The Curious Case of Troye Sivan: Why Top 40 Needs a Gay Pop Star
At the beginning of 2016, I wrote a piece for Bello called "The Inevitable Rise of Troye Sivan," praising a bold and refreshing new talent in the pop arena and predicting his destined claim to mainstream fame.
For those of you who still have no clue as to whom I'm talking about, Troye Sivan started out as a YouTuber from Australia, gaining immense popularity among the GenZ set. His excellent, emotional electro-R&B debut album, Blue Neighborhood, was released shortly before Christmas last year, and Rolling Stone immediately called this talented 21-year-old "one of 10 new artists you need to know."
Before the release of that album, Troye had released an EP of tunes (2014's TRXYE) and a trilogy of music videos called "Blue Neighborhood," highlighting three standout tracks: "WILD," "FOOLS," and "TALK ME DOWN." Each beautifully directed piece chronicles a childhood friendship that turns into a forbidden and tragic romance. It's a boy-meets-boy saga that is rarely seen in the pop world -- perhaps too daring to be an American production.
Troye was, and still is, poised to be a unique and (I'll use the adjective again) fresh voice that could penetrate Top 40 radio and open a door for more artists like him: brilliant, eloquent singer-songwriters who just happen to be openly gay.
appearing on the widely appealing Ellen and The Tonight Show. He even managed to crack a few Top 40 radio stations with his official debut single, "Youth," a stomping, poetic anthem for the Snapchat generation.
Then came the official music video for said track, and something felt a little different. Taking place at a house party decked out in Christmas lights where a bunch of youths hang out and act silly (cuddling in a pile of Care Bears!), the song's visual treatment is simple, fine, serviceable. However, with the way some of the action unfolds, especially through its careful editing, it feels safe. Throughout the video, our star is seen exchanging flirty glances with a fair-haired boy. In a few shots, the two are face-to-face in a will-they-or-won't-they moment that flirts with viewers. While other partygoers get up close and personal -- an androgynous-looking couple kiss in a shadowy hallway -- Troye and his crush are never seen locking lips, even though the story ends with our singer being pulled into another room (perhaps for some private, off-screen time).
Compared to the bold narrative of the Blue Neighborhood trilogy, this video seems like a slight step back, and one can't help interpreting it as an attempt to tone down his sexuality.
And if that didn't raise a few suspicions, there was this:
"WILD" was released earlier this summer as a follow-up single, but it appears someone (at the music label perhaps?) decided it was a good idea to rework the album version by incorporating fellow up-and-comer Alessia Cara into the vocals. The result is a call-and-response remix that completely changes the song's original message. By employing a female vocal and adding a few new lyrics with some extra beats, the track is no longer about a boy expressing his desire for another boy. With much respect to Cara, this new rendition comes off as a generic, heteronormative love song.
Of course, one may argue that this happens with a lot of new artists who are trying to break into the mainstream. Musical collaborations are produced all the time, especially when two artists can benefit from a merger of their fanbases. However, this collab feels particularly manipulative, especially when the content of the song is altered for an entirely different interpretation.
If you caught the music video for this reworked single (below), which premiered in July, you'll see that the visuals reflect the original's message, yet applies it to a variety of relationships. Here, Cara comes off more like Troye's BFF who enjoys sitting on rooftops and talking about their respective boy drama. The rest of the video? It's a pleasant showcase of diverse couples, a Benetton ad without the expensive clothes (or production budget):
All of which makes the song's addition of a female vocal all the more confusing. Was there some kind of hesitation to make this all about Troye and his boyfriend? Did someone think it was a better idea to add a bunch of characters to detract from a more singular gay storyline and widen the appeal, the relatability? Or does Troye's youthful appearance (he still looks 14) make some hesitant to play around with his sex appeal? Or am I thinking too much about a music label's intentions?
For those who hear these songs and don't know much about Troye, the default impression is to assume he's singing about a girl (because this is the world we live in). But for those who know Troye, who know what he's all about (thanks to his personal YouTube channel), the assumption is different. You know the "you" he's singing about is, and will always be, referring to another guy.
There are a lot of young women in the Teenybopper Army who already know about Troye's sexual orientation (he's posted videos about his Dream Guy), and they seem to be a-OK with it. In fact, they seem to love him more for his transparency. After all, authenticity is key among the Snapchat generation. Just look at how many hits his videos have gotten. And if you think about it, this current crop of young fans are the elders of a generation that will eventually grow up not knowing a world before marriage equality. We now live in a society where a rising star doesn't have to pretend to be something he's not just because he needs to ensure a wider appeal. So why the seemingly sudden need to manage his image with kid gloves? Music execs, I presumptuously ask you this: what are you panicking about?
If Nick Jonas can get naked with Shay Mitchell in a shower (see steamy Exhibit A: "Under You"), why can't Troye get it on with the man of his dreams during a PG-rated ballad?
This all leads up to the subject of Why This Matters...
Pop music, particularly Top 40 radio, needs an unabashedly and openly gay artist like Troye Sivan. Hearing a gay pop singer emote and croon lyrics creates an entirely different listening experience for gay audiences because only they can authentically relate to the content within said lyrics. Hearing Katy Perry sing about a guy being her "Teenage Dream" is pleasant enough, and listening to Nick Jonas croon about being "Jealous" about his girlfriend's sex appeal is enjoyable and all, but when an openly gay singer takes the mic, it's all the more resonating (and relatable) for a certain group of fans. It helps them see themselves more in the narrative that is being told through song.
Sure, one could throw out names like Adam Lambert and Sam Smith to prove that contemporary gay male pop acts are no strangers to radio airplay. But we have yet to see someone who truly rises above, smashes through, and dominates in way that every Nick, Shawn, and Bruno does, especially with lyrical content that speaks/sings to the gay experience. (Let's see how Sam Smith does with his sophomoric effort...whenever that may be.)
Indie singer Steve Grand is an out-and-proud singer-songwriter who made an online splash a few years ago, but the polarizing hunk hasn't managed to break out in a way that gets him booked on, say, SNL. Why is that? Those familiar with Grand's work may argue that, despite the hollow attempt to sell him as "the first openly gay country singer" back in 2013 (with his single "All American Boy"), his talent is now taking a backseat to his image and sex appeal (he's not shy about flaunting his abs and biceps on social media). Of course, sex appeal is very much a part of a pop star's career, but it didn't help that Steve was caught in the middle of an online debate about the double standards gay men (particularly the white kind) face when they try to show some skin while their straight counterparts (both women and men) seem to get away with it more easily. And it definitely didn't help when his arguments on the matter caused pundits to paint him as a model of white male privilege within the gay community. Their argument in a nutshell: Aw, poor thing. You have it soooo hard because people hate on you for your hotness.
But back to the point at hand...
Just like the representation of gay characters on television, the visibility (or audibility) of gay artists on the radio is just as important and necessary to bring about more tolerance and understanding in our world. Therefore, perhaps it takes someone like Troye Sivan, a talented young artist who has the potential to break through more subtly than someone like Steve Grand, to make more of an impact on the pop airwaves. After all, he is already wooing audiences and setting hearts aflutter -- not with his torso but with his ability to craft a devastatingly beautiful lyric.
Here's hoping that potential blooms into something more. Especially for a generation that needs it.
"I am tired of this place, I hope people change..."
- "FOOLS" by Troye Sivan