Even with whatever the hell is going on in the White House, LGBTQ representation has come a long way in the last 30 years — but even so, Thursday (Jan. 12) was quietly kind of a big deal in queer music history thanks to new videos from Troye Sivan and Hayley Kiyoko.
To fully appreciate how important their visuals are, you have to rewind a bit. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, artists like Madonna and Cher brought queer imagery (typically via backup dancers) into the wider pop culture with smash videos like the former’s “Vogue” (1990) and arguably the latter’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” (1989). Clips like “Vogue” and “Justify My Love” allowed the queer community a chance to see themselves represented in mainstream music, and helped young people questioning their sexuality feel less alone — other kids and your family might ostracize you when you act a certain way, but there’s a wider world out there that’s more accepting.
But at the end of the day, those were videos from straight artists featuring gay people. They’re representations of queer sexuality, but not unfiltered expressions of queer sexuality (to find that in media at the time, you were basically left with art house cinema a la Parting Glances). And in the decades that followed, that pattern continued as pop stars like Kylie Minogue, P!nk and Christina Aguilera spotlighted queer people and themes in their music. Their dedication to the LGBTQ community is admirable, and it undoubtedly went a long way toward acclimating some to the idea that queer sexuality is normal, valid and should exist comfortably alongside straight sexuality in the media. It helped solidify a world where queer people regularly crop up on the big and small screen.
And yet with all that progress, there haven’t been that many music videos from A- (or even B-) list queer artists that unabashedly celebrate queer sexuality. The exceptions prove the rule: Adam Lambert kissed a man onstage at the 2009 AMAs for one second and the pearl-clutching backlash (even from some progressives) ensured that we wouldn’t be seeing libidinous imagery in his videos for some time. Sam Smith, while open about his orientation in interviews, steers clear of carnality in his videos. And that’s fine — not every queer artist is required to represent every single aspect of the LGBTQ experience (and for what it’s worth, lusty videos would hardly gel with Smith’s melancholy soul sound).
So Jan. 12, 2018, should be a day to remember in queer music. Troye Sivan, the openly gay 22-year-old pop singer born in South Africa and raised in Australia, shared his video for “My My My,” and Hayley Kiyoko – a 26-year-old actress-singer from Los Angeles who came out as a lesbian in 2016 – unleashed her “Curious” clip.
Both videos feature something rarely seen in music videos from queer artists: Same-sex eroticism. Yes, there have been videos from LGBTQ artists that depict same-sex couples before, but they’re typically anodyne affairs that your progressive uncle would approve of. But watching an out artist flaunt their sexuality on screen? That’s bold.
For Kiyoko, “Curious” finds her running into a same-sex ex at a party, who is there with her now-boyfriend. The two end up in the bathroom for a realistically steamy makeout session, which is blessedly nothing like the typical ‘women kissing for the male gaze’ scenes one typically encounters in media. The “Curious” video is progressive not just for the fact that a lesbian pop singer shows herself with hands and lips all over another woman, but because that hookup is portrayed as a regular part of life. It’s not a one-off experiment or a first foray into an uncertain sexual orientation – it’s just two queer women making out. The fact that they’re queer is almost beside the point.
Sivan’s “My My My” video, on the other hand, is revolutionary in a different sense. He previously depicted queer love in his breathtaking Blue Neighbourhood video trilogy, but “My My My” is something almost unseen in the history of mainstream pop: A gay man relishing in his sensuality while flirting with a cadre of similarly sensuous models.
In one sense, there’s nothing new about this. Female pop stars have been employing queer backup dancers for decades, and even when those stars are straight, it’s still an invitation for the viewer to enjoy and celebrate queer libido. And yes, Lambert has certainly danced with men onscreen before. But we’ve never seen a mainstream queer pop star acting so comfortably erotic in tandem with same-sex people in a video before.
Watching Sivan dance in the “My My My” video is like watching someone at the club getting down while making it clear they wouldn’t mind leaving with someone else. It’s sexual but not overtly performative; these aren’t meticulously choreographed dance moves — these are beautiful, elegant and suggestive motions you put your body through when you’re feeling yourself on the dance floor and hoping someone else notices, too. As for his backup crew, sure, we’ve seen plenty of male models with abs on display before, but that tiny crop top on model/porn star Brody Blomqvist (the bearded guy at 2:32) makes it clear he’s not just a ripped dude who happens to be shirtless — he’s a dude showing off his stuff for another man. And sure enough, what comes before that shot? A close-up of Troye’s face with the lighting obscuring everything but his eyes, which gaze longingly at something offscreen.
Yes, the last few decades have seen slow but steady gains for the LGBTQ community. But the fact that videos like these – which ultimately are just sexy videos from pop stars, something as old as the format itself – feel like a massive leap forward is a sign of two things: 1) Troye Sivan and Hayley Kiyoko are two of the boldest, most vital voices in pop right now and 2) We have a long way to go.