You used to have to be a master of coy doublespeak to sneak queer overtures into a song that captured the attention of the English-speaking public, but even in the sex-positive ’70s, success for songs that offered insights into LGBTQ life was a dice roll. Lou Reed’s racy hustler’s anthem “Walk on the Wild Side” miraculously escaped censors, but David Bowie’s much more subdued “John, I’m Only Dancing” was initially blocked from release Stateside in 1972 in part because of latent bisexual implications that must have been the long tail of the singer’s provocative announcement that he was gay in Melody Maker that winter. “Lola,” the Kinks’ ode to a night of passion with a trans woman, was banned in Australia but broke big in the U.S. and U.K. In the ’80s, when protest and AIDS outreach made gay communities on both sides of the Atlantic more visible, out and proud members of acts like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Soft Cell, and Erasure made their mark on the international consciousness, but peers like Boy George and George Michael preferred to be demure about their sexual orientation and affect a universality in their music through slippery pronoun use, coming out when the spotlight died down years after their prime.
The queer pop music of the second half of this decade feels like a subtle break from the past. The difference isn’t necessarily visibility or overtness — cue the decadent leather party in Frankie’s original “Relax” video. There isn’t just an outpouring of vibrant young LGBTQ recording artists; it’s that they don’t feel the urge to explain or define themselves, or to explain or define how their experiences relate to the overarching straight world. If you catch the references, Frank Ocean songs like “Chanel” are voracious in their sexual appetites and fluid in their sexuality; they’re still pleasant and beguiling if you don’t. In songs like “Immaterial” and videos like “It’s Okay to Cry,” the enigmatic electronic producer and performer SOPHIE warps and erodes the idea that gender is, or should be, a binary, but the music holds its own if you just bop along to the beat. Rappers like Tyler, the Creator and Brockhampton’s Kevin Abstract have peppered recent rhymes with lyrics about attraction to men and left it to the audience to come to terms with what it means. Like the old Queer Nation rallying slogan, they’re asking the world to “get used to it.”
Troye Sivan is a young Australian singer-songwriter making the kind of fey, dance-floor-adjacent vocal pop Sam Smith was expected to excel at before he made the hard pivot from the disco underpinnings of “Latch” and “Safe With Me” to the windswept, adult-contemporary Adele-isms of “Stay With Me.” Sivan’s early work struggled to find its place along the same axis of upbeat bops and drippy ballads. Early works like the Wild EP and his debut studio album, Blue Neighborhood, lived and died by their tempo; the latter project’s jaunty single “Youth” charted respectably in Europe and America by investing in a mix of hip-hop and EDM production values not unlike big Stateside hits like Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods.” Sivan writes poignantly about relationships between men. The “Youth” video is like a ’90s Calvin Klein ad with a gay lead, like David Moreton’s campy, neon coming-of-age story Edge of Seventeen if homophobic social mores didn’t exist. The singer came out to his family at 14 and, four years later in a video titled “Coming Out,” explained to the dedicated audience of YouTube subscribers he amassed by posting covers and wholesome slice-of-life videos, that not only does “It Get Better,” but that “it can be good right from the start.”
The message of Troye’s coming-out video is also the message of his sophomore album, Bloom. From the lyrics to the styling and dancing in his music videos, Sivan is modeling a carefree gay masculinity the world works hard to condition out of young boys, in social mores expressed ambiguously through puzzled looks and furrowed brows and more deliberately in bullying, abuse, and conversion therapy. Bloom is about loving freely and deeply. The title track is a tender tune about sexual submissiveness whose garden and gas-tank metaphors feel refreshingly rare coming from a man on the rise in a mainstream pop field of play. Opener “Seventeen” describes the singer’s experiences entering the hookup-app circuit a little too early. Like the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” or Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Call Me by Your Name, it’s more concerned with what a teenager is looking for when he rushes into sexual relationships than the long list of reasons why he should take his time. (The lyrics seem benign, but speaking of the men who informed “Seventeen” in Attitude, Sivan said, “I was so scared to meet up with people because I was like, ‘I’m going to get killed, I’m going to get murdered by someone.’” The worry in popping over to a stranger’s for a roll in the hay is always that you might not make it back home.) “What a Heavenly Way to Die” references “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” as it muses on growing old with a partner.
Troye Sivan’s not reinventing the wheel. There’s a long history of fearless LGBTQ songwriters spinning yarns about love, pride, and longevity in times when it cost them opportunities and chart traction to do so. But Bloom imagines these songs existing without the prejudices that once forced queer artists to speak of their experiences abstractly or else in code, that brand of modern-day songs about same-sex romance and sensuality as niche art heterosexual audiences can appreciate but not relate to. Bloom sets these songs loose in the wholesome, neon pocket universe of radio pop. It reckons we deserve to have breezy dance-floor tunes about butt play. It wonders why “the love that dares not speak its name” ever had to stay in the shadows and dresses it up in bright textures. “My My My” and “Bloom” recoup on the early promise of “Youth” with peppy tempos and soaring melodies. “Dance for This” matches vocals with Ariana Grande over a track incorporating dashes of synth pop and dancehall. The slower songs fare better here than they did on Blue Neighborhood. “The Good Side” is a happy-go-lucky folk song whose plinking keys evoke Van Morrison’s 1968 acoustic-guitar-and-harpsichord gem “Cypress Avenue.” (I swear Sivan’s a big classic rock fan; the “shine on … diamond” line in “My My My” has to be a Pink Floyd reference.) On the surface, Bloom is a sweet, airy, late summer confection. Lean in closer, and you catch wind of some of the casual, comforting LGBTQ-pride pop music has been angling toward since Ziggy brought us spiders from Mars.