The band’s latest video is a poetic representation of queer discovery – we talk to frontman Olly Alexander and the other creatives behind the clip to contextualise its beauty
“Supercharged magical queer creative energy” – this is the description offered by Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander when discussing the band’s new video “Worship”, released this morning. The resulting clip is a collaborative effort in the truest sense of the word, created by a team of like-minded queer creatives such as Matt Lambert, the director behind Mykki Blanco’s recent video “High School Never Ends”, and Ryan Heffington, a choreographer best known for his work with the likes of Sia and FKA twigs. Performance artist IMMA/MESS is just one member of the varied cast, and even editor Jamie O’ Donnell is one of the few LGBTQ minds working in the business.
Together, these diverse minds unite various visions to create an emotional coming-of-age story for a character dreamed up by Alexander. There are no overt political references – instead, the simple intention was to narrate a reclamation of gay sexuality. Lambert stresses the beauty of these pure intentions – “it’s really fucking cool to me that we don’t have to justify it as something philosophically profound, you know?” This determination to create pure poetry is refreshing in a world rocked by Brexit and Orlando; there’s a quiet defiance in the act of uniting queer minds which makes the video more important than ever in today’s often-diluted pop music industry.
What was the joint vision you had in mind when creating this video?
Matt Lambert: Olly had an initial idea of a character and a world in his mind, and it’s an aesthetic character that aligns quite closely with a lot of projects I’ve done. I think he already had Ryan in mind, and Ryan is someone I love as well. I didn’t know exactly what he wanted to make, but there was an organic creative process between the three of us, so we came in with an idea of the character, the world and the story, but then things really developed through conversations. It was a unique project in the sense that we’re all queer artists that knew and respected and trusted each other, so it was quite a fluid process. Put simply, it was a coming-of-age story of a character reclaiming his identity and sexuality.
Olly, you’re known for communicating your identity – why is communicating this to a mainstream audience so important to you?
Olly Alexander: I think, as an artist, I just want to make things and work with people that push the status quo. I’ve wanted to work with Matt for a long time and I worked with Ryan on our video for “King”, and since then I’ve realised how passionate I am about tackling issues around sexuality, gender and identity and using this insane platform we have as a band. I really, really care about that. The music is all written from my perspective and my queer life, so the video follows on by being in this world I was familiar with and wanted to create. In broader context, though, I’m bored of seeing the same narratives on screen in pop videos in particular, so it’s important to have representation in a mainstream forum.
“We’ve built in Olly’s acting and Ryan’s choreography to create a story with emotional layers, conflicts and contradictions. It’s a shame you don’t often see that with LGBTQ characters” — Matt Lambert, director
Definitely. Queer represenations tend to exist on the fringes of the mainstream, so it’s important that your work resonates with an audience that wouldn’t normally be exposed to these conversations.
Olly Alexander: Totally! I understand there might sometimes be a worry that our audience is too young but I don’t think you can patronise a young audience. The amount of support we’ve had from a young audience has been overwhelming, I think the young generation are really ready to receive these messages. They’re extremely tolerant, imaginative and accepting, so I think there’s definitely space for these issues.
Matt Lambert: Yes, it’s universal. Ryan incorporated a lot of layered innuendo, coded language and suggestive ideas in the choreography, but someone that doesn’t understand this world can still understand the development of this character. They can still understand the raw, primal emotion. Olly has acting experience, so he’s able to tap into the evolution of the character. It wasn’t just about being sexy, it was about evolution and the arc of a primal being coming into its own.
There’s definitely conflicting emotions within the choreography – what were you looking to communicate?
Ryan Heffington: I think, for me, it’s about storytelling as opposed to aesthetic. It’s a beautiful story which I wanted to narrate through an emotional quality, so having movement that was slightly pulled back allowed these characters to be more vulnerable, then a little shameful, and then powerful. For me, it’s about the transformation of the queer boy and how he gained power throughout his narrative, it wasn’t through sexual relations. It was more about personal empowerment and gathering strength from inside. Hopefully people will be drawn to these emotions, not drawn to it because it’s super sexy or super physical. What’s relatable is that it’s human, it’s not just queer.
