“To be gay requires watching for hints,” wrote pop critic Alfred Soto for Billboard shortly after George Michael’s passing in 2016. “When nearly 100 percent of pop songs aren’t about or for the queer life, gay fans learn to study shifts in emphasis, to stay alert.”
Throughout the history of pop music, there have been out-and-proud queer performers and strong, proud advocates of the cause, but, by and large, the topic of gay life itself is shied away from. Even George Michael, after he was forced out of the closet, made songs like “Freeek!” which were outspoken in how risqué it was trying to be, but the whole message still boiled down to general pro-kink sexuality that applied to the entire spectrum of orientations. So while pop divas frequently reference their “man” or their “boy” in their lyrics, the application of these phrases to the life of a gay male is immediate, which is why, in part, so many of these divas have utterly devout gay followings. No hints required because these songs are deliberately recontextualized.
LGBTQ representation in mainstream pop music, even in 2018, remains scant. The visibility is there and the allies are apparent, but queerness in pop music is so often treated as a novelty: think Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” or Britney Spears’ and Madonna’s staged kiss at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards. Moments like are significant due to the large-scale cultural impact, but their intentions remain in question. There is shock value tied to how taboo the subject was even then, but the follow-through from these stars has been passive and, at best, supportive.
While people can point to albums like Lady Gaga’s 2011 effort Born This Way, Melissa Etheridge’s 1993 pseudo-declaration Yes I Am, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1984 extravaganza Welcome to the Pleasuredome as albums that reference the gay experience (to say nothing of more indie-minded efforts by the likes of Antony & the Johnsons, the Scissor Sisters, and Peaches), so often these albums are dressed up in metaphor and analogies, characters and double entendres. It’s almost as if being able to speak about the queer experience in the realm of pop music, you can only do so while keeping the audience at a certain distance. Being direct hasn’t been an option because, frankly, it wouldn’t be accepted in any broad commercial sphere.
Troye Sivan has himself been working on this very issue. While much has been made of his early film roles and his use of YouTube as a way to help launch his singing career, his 2015 full-length debut Blue Neighborhood spoke about his experience in growing up queer but, again, couldn’t help but dress up his stories in an elaborate conceit. His album spoke to the pangs of unrequited love, and had moments of intense emotional honesty (like on “Lost Boy”, where he admitted “I’m just some dumb kid / Trying to kid myself / That I got my shit together”), but Sivan ultimately let his artistry get in the way of anything definitive or direct. It was a lovely album, but one that, as Soto put, was built almost entirely on “hints”.
On “Seventeen”, the opening track of Sivan’s sophomore effort Bloom, he wastes absolutely no time getting to the point:
“I went out looking for love when I was 17
Maybe a little too young, but it was real to me
And in the heat of the night, saw things I’d never seen.”
While some might be shocked at the prospect of a 17-year-old young man having sex with someone much older, such discoveries are not exactly uncommon for modern gay culture. In 1999, Russel T. Davies’ original UK show Queer As Folk dealt with that very topic in its opening episode, with a young 15-year-old named Nathan (Charlie Hunnam) hooking up with a 29-year-old man-of-the-scene named Stuart (Aidan Gillen). The fervor over the scene during its debut came at a time when Parliament was considering lowering the age of consent, so such a depiction of gay culture, to many, was nothing short of shocking.
Bloom isn’t out to shock so much as it is to revel in what it means to grow up queer in the present age. It’s as playful as it can be complicated, as bitter as it is sweet. The album’s title track is an anthem for bottoming in the bedroom, and it’s just as flirtatious as it is committed (“I’ve been saving this for you, baby”). Sivan continues to use metaphors in his writing but doesn’t hide behind them in the way he did on Blue Neighborhood. On “Plum”, he notes how he knows he and his partner aren’t getting any younger, so are enjoying what they have for now (“Maybe our time has come / Maybe we’re overgrown / Even the sweetest plum / Has only got so long”).
Mixed with beats and drum patterns straight out of ’80s synthpop (think Bronski Beat but far moodier), Sivan’s melodies are so much stronger on Bloom, sometimes aiming for strobe light realness (as on his truly perfect lead single “My My My!”), and at times serving as a perfect soundtrack for bedroom dance parties (as on his Ariana Grande duet “Dance to This”). His verses are easily repeatable and not overly complicated, which, especially in comparison to Blue Neighborhood, shows how much better Sivan has gotten at editing himself melodically, aided by and large by the same team that helped put Blue together. Thematically, he finds himself addicted to a new relationship (the mid-tempo thumper “Lucky Strike”), recovering from the aftermath of his old one (the plaintive and effective acoustic ballad “The Good Side”), and can see through partners giving him false gestures and promises (“Postcard”). It’s a spectrum of experiences he presents to us, but they are all very considered and very specific.
While tracks like “Animal” and “What a Heavenly Way to Die” are pleasing-if-passable — largely due to the fact that they lack that air of specificity that gives so many other of Bloom‘s songs their strength — Bloom remains a powerful, thoughtful, and engaging listen: an album about queer life that welcomes all listeners from all quadrants. It may not be the queer masterpiece that some were expecting, but in this day and age, Bloom proves that gay people need not rely on metaphors or “hints” to get their stories across and be accepted by the masses. It’s heartening to know that a queer artist can write about the queer experience and end up being a true-blue, qualifier-free pop star because of it.