Technically, I suppose that including Jesse McCartney in the Early Gay Crushes series would have to mean that anyone I might have had a celebrity crush on before I admitted to myself that I was gay would now be eligible. I first noticed him in the summer of 2005, a couple of months before my twentieth birthday, but still more than a year before I came out to myself and others. When he’s nevertheless included here, it’s because he’s certainly one of the most important ones, and, judging from his impressive one year run on the Sexiest Males Alive list (he’s the only to never have been lower than #4), one of the most enduring, too.
My Jesse crush was important because it happened at a time when I was actually, at least on some subconscious level, slowly beginning to consider whether these vague and hidden feelings might actually mean I was gay. I still wouldn’t admit it to myself, and when my friends, after I had gushed endlessly about Summerland, quite rightly asked why the hell I was so obsessed with this admittedly mediocre family drama, I kept coming up with lame and only half-reasonable excuses. I actually once said I was following because it was produced by Aaron Spelling (!), who also produced 7th Heaven, and because Ryan Kwanten (!!), a former regular on the Australian soap Home & Away, a TV guilty pleasure I shared with even a couple of straight friends of mine, was in it. But the worst of all this is that I accepted and repeated these excuses even to myself. The real reason was the one I couldn’t get myself to admit to: It was all about Jesse.
Also, it was all a coincidence. While it never really took off commercially in Norway, the title track off his debut album, Beautiful Soul, got ample sampling on the music networks. That meant I was regularly exposed to this incredibly cute blond boy who so reminded why I didn’t have that much against boyband pop after all. Around the same time, Backstreet Boys had made a reasonably successful comeback with the new single Incomplete (a pompous but strangely addictive power ballad hidden within a laughably self-serious video), and (my also gay) brother and I had admitted to each other that we were actually quite happy with having them back. Of course, all of this was said in sort of half-joking way, since we were well aware of the dreaded gay-by-association syndrome infested with being suspected of BSB fandom, but because we had found a way, at least among the two of us, to acknowledge fascination with such a presumably soft pop act, it wasn’t all that hard to admit that Jesse’s music fit our tastes as well. When, by a happy coincidence, Summerland premiered in Norway just a few weeks after Beatiful Soul had begun to make its way around the music network circuit, we both used his music as an excuse to simply see what else this guy might be up to, or whatever thinly veiled excuses we may have used to cover our common less-honorable reasons. Using GBA techniques, I’m sure my brother and I both to some degree interprete the Jesse/Backstreet Boys thing as a sign of gayness, but because we were afraid that asking each other about it would leave either of us vulnerable to getting the same question in return, we both refrained (I’m post-rationalizing slightly here, but I’ve talked to my brother about this later on, and he confirmed that it was one of several things that made him suspect I was gay. I could have said exactly the same thing about him).
Looking back, I’m very glad my relationship with Jesse started with the music. It ensured that I would always have something to return to, even after Summerland went off the air. Not that I’m complaining about the still fairly regular reruns of the show, but if it hadn’t been for his music career, he might have somehow slipped from view. For someone growing increasingly comfortable with the soft pop genre, the Beautiful Soul album contained several decent songs (Because You Live, She’s No You, Come To Me, Why Don’t You Kiss Her, Beautiful Soul, The Stupid Things), and though the follow-up, Right Where You Want Me, was something of a disappointment, at least managed to keep me interested. The time that had passed, from 2005 to 2007, also meant I, now an official gayer, no longer felt that I had to wrap my status as a Jesse fan in some semi-ironic and therefore ultimately insincere posture. I don’t think I converted anyone to his cause, but at least I took the time to listen to the music I wanted to hear. This was what later led to my public semi-embrace of Backstreet Boys (meaning that if someone asks what I think of them, I say that I think they were the best act in their genre, and that many of their songs hold up really well).
Still, to understand why it is now possible for me to freely worship Jesse McCartney the actor, pop singer and just plain sexy guy, we have to follow yet another one of those sidetracks, back to 2002. That year, former N*Syncer and subject to much derision from pop feinschmeckers, Justin Timberlake, released his first solo album, Justified. Instead of trying to retain his original fan base, however, Justin went in a more mature direction, delivering what at the same time was one of the best pop records and one of the best R’n’B records of that year. I mention this because when I first mentioned to friends of mine that I wanted to buy his album (this was after the first two singles, Like I Love You and Cry Me A River), they laughed at me, and I backed off. A couple of singles later, though, they had actually become Justin fans themselves, and with regard to Jesse McCartney, that made me think that coming from the boyband scene (Jesse went solo from Dream Street) was not necessarily a bad thing when it came to building a credible music career. This is not meant to suggest that Justified and Beautiful Soul are equally good (they aren’t), only that I actually had something to counter my friends with when they made fun of Jesse.
The validity of this argument rests with Jesse’s third album, Departed (2008). Apart from getting him a new look that made him even more crushworthy than before, this album presented us with a Jesse who, while losing none of his musical immediacy and ability to write catchy pop songs, also had matured musically and production-wise. The sometimes overly sentimental love ballads of the previous two albums were now gone (in fact Told You So – vintage Backstreet Boys, only better – and the quite decent final track, Not Your Enemy, were the only two down-tempo songs), and replaced by some of the better floor-fillers of recent years. It might take a little while to get into Leavin’, but once you’re in, you realize that this is the kind of record Jesse was meant to make. The synth details on It’s Over puts a great spin on his soft but surprisingly soulful voice, that nearly allows you to ignore painfully bad lyrics (‘Still wake up every morning quarter to ten/still eat my cereal right at the kitchen table‘ Seriously?), and cooing sexily on Rock You (‘They call me Jesse, baby‘) he only confirms my feeling this he’s a Justin-in-waiting. My personal favorite among many, though, has always been the irresistibly catchy How Do You Sleep. Just like all great pop albums about love lost, Departure, and How Do You Sleep in particular, manages to put a cheerful spin on even the most depressing lyrics. That’s the main reason why it was my most played album of 2008, and why it’s still a regular on my 2009 playlist as well.
Jesse is important in this category because he represents the strongest link between my ‘pre-gay’ self and the man I am today. That’s also why this piece was included in the EGA and not as a standalone piece. There goes a line from Zac Hanson to Jesse McCartney, and I wanted to celebrate that.