In a community plagued by femme-shaming and outdated ideas of masculinity, the Years & Years frontman is a breath of fresh air
Earlier this week, PAPER magazine published a sensual cover editorial featuring all the staples of a sexy photoshoot: there was a pop star draped seductively across a chaise longue, an oiled-up, topless male model and – of course – a liberal array of Versace underwear on show. The shoot might sound predictable, but there’s one detail that propelled it firmly into radical territory: the star was Olly Alexander, the openly gay vocalist of synth-pop group Years & Years. With nothing more than a twinkle in his eye and a Nasty Pig jockstrap on his rear, the star succeeded in completely distorting stereotypes of male desirability.
It’s obviously not unusual for male stars to get their kit off for cover shoots. LGBTQ-specific magazines in particular have a long, long history of transforming dull, topless (usually white, cisgender and – oddly – straight) male celebrities into sex symbols, but there’s always been a rigid formula for these images. That formula is only just starting to loosen, largely due to changing societal attitudes and the realisation that queer people need more than just semi-nude spreads.
In the past, these images have always been, unsurprisingly, rooted in the stereotypical ideals of masculinity. Everything from the impossibly sculpted abs to the signature shock of armpit hair blended together to form a bland, white, faceless ‘ideal man’. People of colour were more or less invisible, leading Mykki Blanco to last year create the sarcastic – but depressingly accurate – #GayMediaSoWhite hashtag. Generic (not LGBTQ-centric) men’s fashion magazines aren’t exactly trailblazers, either. Their cover stars are portrayed as aspirational and suited-and-booted. On the rare occasion a woman graces the cover, she must (seriously, it’s law) wear either a figure-hugging dress or something – anything – that reveals her underwear. As for the make-up? Smoky eyes only.
Topics like these sound trivial on paper, but this pattern of showcasing ‘ideal’ bodies and erasing others has been proven to have a damaging effect. For gay men in particular, various articles and documentaries have argued that we feel particular pressure to live up to extremely rigid beauty standards. Plus-size bodies, and bodies that in any way don’t live up to the ‘norm’, are policed viciously, often on queer dating apps. This isn’t the only problem with apps, either: femme-shaming, racism, and body-shaming are rife, with most users explicitly stating their ‘preferences’ (usually exclusionary – think Grindr bios like ‘No fats, white only’) and describing their ideal partner in terms of narrow ‘tribes’ such as ‘twinks’ (young, slim gay men) and ‘jocks’ (muscular men).
Sex has always been political for LGBTQ people. This isn’t to say that we’re all promiscuous – there is no one way to be queer – but that our acts have always been policed, often violently. For that reason, it’s not hard to imagine that the increasingly tangled web of dating in a digital age is taking its toll. Some articles have even persuasively argued that queer apps can have negative mental health effects. We try to live up to ideals, and these are ideals rooted in stereotypical masculinity. Historically, this makes sense – the hyper-sexual, hyper-masculine imagery of artists like Tom of Finland was a ‘fuck you’ to the notion that gay men were inherently weak; it was a statement that we could look just as masculine as you, and that we could take a dick, too. But this conversation largely overrode feminine-presenting queer people – there are some famous exceptions, most notably Bowie and Prince, but for the most part desirability is still all too often equated with masculinity.
“Olly’s rising presence as a sex symbol is undeniably crucial to femme teenagers battling discrimination, as is his uncanny ability to weave serious political commentary with dick jokes”
That’s why Alexander’s presence feels so radical. Not only is he unashamedly femme, he’s entirely sex-positive – as proven by the queer orgy in his “Desire” video and, more recently, in the allusions to sex written all over the short “Palo Santo” film. Never once has he compromised his aesthetic (shimmery dresses and grandiose capes have long been wardrobe staples) or quietened his voice for fear of losing fans, but over the last few weeks he’s taking things a step further.
The PAPER shoot is the first step. His slender body stretched seductively across the picture is more than a little reminiscent of Lady Gaga’s 2013 campaign, as he seems to perform the kind of femininity – the come-to-bed eyes, the pared-back make-up, the seductive smirk – often expected of women. Even more noteworthy are the numerous interviews he’s given as part of the promo trail for Years & Years’ “difficult second album”, itself an expansive record laden with references to queerness. Unusually, there are no generic, half-baked soundbites about the album; instead, Alexander has spoken at length about the Tory government’s lacklustre LGBT Action Plan, eloquently summarised just why the endless trans ‘debate’ is total bullshit, and passionately stated his desire for school curriculums to include LGBTQ-inclusive sex education.
In some ways, the expectation for Alexander to be a mouthpiece for his community is unfair, and it’s one we force solely on minorities of all descriptions who are never allowed to just be. But Olly himself emphasises that he discusses sex so much because queer people are rarely given the freedom to do so without being labelled ‘promiscuous’ or stereotyped as raging perverts – the same stereotypes which, ironically, kept us firmly out of schools under Thatcher’s repressive Section 28 legislation.
A telling fact is that Alexander openly identifies as both ‘queer’ and ‘gay’. The former has long been a contentious term, but many – mostly young – LGBTQ people have claimed it either as a reclamation of a stinging slur or as a term synonymous with disruption. To be truly queer means to fuck with mainstream perceptions, toy with archaic gender norms and back up your actions with genuinely progressive politics. The last few weeks have proven that Alexander embodies this ethos: his rising presence as a sex symbol is undeniably crucial to femme teenagers battling discrimination, as is his uncanny ability to weave serious political commentary with dick jokes. In a time of seemingly endless political turmoil, he’s exactly the kind of fun, sexy, frank pop star queer femme kids worldwide have long been yearning for.
Years & Years’ new album Palo Santo is out now