The biggest pop artists on the planet today, by nearly any metric, are Taylor Swift and Adele. Their styles, sounds and means of promotion are radically different, but Swift and Adele do have a few things in common. Namely, everything they touch seems to turn to gold. Oh, and both are vocal fans of a young YouTuber-turned-singer named Troye Sivan.
Sivan is 20 years old, Australian and openly gay. He makes brooding, synthesizer-heavy music centered around his low timbre. He's parlayed a massive, deeply devoted online following into a pair of Top 5 U.S. debuts for his two EPs, despite having very little radio play or mainstream exposure. Swift called his Wild EP, released in September, "STUNNING AND AWESOME," adding that "YES CAPS LOCK IS NECESSARY HERE"; later, Adele went on the record twice in support of Sivan, saying that this low-quality live performance clip "gave her chills" and casually mentioned him by first name in a new interview.
And, yes, Sivan's music is fantastic—the song "Wild" is a gorgeous, melancholy-tinged slab of synth-pop, while new single "Talk Me Down" is a Tumblr-generation anthem for longing. But there's more here than just trendy music. Sivan's success has to do with his unabashed dedication to being himself—which, from the beginning of his time in the spotlight, has been engrained in almost everything he does.
Sivan became a celebrity mostly thanks to YouTube, where he uploaded his first video at the age of 13 in 2007 and today boasts more nearly 3.7 million subscribers. His channel includes Troye singing cover songs, but also talking about his life and friends (as popular YouTubers often do). One of his most-viewed videos of his channel was uploaded in August 2013; in the clip, Sivan came out to his subscriber fanbase with a big smile, shaky hands and wise commentary ("This could kind of change everything for me, but it shouldn't have to, and that's why I'm making this video"), three years after coming out to friends and family. The clip has amassed over six million views to date.
At that point, Troye was hardly famous; one year later, when he dropped his first major-label EP TRXYE in August 2014, he was still far from a household name. Yet Sivan made that first step into the music industry as a huge and meaningful star to a large, young online following, which knew that he is gay, loves a good prank, has sex on the brain and is a Directioner, among other personal tidbits. Sivan's audience knew his quirks and habits, his dreams and nightmares, and wanted to invest in him.
“I really want the parents of my audience to see these videos and realize that their reaction influences their kid’s entire coming out experience.”
While Sam Smith and Frank Ocean skirted around the topic of their sexuality as their stars rose, Troye doesn't have ambiguity as an option. However, Sivan is also taking every opportunity to show that he'll never shy away from the issue of his sexuality, and is doing so in a way that can both help others and create a much larger impact within pop music.
Leading up to his debut album, Blue Neighbourhood (out Dec. 4), Troye revealed his three-part "Blue Neighborhood" music video series, that tells the story of two boys' complicated relationship set to the tune of the songs "Wild," "Fools" and "Talk Me Down." The visuals include an abusive and homophobic father, the boys making out shirtless in bed, one repressing his sexuality and dating a girl, and their reunion at a funeral. The series is equal parts gorgeous and harrowing, and seems to indicate that Troye dealt with a lot of issues in the process of accepting his sexuality. But that couldn't be further from the truth.
In September, he talked to The Fader about his personal coming-out experience:
"I had the most ideal coming out experience someone can have. My family was supportive, my friends. It's been a non-issue for me."
So how does a painless process beget afflicted art like the "Blue Neighbourhood" series? Because Sivan has been watching his fans and peers as they've watched him evolve, and has seen the burden that so many of them carry:
"The same thing that's been a blessing in my life can lead someone to suicide. Every time I hear about an LGBTQ kid committing suicide, it's just so much frustration. I just think about lost potential because a parent wasn't accepting or a friend wasn't, and it ended an LGBTQ kid's life.
"I really want the parents of my audience to see these videos actually. And realize that their reaction influences their kid's entire experience. Showing them two sides of the coin: this is how it could go or this is how it could go. It's up to you."
Sivan recognizes his privilege, and knows that his young, open-minded, Internet-addicted audience exists in a close-minded world causing issues for LGBTQ youth. He's hoping that his plain-and-simple images—two kids getting naked in bed is nothing new, they just happen to both be male this time—serve a normalizing purpose. This is something we simply aren't seeing from other gay pop stars, most of whom only vaguely hint at same-sex love in their videos (Smith's "Leave Your Lover"), or do so after establishing a following (Tyler Glenn and Dustin Lance Black hooked up in Neon Trees' "Songs I Can't Listen To" video more than a year after the singer came out).
Maybe it's because he came up in a way that he couldn't hide his sexuality, but Sivan isn't short-changing any part of his identity to be accepted in the music business. And it's working. The material is excellent—his debut LP Blue Neighbourhood should make an impact on critic's year-end lists—and the music that multiple superstars that are co-signing includes a message larger than trendy synth-pop. It's accessible enough to intrigue a casual listener, but when Sivan sings, "Let me take you for a drive, boy / Oh I swear you'll feel alive, boy" on a track like "Fun," there's a greater impact that's being made with listeners by making a male-male relationship sound so ordinary (and that much more sexy).
As Troye put it in the aforementioned interview, "I just wanted to write normal pop songs and use the word 'he.'" It's a simple decision that could shift stigmas and standards in popular music. Hey, if it's good enough for Adele and Taylor, it's good enough for the rest of the world, too.