The clip sees Olly Alexander cast members of his ‘queer family’ in a sex-soaked make-out scene that defies the homogeneity of today’s pop charts
Sex in pop music is nothing new. From Madonna’s controversial Erotica album to Rihanna’s sex-soaked twerk fest in the “Work” video, popular music has always been fuelled by sexuality. So, when Years & Years released their video for their “Desire” collaboration with Tove Lo last night, its inclusion of a (fully-clothed) steamy make-out session towards the end shouldn’t have rung too many alarm bells. However, this was different. The short clip, directed by Fred Rowson, incorporated all of the band’s visual signatures – in frontman Olly Alexander’s words, “magical worlds, symbolism and pretty lights”, all of which create a sort of false security. For the majority of the band’s fanbase, there would be no indication that the video would have any sort of subversive potential. That is, until the aforementioned final scene, which features a cast of queer and non-binary characters looking fabulous as they grope and passionately kiss each other.
The release of the video was accompanied by a lengthy Facebook status written by Alexander and posted on the band’s official page. As well as musing on a history of queer influence in pop music, the status explains Alexander’s reasons behind creating a sex-driven music video featuring his ‘queer family’.
“Most of the pop videos I’ve seen that have male and female interaction are usually centred around a romance, and that’s great… but there are a lot of other sexualities and identities that are well deserving of some shiny pop video love.” He then goes on to cite the likes of Beyoncé, Whitney Houston and Madonna as his musical inspirations, whose sexuality he found far more interesting than “the majority of male musicians, whose Type A macho masculinity felt completely unrelatable. (These women) were sensual and seductive in their videos – I wanted to be sensual and seductive in my videos.”
He has a point. Sexuality is a far more interesting lyrical theme than the shallow topics frequently covered in modern pop music. Put bluntly, if I hear one more lyric about getting drunk in a club or another linear, uncomplicated love story, I’ll sever my ear like Van Gogh did, I just won’t get as much press. Increasingly, the Top 40 is being saturated with formulaic lyrics. In fact, even commercial behemoth Sia has been brutally honest about the process of submitting songs to big pop stars, writing off some of her biggest credits as “terribly, terribly cheesy”. Instead, she puts music of substance aside for her own albums and plays the pop machine for profit. Whereas songwriters used to be renowned for their complexity and willingness to tackle important issues, today’s chart-driven model instead favours repetition, accessibility and artistic dilution to ensure success.
This is precisely what makes Years & Years so interesting; they’re a complete anomaly, straddling mainstream success and critical acclaim. In a world where one of the world’s most successful LGBT pop stars (Sam Smith) can’t even conduct a quick Google search before mistakenly claiming himself as the first openly gay Oscar winner (subsequently offending absolutely everyone and deleting his Twitter), it’s inspiring and completely brilliant to see Alexander using his platform to shine a spotlight on the LGBT community. In the past, he has lamented the lack of same-sex pronouns used in the lyrics of openly gay pop stars, as well as being vocal and open about his own same-sex relationships.
But Alexander doesn’t just use his spotlight to acknowledge the sexuality of cisgender gay men like himself, but a wide spectrum of LGBT individuals: “It’s not just gay people, it’s all kinds of people! All these non-straight people, they’re out there, having sex!” Of course, for a majority of young, cosmopolitan adults, this is no longer news. Trans visibility and the growing representation of gender non-conforming individuals is rife within popular culture; designers like Gogo Graham, Eckhaus Latta and Vejas are increasingly tapping trans muses to challenge fashion’s heteronormative beauty ideals, whereas films like Tangerine are writing layered trans protagonists. Even within the music industry, artists like Mykki Blanco and Angel Haze are challenging stereotypes with their boundary-breaking output. However, these breakthroughs usually remain on the fringes of the mainstream, and there has been some debate as to whether the media coverage and glamourisation of non-binary individuals is detrimental, detracting focus from widespread transphobia that still persists – an issue tackled brilliantly by Gogo Graham in her most recent blood-soaked show.
“(Olly Alexander) has tapped into the commercial zeitgeist and has the direct ability to influence a young audience, making his platform one of huge cultural relevance.”
Years & Years, by contrast, are an undisputed mainstream phenomenon. Their debut album Communion immediately debuted at number one on the UK charts, outselling the rest of the top five combined. This same album has, at the time of publication, sold more than a million copies worldwide, been certified platinum in the UK, and became the fastest-selling debut in 2015 from a UK signed band. Alexander has gained the kind of rabid fanbase usually dedicated to commercially palatable boybands – he’s been unwittingly labelled a sex symbol and even has a Tumblr dedicated to him. There’s an army of dedicated teens out there hanging on to his every word, and it’s precisely this fact that makes his sex-positive new video so important. He has tapped into the commercial zeitgeist and has the direct ability to influence a young audience, making his platform one of huge cultural relevance.
The singer said it best himself: “Why, in 2016, should a pop video featuring people expressing their sexuality who aren’t cisgender or heterosexual feel at all unusual or progressive? Well, for a lot of people it doesn’t… but for a lot of other people, myself included, it does. It shouldn’t, but it does.” Despite minor breakthroughs, the Top 40 remains largely homogenous, latching on to (and subsequently exhausting) the same cliched lyrical themes and shiny, commercial videos. Alexander is an anomaly: a pop star who, having been embraced by the mainstream pop industry, arguably has the most potential to change it.