This article is a preview from the Summer 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
The gay icon in pop music is a curious phenomenon. It’s hard to pin down any underlying reasons for the bond between gay audiences and straight female divas without falling back on reductive clichés. And while the stereotype may well be supported by the empirical evidence at any Madonna or Beyoncé concert, it has often been used to dismiss entire genres of music based on the perceived shallowness of their fans (see also those other famed consumers of pop, teenage girls)
But it’s nonetheless odd that such intense identification is largely reserved for those divas. The pop genre has rarely provided much in the way of out gay male pop stars – and even fewer whose music specifically reflects what it’s like to be gay and young. In recent years, there has been a place for the mature gay singer-songwriter, from George Michael to Will Young, but for all their talents, the middle-of-the-road respectability of their music isn’t going to capture any newly-out 20-year-old’s emotions. The latest iteration of this type is the bafflingly popular Sam Smith, a child of privilege whose ignorance of gay history seems to be matched by his disapproval of anything “overly” gay, from hook-up apps to using male pronouns in his love songs.
There were always the Pet Shop Boys, of course. But as finely as Neil Tennant conveyed guilt, emotional nuance and power dynamics in songs such as “Rent” and “It’s a Sin”, his songwriting and vocal performances were defined by poise and self-possession. This air of detachment was often worn as armour and more brittle than I’d noticed at the time – but listening to them as a teenager always felt aspirational in a way that listening to Tori Amos or Madonna did not.
In my experience, the connection between a gay fan and a beloved artist is as complex and personal as any other, but a common thread is that air of indirectness. It’s no less real but it’s not about hearing our own experiences sung back to us so much as hearing the spirit of what we’re feeling. Often it’s a different experience entirely that is being sung about, although the occasional song, such as Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me”, sounds like it would make more sense with a gay protagonist than a female one. More often, the confessions lie not in the precise words but in the margins and subtext, in the intonation of a phrase or words left unspoken. (It is telling that making the connection to their gay audience too explicit is often a misstep for divas. Lady Gaga’s career has yet to recover from the patronising “Born This Way”, for example.) In retrospect, as a 14-year-old for whom secrecy was paramount, I found not having the exact words to hand, on some level, a relief.
This is why hearing those words on mainstream radio in 2015 was such a jolt. Years & Years – there is no story
behind the band name – are a trio that formed in London six years ago and their path to success has been garlanded with the British music industry’s most businesslike decorations. Last year, they won the BBC’s Sound of 2015 poll in January and received a nomination for the Critics’ Choice Brit Award. A platinum debut album, Communion, followed. There was rarely a moment in 2015 when a Years & Years single wasn’t in heavy radio rotation.
Yet, in a quietly radical way, these songs represent the voice of gay youth. To all intents and purposes, Years & Years are a vehicle for the frontman and songwriter Olly Alexander. Neither of his bandmates – the bassist Mikey Goldsworthy and the keyboardist Emre Türkmen – have disclosed their sexuality publicly. Alexander’s songs pull off a neat balancing act: without ever making his sexuality their USP and while ignoring every cliché of the gay celebrity, the gay experience is at their core.
It’s not just about the use of male pronouns in song lyrics, though a couple pop up. Alexander, who was in a rare high-profile relationship (with Neil Amin-Smith of Clean Bandit) between two young, gay, male celebrities last year, is eloquent and active in his support of LGBT rights. But Years & Years are not an “issues” band. The campaigning is left out of their music.
What strikes a chord is the way they sing about the chart radio staples of love and loneliness and the particular imagery Alexander employs, even in a song that a casual listener might assume is about a straight relationship. The heart of Communion is its confusion and uncertainty. There are few road maps for newly out teenagers – certainly nothing like the rules and goals hammered like propaganda into young heterosexuals about hooking up, dating, gender roles, or social institutions that are ultimately meant to validate you. And, no lie: most of the time, it seems like a relief to have ducked under all of that. But for several years after you come out, life as a gay man is about fumbling in the dark (yes, sometimes literally); trying to work out how to navigate the club, or the website; thinking you know what you want and then second-guessing yourself because you still have no idea what form any of this is supposed to take.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s as exciting as it is nerve-racking and Communion captures both sides in equal measure. Alexander’s words default repeatedly to hesitancy: at times, the lyric sheet is a cascade of all-too-resonant questions. What are you prepared to do? What have I been doing wrong? Where are you taking me? I’m shy – can I be what you like? Are you having fun? Are you scared? Would I be better? Would I be good? Is it desire or is it love? But the music rarely holds back. Synths pound and melodies rush like a midpoint between Hot Chip and Savage Garden. If the immediate, unashamedly anthemic hooks of their big singles, “King” and “Shine”, have established Years & Years as a ubiquitous radio presence, then the swelling bass of “Take Shelter” and the gospel-house of “Worship” also demonstrate that they have an ear for the dance floor. And if the lyrics often capture some of the fear of, for example, setting foot inside a gay club for the first time, the music brooks no argument about propelling you inside.
There are other recurrent themes, among them the need for discretion: “No one has to see,” promises Alexander on “Memo”, the album’s closing ballad, possibly sung to a closeted lover. Where secrecy, in a straight love song, is coded as Romeo and Juliet-style romance, the frequency with which it crops up on Communion points to the suffocating effect it can have on gay men. Power dynamics in relationships are expressed in ways that wouldn’t be found in their equivalent heterosexual songs: when Alexander sings of needing a lover’s control – or, for that matter, feeling like a king under someone else’s control, as on the band’s biggest single and number one hit, “King” – it’s an expression of his own desire, not a depiction of his lover as a femme fatale. Elsewhere, a line such as “I’ll do what you like if you’ll stay the night” is vulnerable but not abject.
Communion is the album that I wish had existed when I was 19, not because it provides rules, or indeed any answers, but simply for articulating emotions that are rarely given space in pop culture. And, ultimately, because the takeaway from it is a sense of bravery, manifested in the swelling bass and propulsive beats, that at times I could have done with.