Categories: Interviews

Troye Sivan’s queerness in full bloom

The out pop star on his uninhibited second album, finding power in femininity and his journey to empowerment

Nobody is stopping Troye Sivan except for maybe Troye Sivan. No queer-averse label bosses, no identity-stifling pressure to be anything but who he is: the LGBTQ community’s precious paradigm of unapologetic, unicornian queerness.

But even with the YouTube-launched pop fixture’s steady mainstream rise, with assists from Ariana Grande on a single featured on his sophomore album, Bloom, and a live duet at a recent Taylor Swift concert, the 23-year-old’s follow-up to 2015’s Blue Neighborhood refuses to sacrifice self for commercialism.

And he won’t stop there this time, not during this album cycle (or ever). In the seductive video for the album’s first single, “My My My!,” Sivan works a room doused in the carnal grit and flashing lights of a gay bar’s seedy backroom — and also an entire street — in a blistering heat as hot as the shirtless guys feeding his desire.

He’s coy about its subject matter, but Sivan wrote an entire song about bottoming too.

I tell the South African-born, Australian-reared Sivan that “Bloom,” notably an official single, is the perfect Monday song to crank while on your way to work, or at a family gathering. Its gay-sex specificity perhaps lost on heterosexuals; the anthemic send-up is concurrently a love song and the most liberating of queer secrets. Giggling, he tells me, “That was the goal.”

Elsewhere, the celebratory, spirited and brazenly gay Bloom turns the page on Sivan’s youth, which casts with wistfulness and, admittedly, tentativeness on Blue Neighborhood, his first Capitol Records album. That same sentimental lilt — but now, with winks — also marks his burgeoning adult years captured on Bloom: losing his virginity to an older man during a Grindr hookup (the dreamlike, fraught-with-realness “Seventeen”); recognizing he’s failed his better half (the tender and winsome “The Good Side”); and a strutting, newfound sexual liberation, with “Bloom” and “My My My!”

Sivan’s transparency is hardwired: He honestly can’t be anything but himself. It is clear on Bloom, but holds true during the conversation, as Sivan talks about deriving power from femininity, working through residual queer issues, and dealing with the fear of shooting “My My My!” with a crew of dudes bigger than him.

Did you imagine you’d be answering all these questions about sex after “Bloom” unleashed into the world?
No way. Honestly, I never would’ve thought I would have written that song. That song came out of a session that I felt wasn’t going too well. It was me and my best friend (and producer), Leland, us being like, “OK, well how do we make the most of this day? Let’s start messing around and having fun.” And we wrote it that night — never, ever thought that it would see the light of day. We ended up with something that I thought was cool and interesting and real.

Mainstream culture has come around to same-sex love, but gay sex is still taboo. Does your frankness about gay sex on this album feel radical or political?
Not really. I wanted to make music for people like me. The first album I was conscious of trying to keep things digestible for as many people as possible. This time around I had a different set of goals, which were actually to accurately represent where I feel like I am in my life. And if it’s talking about going out and partying, or if it’s talking about staying at home and cooking in the kitchen, or if it’s talking about sex — whatever it is, I wanted a 20-year-old queer person to hear this and be like, “Oh yeah, this is, like, legit.”

What influenced you to deliver something more queer-specific?
It was having inspiring experiences and meeting inspiring people. You know, whenever I start writing music, my number one goal, always, is to keep things honest and real, because I think it’s the only way to stay relevant and stay true over a long career. I want to be doing this for the rest of my life. And I don’t know if I’ll be able to think of cool concepts and things like that for the rest of my life. But I’ll always speak about where I am in my life. So I fall back on that, and I wanted not to hold anything back. It’s so cool to me to be able to celebrate all of those things I was celebrating in my real life. So, why not go for it and talk about that on the album?

When did the album’s more defiantly queer narrative begin to take shape artistically?
It was probably the moment where I had immersed myself in the LGBTQ community. When I think about my real life, I have almost exclusively queer people around me in L.A. I’m living in this little bubble right now where I sometimes forget that it’s a thing and that there are, like, straight people in the world (laughs).

I’m sure that you’re reminded when you perform in small towns that aren’t like West Hollywood.
Right, exactly. And then I travel to somewhere like that or I’ll go home to Australia — or I’ll just read the news — and quickly get reminded how lucky I am and how specific my experience. But I hope that it’s an experience of hope for people, that they hear this and feel like, “Oh, that’s possible, and I can go and live this happy and healthy and fulfilled fun life.” And see that there is, 100 percent, another side to the world.

