It’s a great time to be queer. At least if one looks to pop music. I cannot remember a time like now when pop music has been so queer-friendly. I had to look back to the early 1980s when the New Romantic movement was born out of the glam rock and punk movement of the 1970s. With the advent of MTV, suddenly, we got to see pretty boys with elaborate haircuts, gazing coyly at us, their faces beat to the gods. Bands like Duran Duran, Japan, Adam and the Ants, and A Flock of Seagulls featured singers who crooned earnest love songs over glittery dance beats. And of course, we also had artists like Boy George, Pete Burns, and Marilyn, who followed 1970s gender-bending pioneers like Sylvester and David Bowie.
What’s so interesting about the queerness of early 80s pop music is that it came at an arguably tumultuous time for the queer community. The 1970s saw promising strides following the Stonewall Rebellion in the summer of 1969, and in 1973, the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. We also saw throughout the United States cities adopting limited gay rights bills. Though a backlash was simmering, swatting down these instances of victory, we saw that with the failed Briggs Initiative in 1978, which sought to ban openly queer folks from teaching in California, the tide was slowly shifting in our favor (I mean if something is too right-wing for former California governor and future president Ronald Reagan, then you know you went too far).
But by the MTV-powered synthpop of the early-to-mid 1980s, the queer community was dealt with its most devastating setback: AIDS. Suddenly, the Right had a virus to weaponize and the backlash against queer people had a gruesome, panicked basis. President Reagan was famously mum about the topic, only deigning to comment on the issue in 1985, waking from a homophobic slumber to bother addressing the nation on this new scary pandemic (sound familiar?) Not to be outdone by the United States or President Reagan, Margaret Thatcher’s government passed Section 28 in the UK, prohibiting the ‘promotion’ of queerness by local authorities, including state schools.
So amid this scary, scary time, when queerness – particularly male queerness was seen as not only immoral but dangerous, we had a moment in which teen girls (not to mention teen boys) swoon over the maquillaged faces of gorgeous men who simpered and pouted insouciantly. These weren’t brooding heroes but sensitive poets.
Once the New Romantic movement started to fade, and other music started to dominate pop charts, including rap and hip-hop, we seemed to gingerly step back into a proverbial closet until the early 1990s when a nascent queer renaissance flourished. That manifested in a cinematic New Queer Cinema movement (coined B Ruby Rich) and the coming out of pop/rock goddesses Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang and the pop success of RuPaul who convinced the world that she was the Supermodel of the World. All of this joyful queerness was emerging from 12 years of Republican rule, with cautious optimism that met with the electoral victory of Bill Clinton, a president who actively courted gay voters (little did we know…)
Today’s pop landscape reflects a seemingly post-queer world in which identities as binary as gay and straight seem somewhat quaint. As more identities and sexualities are acknowledged, letters are added to the LGBTQUIA+ umbrella. This dovetailed with the popularity of synthpop music which looks to the 1980s dance-pop culture but with a post-millennial point of view. What emerges is a new kind of New Romantic movement, spurred on by the success of pop stars who find that coming out of the closet won’t necessarily kill a career. It’s poignant to think of artists like George Michael or Ricky Martin, both of whom had to playact straight early in their pop careers to court teenage girl audiences.
In the environment of pop queerness, we have Years & Years, the brainchild of actor/musician Olly Alexander. Formed in 2010, the act – which was a band at one point – released two studio LPs before Alexander continued on with Years & Years as a solo act, with the latest release, Night Call. The record came four years after Years & Years’ sophomore set, Palo Santo. In the ensuing years, Alexander found himself embracing his neon-drenched nostalgia with his starring role in the queer drama, It’s a Sin, which takes place during the AIDS crisis in 1980s London (named after the Pet Shop Boys 1987 hit). Years & Years paid tribute to the legendary synthpop duo by recording a cover of the song (the two pop-fabulous acts would join forces on the Boys’ 2020 album Hotspot)
The context in which Night Call is released has some similarities to the pulsing, synth-scored 1980s, which is a huge influence on the album’s music. The year 2022 doesn’t seem to be much of a relief after the difficult slog of 2020, 2021, which saw the world gripped by a global pandemic which in itself would be awful. But we also witnessed reactionary, knee-jerk responses to world governments’ responses in ameliorating the diseases’ effects. We also see continued unrest throughout the United States with videos of police officers killing unarmed Black men. An angry and embittered outgoing president couldn’t accept his loss and incited his followers to storm the Capitol. Trans rights, abortion rights, and voting rights are in danger throughout the states.
