pronouns do matter.  After a lifetime of listening to music about heterosexual relationships and having to do the gender conversions in our heads, to hear a song that does the work for us is both a relief and an affirmation:  A hopeful, understated validation that says, “You are not alone.”

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