For some gay people, coming out doesn’t mean the personal battle has won – there’s still overcoming sexual repression. I feel like you work through some of that on this album.
Probably, yeah. And I think in general, a lot of the residual issues that queer people deal with have also completely followed me into my older life, just internalized homophobia that I’ve held onto without meaning to from when I was, like, 13 or whatever. It’s like, “Oh no, you can’t talk about that, or you can’t sing about that.” I’m doing my very, very best to throw all that away actively. It’s been empowering.

What has been the most challenging part of navigating the music industry as an unapologetically out gay man?
Normal music industry stuff. I came into the industry at the perfect time for me, a time where people were willing to let me be who I am and say what I want and do what I want, so that’s been the biggest blessing. All that leaves is personal challenges of like, what do I want from my career? Am I making sure that I’m releasing the best thing that I possibly can? And what’s inspiring to me? And do I want this to be a radio smash, and if I do, how am I going to get there? Or do I want this to be something that means something to people, and how am I going to get there?

It’s been fairly typical music industry stuff, which I feel thankful for, because I think 10 years ago, it would’ve been a whole separate set of worries and issues that now feel much more intense than dire.

Is your goal to make gay radio smashes?
I actually don’t know. For me, I’ve walked this line between having a young, active online audience — a similar audience that you would see at an Ariana Grande or Justin Bieber show — and then also be wanting to do these subversive queer pop songs. I think my approach to it is not overthinking what I want commercially, just letting things happen. Hopefully, if I like it, somebody else is going to like it.

When you performed “The Good Side” on SNL in January, I got lost in you getting lost in the song. For a performance like that, are you in the moment? Or does your mind tend to wander beyond the performance?
I’m mostly just in the moment. Sometimes I think about the lyrics. I try not to think about them too much because, like “Good Side,” it’s one of the most personal songs on the album and that can get kind of weird, being that vulnerable, so I try not to let myself go too deep into the hole. But in general, I’m just thinking about doing the song justice.

You have a role in the forthcoming film Boy Erased, starring Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as parents who send their child to a conversion-therapy camp. What about the film resonated with you?
The script. I just couldn’t put the script down. It tore at me. Then I read the book and started immersing myself as much as I possibly could in that world. My coming out experience — the moment I accepted I couldn’t change my sexuality — was a weight off of my chest. It wasn’t for me to deal with; it was more for everyone else. I had come to the point where I had accepted it within myself, and then it was about navigating through the rest of the world: my family, my friends.

So, the thought of going to a program like the one in the film at that crucial, vulnerable moment and being told, “No, this is 100 percent back on you, and you’re filling a God-shaped hole in your life with these tendencies” was one of the most harmful and hurtful things that I can imagine. It’s been proven to be ineffective and extremely dangerous, and you’re signing these kids up for an impossible task. It really hit home and struck a chord with me. I haven’t wanted anything as much as this role, so I just auditioned and thankfully got the part.

Your sister once caught you in a vulnerable state, dancing to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” When did you become comfortable with that kind of vulnerability on stage?
It’s still really new to me. I think the “My My My!” video was a huge step for me personally; that was a moment where I had to actively pep talk myself into it. I knew that was the way I naturally wanted to move to the song, and that was the way the song made me feel, but that didn’t make it any easier to do in a big group of people — especially with burly cameramen! (Laughs) It was scary! But when I pushed through, I felt how amazing it felt. It felt so right. Now I have to retrain my brain to do that on stage and do that in front of other people.

How do you get into that mental space?
It’s an active decision that I have to make. I have to think about it and push through a lot of nerves and vulnerability. And, again, the only reason I do it is that it’s what feels right to me. That’s what I would do in private. So, why the hell not do it publicly, and celebrate that?

You were scared of your feminine attributes as a child. Can you tell me about your journey to embracing femininity? And when you do embrace it now, how it makes you feel?
I was terrified of it in my childhood, and it was something that I tried to shy away from. Now, I celebrate it as such a source of power. I feel liberated and free, and I’m having fun. And femininity is magical. Who wouldn’t want to be feminine?

It took time to get to that point, but now it’s so fun to push through all of those worries. On the other side is a liberated existence where you can do whatever, and it’s just been a pleasure.

How would you compare where you were to where you are now?
It’s like night and day. It feels artistically inspiring to me, really personally inspiring. And I’m much happier.

As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).

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Chris Azzopardi

Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. He’s also the proud recipient of an “I adore you, daaahhhling!” from Mariah Carey. Reach him via his website at chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

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