Back in bloom: how queer male pop reclaimed its star status

The 80s put the gay man front and centre of pop. Then came the Aids crisis – and three decades of demonisation and displacement. As Troye Sivan leads a new wave of gay stars, has true change finally arrived?

Troye Sivan is the hottest gay pop star in the world. For his legion millennial and Generation Z fans, he’s among the first artists of their lifetime to frankly explore gay sex in pop – notably on his recent second album, Bloom – and they’ve hailed him as a trailblazer. But Sivan is part of a complex legacy of male queerness in music, one that exploded during disco and commanded the mainstream centre in the 80s only to wither in the 90s. Why has it taken two decades for the gay male experience to reclaim its place in pop?

Jimmy Somerville of Bronski Beat.
Jimmy Somerville of Bronski Beat. Photograph: Clare Muller/PYMCA/Rex/Shutterstock

The 80s was a perfect storm of male queerness for many reasons. The winds of the gay liberation movement had been blowing strong for a decade: queer black men such as Sylvester had been at the heart of disco and the children of Bowie were coming of age just as MTV, a new medium that valued the high-energy visuals of queer nightclubs, was launched.

Queer male pop artists were previously few and far between: Little Richard’s lyrics about anal sex were cut from Tutti Frutti, and it only took Bowie’s arm draped over the shoulder of Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops in 1972 to send middle England reeling. Come the 80s though, acts such as Bronski Beat and Frankie Goes to Hollywood became “the gay heroes of the decade”, says Paul Flynn, author of Good As You: 30 Years of Gay Britain. “There were stars in the 80s who were completely transparent about their sexuality from the start, and whose gayness was absolutely integral to their music.”

Synth-pop group Bronski Beat’s debut single, Smalltown Boy, about a gay man leaving his homophobic home town, charted globally in 1984. (The number for the London Gay Switchboard was etched into the runout groove.) A remastered version of their debut album Age of Consent arrived this month. “At the time we were just three gay guys who started a band – we didn’t feel like part of any particular movement,” says Steve Bronski. “Of course, it would transpire many years later that there were more gay artists than the public were led to believe.”

It took at least a decade for the era to be recognised as a golden age of gay pop, because it didn’t make itself explicit at the time. “You had a backcloth of pop music that was absolutely full of gay people, even megastars like Freddie Mercury and Elton John, but most of them were living some sort of closeted existence,” Flynn says. “There was Boy George, Pete Burns – who was married, but who is what you would now call queer – Morrissey singing about ‘handsome devils’, Pet Shop Boys with their slightly more opaque readings of sexuality, Marc Almond from Soft Cell, George Michael, who was closeted even though everyone in the industry knew he was gay.”

Culture Club.
Crazy gang … Culture Club in 1983. Photograph: Vooren/Sunshine/Rex/Shutterstock

The queer male figure in 80s pop was largely indistinct, visible only through the slats of half-open closet doors. “Understanding 1980s pop music in relation to sexuality requires a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance,” says LGBTQ historian Dr Aaron Lecklider of the University of Massachusetts Boston. Some queer men were in, some were out and some straight men revelled in what is now recognised as a queer aesthetic – the haze of glitter blurred everything. The new romantic look was androgynous and flamboyant, but these signifiers didn’t instantly register as queer. As critic Alfred Soto wrote of George Michael: “Fine with queerness so long as the artists didn’t ask or tell, the 1980s were the last time pop stars could wear fingerless kitchen gloves without audiences assuming they were gay.”

New romantic Adam Ant.
New romantic Adam Ant. Photograph: PR company handout

Similarly, the new romantic artists based their sound around synth-pop. Musicologist Louis Niebur has said that audiences of the time considered “electronic sound queer, other or European, as opposed to the electric guitar, which [was] the male sound” – and yet adherents included straight male acts such as Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. The ambiguous coding of 80s pop suspended the figure of the gay male in an in-between space. “It wasn’t like Spandau were co-opting a gay culture,” argues Paul Flynn. “New romanticism wasn’t a monoculture, it was a culture based on taste rather than sexuality.”

Gay author and writer Jeremy Helligar is among those who disagree. “It’s similar to the way British groups like the Rolling Stones and the Animals borrowed heavily from black R&B music and put it in a white package that the masses could enjoy.” Still, these signifiers weren’t yet widely understood in terms of queerness – in the 80s, cultural gayness was a novel concept.

As hysteria around Aids spread, everything changed. Tabloids stigmatised gay men. Author Matthew Todd details this period extensively in his book Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy. “They exposed people, hounded them out of their jobs and drove others to suicide,” he tells me. “It’s not surprising that so many pop stars chose to stay in the closet.” This was perhaps when the missing link between queer nightclub pop aesthetics and the act of gay sex finally clicked into place. Prominent members of the disco, Blitz Club and synth-pop movements succumbed to the disease – Sylvester died in 1988, Freddie Mercury in 1991, Leigh Bowery in 1994. Cultural traits for so long naively read as communicators of pop glamour suddenly took on a sinister association.

Freddie Mercury.
King of camp … Freddie Mercury. Photograph: Jean-Claude Coutausse/AFP/Getty Images

The already fragmented figure of the gay male was further shattered by the epidemic. Aids swung the zeitgeist towards comforting heteronormativity, and so followed the rise of blokey Britpop bands such as Oasis and Blur. Stock, Aitken and Waterman, the songwriting trio who wrote for Divine and were responsible for such 80s gay anthems as Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round (Like a Record), started writing for Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan (a man so heterosexual he sued a magazine for claiming he was gay). The underground sound they had ushered into the mainstream gave way to something safer, straighter.

