Ben Platt Paints Extraordinarily Normal Portrait of Gay Love on Debut Album, "Sing to Me Instead"
I don’t think that much about gay representation in mainstream pop music until I get a taste of what I’ve been missing: The luxury of instantly connecting with a lyric without having to change pronouns in my head or perform other mental gymnastics to relate the song’s heterosexual point of view. That’s why I was happily surprised when I listened to Tony winner Ben Platt’s debut pop album, Sing to Me Instead.
I was casually aware of Platt from his role in Dear Evan Hansen, and as the obnoxious millennial gay on the Will & Grace reboot. So, I had no expectations. What I found was a set of songs that has shifted my hopes of what can be conveyed in confessional pop music created by gay men in 2019.
Platt comes from a place that can only be accessed through years of romantic trial and error. Though just 25 years old, Platt has been out to those in his life since he was 12. That means he was able in his teens to start the messy process everyone goes through, gay or straight, of navigating the complicated business of love. The lyrics about that journey are detailed and specific, with Platt singing of a relationship slowly fizzling out with a series of small betrayals on “Hurt Me Once” and going overboard with infatuation on “Share Your Address.”
Then there’s “Grow as We Go,” which offers some of the most solid advice I’ve ever heard on staying together through the difficulties of young love.
I don't think you have to leave
If to change is what you need
You can change right next to me
When you're high, I'll take the lows
You can ebb and I can flow
And we'll take it slow
And grow as we go
Grow as we go
I experienced those same romantic ups and downs, just on a delayed timetable. I didn’t come out and start looking for love until I was 24. That’s about the time I realized my repeated attempts to date women and deny my natural desires were always going to end in disaster. For the next decade, I basically lived through everything Platt sings about on Sing to Me Instead. I didn’t reach any kind of emotional perspective on it all until my early 30s, which is what I hear in Platt’s writing in his mid-20s.
It’s a revelation to hear this level of wisdom from a young gay man-- (I can’t believe I just used that phrase in earnest) -- able to grow up expressing his sexual orientation in real time with his peers. There’s no song on Sing to Me Instead where Platt is second guessing his sexuality or falling for an unavailable straight man or facing injustice for his sexual orientation. The relationships Platt writes about aren’t struggling to overcome the shame of their very existence, either. These are songs dealing with long-term partnerships beyond the initial flirtations and hookups, which is as far as many songs about love between two men ever get.
There have only been a handful of times I’ve fully felt my experience as a gay man portrayed so precisely in song. Sure, I’ve had my heart broken and drowned my sorrows in overwrought ballads from the likes of Celine Dion, Sam Smith and Whitney Houston. I’ve had countless nights out on the dance floor moving to the beat of sexually-charged anthems from Madonna, Rihanna, and Scissor Sisters.
Now, at 37 and happily partnered for four years, my experiences don’t often mirror those extreme moments of romantic pain or hedonistic partying. I’ve done some growing up. Judging from his writing, it seems Platt has gotten to this place sooner than I did. I think it’s partly because he was raised around the entertainment industry as a kid in Los Angeles before making his way to New York. (Take a minute to Google Ben Platt’s dad, Marc Platt, because, woah, he’s accomplished a lot.)
I, on the other hand, was raised in a very conservative town in Alabama, so I felt the need to fight against and suppress my sexuality for years. It’s still not something I wear with total ease when I visit my hometown, but I’m working on it. There’s a sense of shame that can creep in, and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve come to think of my relationship with my partner on equal footing with my parents’ and cousins’ relationships with their partners of the opposite sex.
In that sense, Platt’s writing is revolutionary because it applies heteronormative lyrical ordinariness to songs about gay men without batting an eye or asking for permission or drawing any attention to the fact that he’s doing it. It plays out in the last song on the album, “Run Away,” in which Platt sings of his parents’ love for each other, his parents’ love for him, and how that love is now informing how he loves his partner. It’s a heterosexual narrative effortlessly applied to the next generations’s same-sex love. There’s no shame or fear of mom and dad’s retribution over a lifestyle choice here. Instead, the parents’ heterosexual relationship is something to be emulated and celebrated in this new context.
Granted, Platt’s songs are not going to mirror every young gay man’s coming of age story, even in 2019. We’ve still got a long way to go in the fight for equality, but just having Platt’s singular experience conveyed in these songs is a breakthrough. The next generation of gay men can now discover it’s possible to find acceptance and find yourself earlier in life than I did. This representation matters.
I finally feel like I’ve found a soundtrack for the life I’m living — working to pay the mortgage and doing the dishes after dinner while Clint tends to our five dogs. It surely doesn’t look and feel like some alternative lifestyle we’re living. It’s sounds like the universal, everyday life experience Platt sings about on Sing to Me Instead, and that’s just extraordinary.