Most pop stars don’t introduce their latest video with a 1000 word essay on Facebook about challenging the narrow representation of gender and identity in music. That’s not the done thing, sadly…
But Olly Alexander, the lead singer of Years & Years, isn’t your average pop star, and the video for "Desire" had an important message behind it. It's a colourful celebration of sex and the wider LGBTQI community. If you haven’t watched the video yet [SPOILER ALERT] it ends in a glorious orgy of different genders, races, ages and sexual identities in a school basement.
It shouldn't, but it feels brave. "We shouldn’t have to feel scared about putting our sexualities and identities on display in all their beautiful, interlocking, multi-layered multi-coloured glory," Olly explained. "I want to be proud. Proud to shove it in people’s faces if I want to."
The aim was to give non-heteronormative sexualities and genders the sexy pop music video treatment. Through thoughtful, poignant words, Olly went deeper to explain it’s significance.
Set against the context of Olly’s own 'difficult road' from 'shame to acceptance' with his own sexuality, he wanted to create something that had a wider definition of what ‘sexy’ can be, outside of a cis-gendered man and woman heteronormative perspective and to make those who don’t fit into these categories feel good about themselves.
"Is there a rulebook for men and women on how to feel sexy or what sexy is? For me, whoever it is, two women, two men, a group of gender-queer people, it’s all cute. It can all be a positive and a joyful expression of sexiness and sexuality, you don’t have to be a specific gender to enjoy it."
What was fairly unique and encouraging about Olly’s statement was his self-awareness of his own place in pop music and the privileges he holds, and how he's using that for good.
He goes into some depth about his influences like Madonna, Britney and Beyoncé, who gave him the confidence to be outwardly sexual. Yet, he adds, it’s not that simple, and acknowledges his own privilege in being able to choose to be seductive and sensual. "Women in pop music are expected to be sexy, most of the time they don’t have any choice - I have the privilege of choice."
He also caveats his own experiences by acknowledging those that have come before him and other active queer artists.
“I am an openly gay male singer, in a band called Years & Years, we make pop music. We’re not the only queer-frontman-led acts nor am I the only openly gay male singer but all that being said there aren’t that many of us and at times I’ve felt real pressure to hide or to limit my sexuality.”
This is in marked contrast to Sam Smith, who tends to suffer from amnesia when it comes to discussing anyone other than himself, most notably gay artists during his much-derided Oscars speech; or the time he just discovered racism in 2016. For someone who said in 2014 that he wanted to be a "spokesman for everyone", he’s done a remarkably good job of representing himself and a remarkably bad job of representing others.
While it’s not always helpful to compare artists in this way, Sam Smith does provide a relevant counterpoint to highlight just how progressive Olly actually is. As well as opening up about his mental health issues, criticising gay popstars who don't use male pronouns in songs, Olly has yet again instigated another important conversation in pop music.
Olly is challenging the narrow representation of gender and identity and he's trying (and succeeding) at making those who are marginalised feel better about themselves.
Olly Alexander’s voice is not only beautiful, but it’s important. We hope more artists use their platform like him to support others. Now, back to that orgy scene...