The gay male figure, now too threatening to be marketable, vanished from pop and into underground spaces or behind DJ decks. “You could say the greatest gay pop star of the 90s was the nightclub Trade,” says Flynn. Trade was London’s first legal after-hours club, opening in 1990. “It was absolutely drug-addled, topless – it was everything pop music used to be in the 80s, except it was a nightclub.”

The gay male figures who did cling to their place in the pop landscape were put through the ringer. George Michael was outed after an incident in a public bathroom, a scandal that tabloids fanned relentlessly – the Sun’s front page read: “Zip me up before you go go”. Boyzone’s Stephen Gately decided to out himself to the Sun. Celebrity outings became a racket for tabloids that knew the jittery public would jump at such headlines.

George Michael: Outside – video

As mainstream pop either disappeared or degraded gay men, many gay male pop consumers resorted largely to “disidentification” with straight female pop stars during the 90s and 00s: the process by which, in the absence of representative role models, queer people claim a piece of culture that is not explicitly queer. “Gay men didn’t love Madonna in Evita because they were interested in Argentinian history,” says Lecklider.

Female stars in the 90s and 00s such as Madonna, Mariah and Kylie frequently attributed their success to loyal gay fanbases. In many ways, Stock Aitken Waterman’s pivot to Kylie mirrored a transference of gay consumer energy to new, albeit heavily muted, strains of glamour and camp. The music videos of these stars channeled certain tropes of queer underground nightlife in safe mode (see Madonna’s Vogue). As the queer male bodies of colour that inspired the video struggled against sickness and stigma, their dance moves and aesthetics were lifted clean and plastered on to a heterosexual female canvas. If in the 80s, male queerness was dissociated from the male body, in the 90s it was uncoupled completely. In a post-Aids world, cultural gayness was mediated by proxy.

Jake Shears and Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters perform with Kylie Minogue at the 2010 Glastonbury festival.
New era … Scissor Sisters perform with Kylie Minogue at Glastonbury 2010. Photograph: Samir Hussein/Getty

But from the mid-2000s, a new sort of male queerness began to take shape. “Troye Sivan and [Years and Years frontman] Olly Alexander have a lot in common with Scissor Sisters,” says Flynn.

Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears was not only openly gay but sang largely about gay things, to gay people. The band rose through New York’s queer nightlife to hit the UK mainstream but it felt as if they were never attempting to appeal to anyone but their queer peers (the clue’s in the name). Their success came not from the plausible deniability of the 80s, nor from the proxy sexuality of the 90s – but simply from the resonance of their queer vision in a world that was slowly draining of gay panic. When Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax was released, Radio 1 DJ Mike Read pulled it off air when he realised what it was about. By contrast, says critic Ian Wade: “Jake Shears was comfortable on Radio 2 playlists even though his album contained some near-the-knuckle language.”

Olly Alexander of Years and Years performs at Radio 1’s Biggest Weekend festival, May 2018.
Olly Alexander of Years and Years performing in May. Photograph: Richard Isaac/Rex/Shutterstock

They established the foundations for this decade’s new wave of gay male stars. Olly Alexander was raised on Britney and 90s divas, and tries to continue their legacy through his work. Sam Smith is “effectively trading as the gay Adele”, jokes Wade. After much speculation, Frank Ocean came out, saying: “I don’t have any secrets I need kept any more.” It was a far cry from the 90s tabloid treatment. Then there’s Perfume Genius, Sufjan Stevens and, of course, Troye Sivan.

Sivan sings about gay sex on Bloom, details Grindr hook-ups on Seventeen and nods to cruising and gay sex clubs in the My My My! video. On Animal, he whispers to his boyfriend: “In time, we’ll build a home for two.” There seems to be no opportunity cost in Troye’s universe, only freedom to be everything at once. There is no uncoupling of queer aesthetics, the sex that underpins them or the love that blossoms from them: everything is symbiotic. If there is one thing that marks Sivan’s reign as something new, it is not his being openly gay, or his singing about gay sex – that would be revisionist. It is, put simply, his wholeness. The figure of the gay male in pop has historically been fragmented, exploited for its aesthetics, cloaked in straightness, buried underground. Sivan does not represent its coming out, but its coming together.

Icon of tomorrow? … MNEK. Photograph: Charlotte Rutherford

This journey doesn’t end with Sivan. To understand where the gay male stands in music, it’s worth looking to cinema. As Liam Taft wrote for i-D magazine, mainstream queer cinema can’t seem to reach maturity because it seems trapped in a perpetual coming of age. Films about gay male lives are becoming more common, but they’ve settled on selling a white adolescent fantasy: take Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon. The world of Troye Sivan is remarkably similar: young, white and aspirational, selling the twin fantasies of sex club and picket fence. This cultural fixation is such that the New York Times declared that we’ve entered the “age of the twink” (young, skinny, white men). Perhaps this glorification is why young black gay artists like MNEK are failing to sell albums – while some have argued Language is simply not a great pop album, others insist his identity is affecting sales.

While the music industry has decided male queerness is again marketable, queer theory teaches that capitalism carved out gender and sexual roles as means of control: categories that queerness is meant to threaten. Market forces motivated tabloid outings in the 90s – the outrageous headlines sold papers. They’re similarly behind lists of the “best queer acts to watch” today. Pop music has always been about selling hot young people getting it on, and Sivan represents the queer male finally claiming the right to sell his version of that story. What the queer male must be wary of now is how capitalism proceeds to curate us – the pretty parts it will try to sell, and the other parts it will try to suppress.


Brian O'Flynn

The GuardianTramp

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