If queer pop with subtle, social message points about the ups and downs of the movement for LGBTQ equality and a sense of lyrical sexual freedom had banner years, they would be 2015 and 2018. Those are the years that Australia’s Troye Sivan and England’s Years & Years (and its frontperson, Olly Alexander) first made themselves known in larger, broader ways.
With both starting their careers as actors (Sivan continuously, in this year’s Boy Erased), each explored the melodic ends of ambient dance-pop since their start: Sivan with 2015’s Blue Neighbourhood and 2018’s Bloom, Years & Years with 2015’s Communion, and 2018’s Palo Santo. Further connecting the two is each act’s upcoming tour schedule. While Sivan headlines The Tower tonight, Years & Years play Theatre of Living Arts, October 10.
Sivan (who did not speak for this piece) made his queer-positive-self known with the 2015 single “Youth,” its daring “What if we said goodbye to safe and sound?” refrain, and a video where another young man was his love object. On Sivan’s new album, Bloom, moments such as “Animal” touch upon the openness of gay sexuality and passion, while the more poignant “Seventeen” rhapsodizes about how he got there.
Alexander has more of a public face in terms of activism than Sivan, promoting safe sex and HIV screening for the good of all, as well as anti-LGBTQ bullying initiatives and dealing with the deep depression and anxiety that comes from gay struggles. Those struggles and his approaches to sexuality and gender identity comes through the R&B house music of Years & Years in a more conceptual fashion on Palo Santo. Based in a fictional universe where sexual lines are never drawn, let alone crossed, Alexander touches on God and carnal knowledge as well as the potential for guilt when addressing both.
“Promoting this album has been a mixture of exhaustion and excitement,” says Alexander, extending the reach of Palo Alto’s road marketing into that of his grown as an artist and activist. “It’s also a bit dis-orienting at times. I have, however, changed so much throughout the process of these two albums, politically and socially. It all came about in degrees.”
Choosing synth-pop for a series of stories such as his (“Preacher” and its yearning of tearing down guilt, “Lucky Escape” and the willingness to tear down barriers, figurative and emotional), was akin to the spoonful of sugar method applied by Mary Poppins to her most drastic measures. “I learned to love pop for this,” says Alexander. “It seemed the right sort of medium. And no one expects this kind of message in this sort of pop song.”
Alexander didn’t really know what he wanted to say or get off his chest when he started the process of Palo Alto – only that he wanted to create a system that went beyond the “encoded messages” of previous work (“to myself, to other people”), and be blunter and more forceful. He knows that Palo Alto isn’t a Dylan or a Guthrie protest album, but still Alexander needed to be more direct.
“There was something holding me back in the past from being more direct, and saying what needed to be said,” claimed the lyricist-singer. “No more. I pushed myself in a direction… say on ‘Karma,’ where I insist on not pretending any longer and referencing my dad. That was a big step. Obviously, we have a very difficult relationship, and it wasn’t something I wanted to splash all over the place in the media. Yet, now, it is important to shed some sunlight on that issue of mine – at least a little bit.”
While we don’t know how Sivan feels, Alexander is both comfortable being a gay icon/spokesman, and perplexed. “I have learned and become aware how diverse the LQBTQ community is, and how few of us are being represented or representing,” he says. “If people are asking good questions about the gay experience, perhaps someone should be there to answer them.”
Troye Sivian performs at the Tower Theater on Saturday, October 6th; Years & Years plays the TLA on Wednesday, October 10th. Tickets and more information on both shows can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.