Former Mouseketeers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera cheekily played with innuendo on their respective debut singles (“...Baby One More Time” and “Genie In A Bottle”), but generally kept their subject matter chaste and parent-friendly while they established their careers. Two albums later, Spears released the breathy “I’m A Slave 4 U" as the lead single from her Brtiney LP, along with its super-sweaty video, and an iconic VMAs performance in which she provocatively strutted around the stage with an albino Burmese python. Her pop culture peer quickly followed suit, posing topless on her Stripped album cover and baring it all on her infamous Rolling Stone cover, and singing about “Sweatin' until [her] clothes come off” on the culture-shocker “Dirrty.” She even ended the chorus to that career-altering single with “Wanna get dirrty/ It's about time for my arrival.” And that’s what it’s all about, right? This “arrival” marked her sexual awakening, and she became an adult in the eye of the public.
Since the late-’90s teen titans ditched their Disney-approved demeanor, just about every child starlet turned mega star has marked their womanhood with a musical declaration, usually in the form of an album: Miley Cyrus twerked her way into headlines with Bangerz lead single “We Can’t Stop”; Selena Gomez went nude for her Revival cover, kicking off an era that included a provocative SNL performance where the singer writhed around with a couple on a bed to “Hands To Myself”; and Ariana Grande slapped on a fetish-inspired facemask for Dangerous Woman, an album that contained the explicitly sexual “Side To Side.” Even Britney and Christina were following a precedent Madonna and Janet Jackson had established a decade prior, with sexually charged statement albums of their own.
Male pop stars have it different though: instead of documenting their maturity through their art, it is traditionally telegraphed through overnight biceps and new tattoos. Sure, it’s easy to pinpoint albums when they started appealing to wider audiences, but they rarely deserve a “sex album” moniker. Justin Bieber showed off his ripped chest with his Purpose album art, but the album’s lyrical content was generally PG. Nick Jonas grew into a sex symbol ahead of his 2015 album, but that was more because he bulked up and started posting shirtless thirst traps than because his music was overtly sexual. Stars like Justin Timberlake and Harry Styles have grown up in the public eye, but none have had to release a “sex album” to show their maturity; compare any of their albums to Stripped or Dangerous Woman or now, Bloom, and they feel prudish.
There are certainly exceptions to this rule, with Zayn’s Mind Of Mine being the most obvious. But even with the swagger and sex appeal oozing through “Pillowtalk,” “Wrong” and “Tio,” the former-boybander didn’t fully commit: the album’s cover, which quite literally shows Zayn as a child, makes the idea that this is a “sex album” confusing. That's not to say Sivan's Bloom artwork (a photograph of the back of his head) evokes sexual energy, but the black and white image shows Troye in a suit, a clearly mature contrast from the colorful, boyish illustration from his debut Blue Neighbourhood.
For Sivan, Bloom is another sign that he’s refusing to conform to gender stereotypes. Much of the dialogue surrounding his celebrity focuses on his sexuality, but with Sivan, it goes deeper than being out and queer. Take, for instance, the way he struts and slithers through his music videos and live performances -- movements reserved for divas. With his "My, My, My!" video, critics were quick to draw comparisons to Michael Jackson and George Michael, when it actually feels more inspired by Janet's clip for "The Pleasure Principle" (from her own declaration-of-independence album Control), which saw the icon dancing alone in a dilapidated loft.
Sivan is not just a gay pop star: he’s taking elements of pop divadom and making them work for him. Instead of beefing up and covering his body in tattoos, Sivan is rewriting the rules of what it means to be a male sex symbol. In opting to break the rules, whether intentional or not, Sivan is able to speak to a younger generation who recognize gender and sexuality as social constructs.
Bloom also establishes Sivan as one of the boldest pop artists of his generation. In his sophomore output, he's already comfortable in his own skin: something most of his peers and predecessors, female and especially male, took several eras to navigate. As he forges his own set of rules, it's impossible to predict where he could go -- but it's guaranteed to be exciting, authentic, and above all, unprecedented.