As I watched the video for “Define Me,” a piano ballad by singer-songwriter Ryan Amador featuring Jo Lampert, I kept trying to resist it. I kept thinking, “God, these lyrics are so on the nose! All this blatant stuff about wanting to start a party where everyone is free to love who they want? Where all gay people will be united and free? I mean, yes, yes… I want those things. Of course I do. But if I’m going to listen to a song about them, can’t it be a little less blunt?”
I thought the same thing about the music video, which features Amador and Lampert stripping off their clothes to reveal anti-gay slurs written all over their bodies, like a LGBT update on that famous Dixie Chicks cover of Entertainment Weekly. “Okay, y’all,” I thought. “I got you. You’re covered in society’s hateful labels, and… oops! Now you’re washing them off. We all saw that coming.”
I’m not saying I have a problem with sincerity. Most of the time, I argue for sincere emotion in popular culture, since our reliance on irony and sarcasm trains us we’ll be smarter and happier if we’re shielded from genuine emotion. Which isn’t true. So when I encounter a song or film or story that actually evokes honest feeling, I get moved and start crying. Almost every time. That’s why I wrote about these gay love songs for Valentine’s Day. They just get me RIGHT HERE, you know?
However, I get skittish when a work of art, even if it’s sincere, is trying to teach me something. Because… um… I’ve been to school. Spare me the moral lessons. And “Define Me” is making some blunt moral arguments here. Granted, the song’s YouTube page says it was written for an LGBT youth conference, so I guess that makes sense. You probably DO want to be blunt at a conference like that. Still, I was resisting the song, the video, and the message.
But I kept watching. And damn it, “Define Me” got to me anyway.
For one thing, Amador and Lampert both have beautiful voices. He’s a little more musical theatre and she’s a little more blues-rock, and when they blend together, it’s like hearing hard and soft, whispers and shouts, all at once. Plus, the song is performed so simply and plaintively that it’s easy to believe in what they’re singing. They don’t frill it up with a hundred guitars or AutoTune because a message this heartfelt doesn’t need any of that. It just needs lovely voices.
That simplicity carries to the video, too. Director Tom Gustafson holds the shots for a long time, so that each image of a body part or face lands firmly in the mind. When we stare at people like this — without a hyperactive series of edits to distract us — it’s easier to feel connected to them.
More importantly, both Amador and Lampert just seem really nice. They smile a lot. They look at each other and giggle. They might be singing a moral message, but they don’t seem like angry preachers. Ultimately, I couldn’t resist their gentleness and sweetness, and by the end of the song, I was touched by what they’d done.
So there you go. I fought “Define Me,” but I eventually fell for its earnest kindness. Maybe I’ve heard this song’s message before, but I’m not sorry I heard it again.
Mark Blankenship has written about music for NPR and the New York Times. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship.