It was my sister who first told me to listen to “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith.
“It’s so good!” she said. “He has an amazing voice.”
I’d read an article about Sam Smith the week before about how he’d just come out as gay, but I had yet to listen to his music.
“Really?” my sister said when I told her. “I didn’t know he was gay.”
My sister and I have similar taste in music, so I decided to take her advice. I downloaded it before a long drive I had to take and listened to it in the car. I didn’t even make it halfway through before I started to tear up.
It wasn’t just Sam’s powerful voice or beautiful lyrics that hit me so hard. It was the fact that, for maybe the first time, I felt acknowledged and understood by a song.
Here was a gay man singing about an experience gay men know so well: that hollow, needy feeling after a one-night stand. And, on top of that, straight people were listening to it and could understand it too.
How many gay men have experienced that empty feeling after hooking up? That feeling of wanting someone to stay even if we know it was just a meaningless encounter and not a romantic one?
When Sam sings, “This ain’t love, it’s clear to see, but darling, stay with me,” it brings me right back to that place of vulnerability and loneliness.
It was a feeling I wondered if straight people often have while listening to the radio. The feeling of hearing a song and thinking, “Wow. That’s me.”
As gay people, we’re used to creatively interpreting mainstream music so that’s applicable to our lives. Who among us hasn’t turned to an Adele ballad after a rough breakup or listened to one of Beyoncé’s anthems for a self-confidence boost? For me, there’s nothing quite like an Amy Winehouse song when I’ve got a case of the blues.
It doesn’t matter that our favorite musical artists aren’t gay. It’s the emotions in the music that resonate with us. We are people, after all. We know what it’s like to feel hurt or betrayed. We love songs that make us want to dance and we’re certainly not immune to infectious beats.
But, at the same time, it’s rare that we see someone from our community singing about our experiences on the radio.
LGBT contributions to the world of music are plenty, to be sure. I’m willing to bet there have been countless gay men singing about gay love on the radio, though probably in ambiguous terms. Still, you’re not likely to turn on Sirius XM and hear a dude singing about a guy he loves.
“Stay With Me” is currently rising on the charts, and is likely to continue to do so. While the lyrics aren’t explicitly gay, Sam Smith is one of the few out singer-songwriters being represented in the mainstream music scene.
This proves a powerful point.
Music has the power to bring people together. It humanizes us, it shows us what he have in common, and it makes us feel understood.
We feel the same things straight people feel. Our experiences are just as beautiful, just as worthy.
And, as Sam Smith proves, they can touch people who haven’t had those experiences in exactly the same way.
It’s not true that the world isn’t ready for a mainstream gay musical artist, and it’s not true that a straight audience wouldn’t be able to connect with their work.
Gay people have been identifying with straight artists all their lives, after all.
My sister didn't know Sam Smith was gay when she listened to “Stay With Me.” She just knew it was an amazing song.
And that’s why it makes me cry. Because some gay people will be able to hear it and think, “I know exactly how that feels!” And so will some straight people.
That, to me, is beautiful.
JOHN PAUL BRAMMER is a writer, blogger, and activist living in Oklahoma. He writes frequently about his experiences as an out gay man living in the heartland and his work has been featured in This Land Press. His short story about being bullied in a small town, “Boys Will Be Boys,” spread far and wide on the Web. You can follow him on Twitter @jpbrammer.