In terms of relatability, it definitely does help to humanise queer identities. Do you think collaboration is important in terms of communicating a cohesive queer vision?
Olly Alexander: Actually, after we finished shooting Ryan sent me a long text about multidimensional representations of queerness. That really touched me in a way, because I constantly struggle with this idea of representing a community that’s incredibly diverse and it can sometimes feel like an impossible task. So when Ryan sent this text, it got me thinking how important it is that we challenge expectations. We’re all more alike than we are different, but we are multidimensional and sometimes I feel there’s not enough room in the mainstream to express that, so I’m really happy we did express that with this video.
“We’re all more alike than we are different, but we are multidimensional and sometimes I feel there’s not enough room in the mainstream to express that” — Olly Alexander, Years & Years
It’s true that mainstream representations of queer relationships are usually quite linear, so it is important to focus on the nuances of queer relationships.
Olly Alexander: For sure, there are different layers to everything – to love!
Matt Lambert: Until recently, cinema – film and television especially – has reduced queer people to one-dimensional characters. They’re either tormented by their gayness, hypersexualised novelties, desexualised by depression or asexualised by their inability to find a boyfriend. They’re always one-note characters. What’s brilliant is that, in a short period of time, we’ve built in Olly’s acting and Ryan’s choreography to create a story with emotional layers, conflicts and contradictions. It’s a shame you don’t often see that with LGBTQ characters. It was also a such a nice process because the whole cast was LGBTQ and everyone around us, whether queer or not, was insanely supportive. It became a wonderful family experience – nobody was ever worried about judgement, and that definitely adds a new element to the film itself.
Olly Alexander: Completely. I’ve worked with so many great directors and felt comfortable, but there’s a real difference with this video because I was surrounded by what felt like family. When I watched the video I was quite uncomfortable seeing myself do these things, and I don’t think I would have been able to get to this place if I didn’t feel deep trust for Matt and Ryan. I kept going to those places, and that was a new experience which I’m very grateful for.
There are strong messages and emotions within the song itself. How was that worked into the video?
Matt Lambert: Ryan was definitely conscious of that. In my mind I always come at shots from a narrative point of view, but Ryan was really focused on the emotional links.
Ryan Heffington: I’m actually horrible at knowing lyrics to the pieces I’m working on! I have an emotional connection to the song and a connection to Olly’s voice which goes from powerful to sensitive, so I use that and translate that energy into movement. It’s honest, and there’s an emotional quality alongside the narrative that creates something unique. I don’t know if any of us set out to create a narrative which mirrors the lyrics – I feel like it’s good to be creative and evolve what’s given to you into a new piece of art. The initial starting point was ritual and worship, but they were themes within the song as opposed to specific themes within the video.
Olly Alexander: Contextually, we were midway through writing the album when the song was created. I wasn’t over my ex so I felt like I had to write a love song. I challenged myself to write a fucked-up love song – I thought I was going to make it really obvious, but it turned out to be not that obvious, even though you can tell it’s about a slightly toxic relationship. I wrote most of the album about that relationship and it has its own story, so there was an element of me knowing what I wanted with the video. But, when Matt and Ryan came on board, I realised I had to let that go and trust what would come from them creatively and organically. The process was much better because I have this personal attachment, but I was really happy to let go of that and just feel the narratives and the story as they went in a different direction. I was excited for that spontaneity as opposed to feeling too committed to a specific meaning or translation of the song.
Matt Lambert: I think it’s so important to talk about these things, because it’s really easy to minimise this video. It’s nice that people will see the layers and the thought behind the film and the characters – and hopefully we’ll all be able to collaborate again soon.