Dear Holden

Siavash Minoukadeh

Dear Holden,

If you’re reading this then forgive me for writing to you like this. And if you’re not, then forgive me for putting this letter to you out for others to read. To be honest, I haven’t yet decided if I want to leave this as a letter that was never sent but published or whether I might actually go through and send it. Neither feel like especially original concepts at this point. I have consigned myself to a gimmick.

I wanted to get in touch with you because I was reading an interview you did a few years ago where you talked about the impact that the music video for Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe had on your life. ‘Here,’ I thought, ‘is someone who was as impacted by that 3 minute video as my twelve year-old self was.’ Here is someone I can properly discuss this cultural moment with. Of course the video didn’t have the same impact on us. You were on set, shirtless in a Canadian street that was probably far colder than it was graded to look. I was watching the result (and, therefore, you) on my iPod touch.

From the sounds of it, you had a much worse time of it than I did. I won’t read your complaints back to you. Long hours, far from ideal conditions on set, a low fee that won’t be raised no matter how successful a video is after release. This is common practice in production but I don’t mean to diminish your experience by saying that.

What caught my eye more in the interview though was not those issues you had while shooting the video, but the issues you faced after it was released. You played the role of a man who Carly strives to impress only for her to find out, to comic effect, that your smiles and glances had been intended for her brother. Your character is gay in other words, and this has led to people thinking that you yourself are gay, even outside the context of the video.

I could be catty and ask whether it’s really that bad to be perceived as gay. After all, some of us actually are gay and we get on with life pretty well. I’ll be generous though. Let’s say your issue with being perceived as gay wasn’t homophobic but rather more practical. I can imagine how having to awkwardly turn away male admirers while not being considered by women isn’t the best thing in the world for a straight man such as yourself.

Without meaning to deny the (I’d say somewhat minor) annoyance of the fact that the video led to you being seen as gay, I wanted to ask you whether you didn’t think there was something interesting in how a single YouTube video could have had that much of an impact? What was it about that music video that convinced so many viewers that you were gay? Why did it make us think you were, and were not simply playing, gay?

I don’t, for example, think that Timothée Chalamet is queer, despite him playing a queer role in a much longer and more explicitly romantic film than you ever did. I don’t think any other gay men seriously do either, as much as some of us may wish him to be. He was an actor, playing a role in a fiction film. Without thinking too hard about it, we were able to decode his presence in Call Me By Your Name as a performance.

There’s something about the conventions of a film that tell us how to understand what we’re watching. We know that we’ll be looking at actors reading lines written for them, telling us a story that has a beginning, middle and end. We might suspend our disbelief, but it remains just that, suspended. Once the lights come up in the cinema, the face we had been staring at stops being a character, with their own identity, desires, challenges and reverts to just being the face of an actor.

So why did that not happen with you in Call Me Maybe? Why did we as viewers not manage to apply the same conventions we did when watching a film? Why have you ended up in a situation where the differences between you and the character you played merged into one? I would love to hear what you think about this.

While I await your response, I thought I might suggest my own answer. I think it has something to do with the form of the music video itself and how we’re trained to make sense of it. With most films, we have an unconscious set of expectations that help us navigate the things we’re seeing and hearing on the screen in front of us. Whether there’s a huge shark snapping up swimmers or two friends arguing, we can apply ideas of narrative, character, plot and setting to whatever we’re looking at.

For films, we have a method to decode the random images, the faces of strangers that we’ve never met in real life, the places we’ve never been to or which may not even exist, and wrap them together into something that makes sense. We do the same for music videos, in a way. In films, we’re normally looking for a story. That’s what a film has to have, so that’s what we look for. In music videos, we’re looking for the music. After all, the one thing we know a music video has to contain, the one thing that makes a music video a music video, is a piece of music. As long as that’s there, we’re happy.

But that leaves all the rest of a music video undefined. Since all we need is the music, the images, the stories, the characters, all fall into a grey area. We don’t really think too hard about them so we’re never sure what they are. Are the people in a music video real people or characters being played by actors? The singer, if they feature, is normally meant to be a version of their real selves. Aren’t they? What about the other people, people like you, or your character?

The ‘video’ bit of a music video is, in a sense irrelevant. We don’t need it to do a specific thing or look a specific way for us to understand and enjoy the music video. Without the same kind of rules regulating it that films have, no wonder viewers didn’t know whether you were acting gay or simply being gay.

You might not like how it was used, but this ‘undefinition’ does give music videos power. When we don’t need to define what we’re looking at we can let them get away with a lot. In people’s minds, the Call Me Maybe video literally made you gay. It made itself real in a way, in a way that we never allow films to.

For me, as a twelve year old watching the music video, it showed me a hint of a world, tinged with the vague trappings of romance and with gayness. Watching your character be openly gay land as the video’s punchline felt odd because for once, the joke wasn’t on the gay character, it wasn’t his desire that was being mocked. I wouldn’t say it was positive gay representation, but it wasn’t negative gay representation either, just somewhat neutral.

I was probably just a few months too young to start to know all this, and to know why it resonated with me but it did resonate, and continues to do so. The song, which I still listen to from time to time, is inextricably tied to the video for me. Part of the reason I still feel cheered up when I hear that violin riff is because it reminds me of those scenes where I saw gayness, not as othered but as just part of a suburban life and gay men, not as targets of ridicule but as subjects of desire. I didn’t know whether that video was real or not, I didn’t really think that. Just being able to envisage such a world made it seem like it was real somewhere, and if it wasn’t that it could become real at some point.

Even now that I’ve become aware of and cynical about the concept of homonormativity I still think about the maybe-real world I saw in the music video and the vision it gave me of living happily and queerly. The music video didn’t have the codes that told me what I was watching was fiction the way a film does, it left me open to think it was, or could be, real if I wanted it to.

So while I am sorry (but not too sorry) about the impact that being in the Call Me Maybe music video had on you Holden, I’d ask you to try and find the bright side of it. Don’t you think it’s incredible that a three-minute video, shot over a day in British Columbia has managed to have such an impact in the first place? Isn’t there something sort of inspiring in seeing the gay character that you played lift off the music video screen and actually become real for so many of us? I hope you can find some solace in all this.

Let me know what you think, I’d love to hear from you. If you’re still in touch with Carly please say hi from me, I’m a big fan.