In this heady and dizzying mess, music like Night Call feels like necessary succor, a vital salve (which is what the best dance music does – it helps us forget our troubles). It’s a lot to ask of pop music, but Years & Years is more than up to the task. Night Call is a sexy, fun, at-times exhilarating album that looks with affection at the music of the 1980s but adds a smart, fresh update. Alexander has a hand in writing all of the tracks and works with some hot dance producers to create a fabulous record that feels like a natural evolution from the electronic-pop past of Years & Years’ previous efforts.
Not only does Alexander and his collaborators play with rubbery dance-pop, but he also incorporates some light soul-pop, his sinewy, delicate voice reminiscent of Boy George’s plaintively soulful croon. So much of Night Call feels like an homage of yesteryear, but it isn’t empty nostalgia. Instead, Alexander and company put together a pop record aimed at offering listeners a euphoric moment of escape.
The first single, “Starstruck”, is a twirling club stomper with Alexander’s joyful vocals. It’s a fantastic tune that celebrates being happy and losing it on the dancefloor. Even better is the remix, which features the appealingly nasal, strangled vocals of legendary pop diva Kylie Minogue (who responded to these difficult times with her own dance album Disco). The pairing of Alexander and Minogue makes so much sense on a record like Night Call that is flamboyant, camp, and sparkly. (Alexander returned the favor and guested on Minogue’s on a reissued version of Disco on the disco ditty “Second to Midnight”).
“Crave” is another banger on the album. It’s a darkly sensual, carnal dance song with Alexander’s tense, worried vocals gliding on a galloping synth. There’s a great moment on the track in the bridge in which Alexander slips into a pretty falsetto as he pleads, “How could you ever leave?” repeatedly to the wayward lover. The song slips from the blips and beeps of synthesizers to something more fluid and downbeat, the music muted behind a beat, recalling that elation on the dancefloor when you close your eyes and let the music wash over you.
As with Alexander’s collaboration with the great Kylie, some of the other best parts of Night Call has the singer join forces with other pop acts. Galantis (who resurrected Disco Dolly Parton on their own hit “Faith”), joins Years & Years for an exhilarated pop song “Sweet Talker”. It has busy, rushed production with vamped and sampled vocals and house-like pounding pianos and disco strings. It’s a mishmash of dance-pop sounds crammed together – none of it should work, but its gaudiness works in its favor, as it embraces the sweet of excess pop. And Alexander finds a kindred spirit with Jax Jones, who applies his deep house with the album’s glowstick pop. The song is a brisk tune destined for repeated plays in Ibiza. And if you source the New Year’s Edition, you can also hear Alexander trade vocals with a bombastic roaring Elton John on the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin”.
The guest list is pretty starry and impressive. However, Alexander’s still the headliner on the album, and he has the charisma, charm, and talent that even with the incredible star power of Kylie and Sir Elton, the best moments are his own. “Make It Out Alive” is a ticking pop ballad that is gorgeous and lovely and should become a pop standard.
One of the most notable things about Night Call is that it embraces sensuality and sexuality, which shows just how far we’ve come. There was a time when a queer pop star would either have to pretend to sing about the opposite sex or write cryptic lyrics and rely on subtext. Years & Years is a pop act that embraces his queer sexuality in a way that would seem unthinkable in the 1980s.
Listen to when he sings kinky lyrics like “Look at all that, that muscle / Oh, I wanna take a bite / And I wanna take it now” reveling and celebrating his queer sexuality. He’s claiming his space as a queer pop star in our world, unapologetically. It’s not the kind of wink-wink open secret that maintained the careers of past queer icons like Liberace or Paul Lynde. It’s refreshingly free of the angst that defines a lot of queer cultural content. For example, listen to Night Call and then listen to Bronski Beat’s classic Age of Consent, which is a revolutionary record, but one that is laying the groundwork so that Night Call can exist.