With “Sing to Me Instead,” Ben Platt Hums Heartbreak and Jewish Identity

Image courtesy of @itsonlysteph

A part of me has always known Ben Platt.

Hear me out.

We have never met, but on some cosmic level, the singer and I are already good friends. Maybe we were in the same class at Hebrew school, or perhaps he occupied a seat at my family’s weekly Shabbat dinners. I can even imagine him in my cabin at overnight camp. He would land the lead roles in the annual plays, of course, and I would fawn from backstage as he provoked thunderous applause each summer.

With the release of his debut pop album, “Sing to Me Instead,” last March, my inkling of a connection to the artist has now developed into full-fledged identification. I now understand Ben Platt. Specifically, I understand his sensitivity, I understand his warm-heartedness, and I understand the anxious undertones that pulsate through his music.

With Sing to Me Instead, Platt moves beyond the Broadway stage to delve into the emotional core of his personal life.

Platt’s origins are in musical theatre, not pop. He reached stardom two years ago upon assuming the leading role in Dear Evan Hansen: a Broadway musical about a nervous teenager who becomes entangled in a web of lies after his classmate’s suicide. He originated the role of Evan Hansen on Broadway to widespread critical acclaim, and the performance even earned him the Tony Award For Best Leading Actor in A Musical in 2017. The character has since come to be recognized as one of the most vocally and emotionally difficult male roles in musical theatre history. Yet Platt’s smooth vibrato made the part seem effortless.

With Sing to Me Instead, Platt moves beyond the Broadway stage to delve into the emotional core of his personal life. He discusses ex-boyfriends and self-growth in a voice much more sophisticated than Evan Hansen’s teenage jitters, but he still retains the signature vulnerability that made his past performances so remarkable. The songs in the album range from the gleefully giddy “Share Your Address” to the touching and tender “Temporary Love.” Moreover, because the album is divided into multiple “cycles” of past relationships, the listening experience mirrors the emotional ebb and flow of Platt’s own love life.

The album’s opening song, “Bad Habit, exemplifies the artist’s emerging style. Platt croons a powerful piano ballad about a lover he relies on when feeling overwhelmed. Listening to Platt belt—and this boy can belt—I hear echoes of Elton John and Sara Bareilles reverberate through his voice. The former artist seems to have inspired his catchy choruses and flare of femininity. The latter’s influence proves that Platt is not the only musician fine-tuning this Broadway/pop music hybrid.

In interviews, Platt has spoken about wanting to represent himself “authentically” within his music, and this desire manifests in him singing frequently about his own mental health issues. In “Ease My Mind,” Platt begins, “Most days, I wake up with a pain in my chest,” hinting towards the singer’s clinical anxiety. However, Platt then goes on to discuss how his partner mitigates this pain, asserting, “Darling, only you can ease my mind.”

While I appreciate Platt’s frank discussion of anxiety, I also wonder if writing a song about using another person as a pacifier for one’s mental health problems may be a tad irresponsible. Here, Platt does not suggest medication or even therapy as coping mechanisms for his anxiety. Instead, the recurring theme is simply relying on a significant other for moral support. This is a message, which taken at face value, tells his (mostly young) fanbase that love is the cure to all mental health woes.

Beyond the album’s discussion of mental health, Sing to Me Instead also provides a unique representation of Jewish male identity.

In North American media, Jewish boys rarely assume the role of the romantic lover. Instead, we are the nasally sidekick, or we are the hard-working men whose intelligence make us reliable, albeit colourless, husbands. We are never daring, and we are certainly not sexy. From cartoons to award-winning films, the media overwhelmingly highlights our bookishness and social ineptitude. This singular and pervasive depiction of Jewish men sends the message that “nice” is all we can ever strive to be.

Platt sings introspectively about hyper-specific relationship milestones.

With these stereotypes in mind, it is here where Platt’s music becomes so powerful. Instead of using his identity as a Jewish, openly gay artist to challenge prevailing media stereotypes of Jewish and gay men being feminine, Platt embraces these clichés to illustrate how a man accepting his own femininity can be its own form of strength.

Platt sings introspectively about hyper-specific relationship milestones. “Hurt Me Once” dives into what it’s like to teeter on the edge of a crumbling relationship but lack the assurance to end it for good. “Grow as We Go” discusses how self-growth can be a codependent process within a relationship without requiring a split-up. Platt discusses the familiar highs and lows of love that are already prevalent in pop music, but he also weaponizes his unique sensitivity to examine the many stages of a relationship that lie in between these extremes.

If Platt were simply trying to be another macho, swaggering male pop artist, he would not be able to explore the nuances of romance with such razor-sharp precision. He would sing about lust or sorrow without handling the more complex in-between situations. Platt’s sensitivity—or, one could argue his Jewish boy “niceness”—is actually his greatest asset, and it is what allows the album’s otherwise typical pop music progressions to sound original.

Platt communicates the idea that being open and sensitive can also be a form of confidence, which in turn provides a positive example of masculinity sorely missing in our media.

During the music video for “Grow as We Go,” Platt cries directly into the camera in a long take. Through this shot, Platt communicates the idea that being open and sensitive can also be a form of confidence, which in turn provides a positive example of masculinity sorely missing in our media. This grasp on sensitivity is something that few contemporary male artists—even other LGBT+ male artists—have yet to master. (Troye Sivan may be sexy and slim, but does he also sing with manic excitement about hanging out with his boyfriend’s mom? No, because only Ben Platt walks that tightrope between dorky and debonair.)

This year, I returned home from university during exams to attend my extended family’s annual Passover Seder. As my little cousins recount the story of Exodus in botched Hebrew, I am distracted by the pounding piano chorus of “Bad Habit” in my head.

My nose rises from the dusty prayer book, and I look around me to confront my present life. Platt’s Sing to Me Instead tells me that l can be both the family man and the passionate partner. I can exhibit both vulnerability and confidence. And I can be gay—openly, unceremoniously gay—while still experiencing the same range of love and heartbreak as everyone else.

So, Ben Platt, from one Jewish boy to another, Mazel Tov and mad respect for making music that truly resonates.

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