Troye Sivan's Bloom and the Legacy of the Gay Pop Record

Just in time for the long weekend, Troye Sivan dropped his stellar sophomore effort, Bloom. It's a breezy, synth-laden, and brisk ten tracks cataloging the rush of coming out, as well as the pleasure and heartaches of falling love. It's undeniably gay right from the start, beginning with the opener (no pun intended) about losing his virginity to an older man, "Seventeen." Sivan is at his best when expressing the exuberance and exasperation of romance ("My, My, My," "Bloom," "Plum," and "Lucky Strike"), and what is so wonderful about this record is that it's smart, sweet lyrics carefully describe the feeling of being a queer man in love. It's a remarkable achievement, and one of the best records of 2018. Sivan is well on his way to being a gay pop icon.


Though I love Bloom, it's important to recognize that it falls in a long tradition of queer men writing love songs and creating excellent albums in the process. Not enough of the recent press is acknowledging Bloom's lineage, so I want to pay tribute to important albums that preceded Sivan's.

Below is not a comprehensive list of gay pop records, but I am recommending four albums I adore and return to often.

Patrick Wolf's Lupercalia (2011)

By far Wolf's sunniest album, Lupercalia  starts with a flood of optimism on opener, "The City." What follows is a tribute to Wolf's partner, including an ode to domesticity ("House"), the lovely interlude, "William," and the heartbroken olive branch, "Together." It's an album about the pleasures and worries of two men in love, and it still plays well. Wolf's knack for mixing chamber pop, dance music, and New Wave make Lupercalia a timeless tribute to romance.



Jay Brannan's Goddamned (2008)

It would be impossible to talk about gay music and not talk about Jay Brannan. His first full length album, Goddamned, surfaced in the wake of his appearance in the cult film, Shortbus. In contrast to Sivan, Brannan is interested in mixing folk and pop music, but the album still has a hooky sensibility and it meant a lot me in my early 20s. Songs like "Half-Boyfriend," "Housewife," "On All Fours," and "Ever After Happily" captured what it felt like to be young, gay, and trying to figure out dating and happiness. Brannan has an impressive catalog of records (including the especially stellar Rob Me Blind), but this is the album I return to most often.



Rufus Wainwright's Release the Stars (2007)

Another formative record from my early 20s, Release Stars  plays with camp and melancholy. From the power-pop meets Phantom of the Opera  love song, "Between My Legs," to the lusty "Tulsa," there is so much to love here. Wainwright's slurring delivery lends a sadness to many of his tunes, but his music highlights how extreme feelings like attraction have a bitter-sweet undercurrent.



Bronski Beat's Age of Consent (1984)

If you want to study up on gay pop, the place you need to start is Bronski Beat's Age of Consent. This is much darker record than Bloom, but without this album, we would not have a pop star like Troye Sivan. Consent is the first album by an openly gay band to discuss queer subjects and also be a hit (No. 4 on the UK albums chart, and No. 36 in the US). A lot of the tunes address homophobia ("Smalltown Boy," "Why?," "It Ain't Necessarily So"), but there is love and lust too, most notably "Heatwave" and the sexy "I Feel Love (Medley)," which takes the Donna Summer classic and brings it to new gay heights.


Remembering Aretha Franklin

On August 16, 2018, Aretha Franklin, the greatest soul singer of the 20th century, passed away. She was 76.

Ms. Franklin was a staple of popular music throughout the rock era, including well into the new millennium. She is most remembered for her megahit, "Respect," as well as other classics like "Chain of Fools," "Natural Woman," and "Think." However, when I remember her, my memory is shaped by her late 90s presence on VH1, which frequently played her last mainstream Top 40 hit, "A Rose is Still a Rose" (1998). The tune was lead single and title track for her comeback record and an important moment in her career, as it brought the diva to the mainstream and contemporized her sound--a feat masterfully executed by Franklin and her collaborator, Lauryn Hill. Much like Whitney Houston's My Love is Your Love (also released in 1998), "Rose" and its mother record brought an important voice back to the mainstream with a sleek, urban sound, while also playing to the diva's legendary status as an icon and mother of the genre.

In fact, the video for "A Rose is Still a Rose" casts Ms. Franklin as a god-like mother figure offering comfort and guidance to the protagonist, who has been cast aside by her lover. It's a pure delight.


Capitalizing on her return to the mainstream that year, she also headlined VH1's first Diva's Live televised concert--in which she even outshined an in-her-prime Mariah Carey--and sang a standing-ovation worthy version of "Nessum Dorma" at the Grammy Awards, replacing an ill Pavarotti at the last minute. 1998 was a huge year for the her and, in my mind at least, looms large in her legacy.



If you are looking for other contemporary tunes, I also highly recommend Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics (2014) and its sister remix record. Though her voice had aged and her upper register thinned by the time she recorded this album, the tunes still have a lot of power. Her take on "Midnight Train in Georgia" is perhaps her finest late-era vocal performance, and her medley of "I'm Every Woman" and "Respect" packs quite a punch.

However, my favorite tune from the album is her take on Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." It's classic Aretha Franklin--dramatic, compelling, earthy, and empowering. I especially like the Wide Boys Club Mix. Ms. Franklin's voice thunders over the dance beats, and there is something uplifting about hearing a woman who weathered adversity and change over a long career sounding so powerful. It gives me chills and makes me want to dance. Clearly, I am not the only who feels this way, as "Rolling" became her final number 1, hitting the top of the Dance Chart. It's a wonderful final chapter to her career of hits. Aretha Franklin was a formidable diva and an inspiration. She will be missed.

3 Essential Listens: Panic, 5SOS, and Keiynan Lonsdale

2018 has proven to be politically brutal (protest and vote, dear reader!), but to give us some hope in this time of strife, artists have delivered the best pop music I've heard in years. I've not felt so engaged with new music since 2013 (which I consider a watershed year). Last month I did a big round-up of tunes that won me over, and this month I want to recommend one single and two great records to keep your spirits up this muggy July.

"Preach" by Keiynan Lonsdale

Since his turn in Love, Simon, I've had a killer crush on  Keiynan Lonsdale, which has been bolstered by his two new singles. Following the sweet "Kiss the Boy," Lonsdale goes full New Age gospel in his testimony to love, "Preach." The song has a stronger vocal performance and sensual under-current. I hope it foreshadows a full-length debut record.



5 Seconds of Summer's Youngblood

Leaving behind the bratty pop-punk of their teens, 5SOS delivered their first "adult" record, Youngblood. Though the album is more melancholic than their most popular tunes, it's full of hooky, addicting pop, including the title track, lead single "Want You Back," and the 80s-tinged "Talk Fast." Perhaps the most interesting song is "Moving Along," which has the phrasing typical of pop punk, but with more mature lyrics about being disaffected and heartbroken in your early 20s. The tune has layered  vocals in the chorus and an unexpected thundering drum machine ripped right from Katy Perry's Witness. The band's willingness to play with electronic textures and interest in reflecting their evolving perspective make Youngblood a worthwhile listen.



Panic! At the Disco's  Pray for the Wicked

Panic! has experienced a curious success over the past 5 years. Though the band dropped its breakthrough hit in 2005, it's garnered the most consistent critical and commercial success a decade into its career (when most acts decline). This success is due to two factors: the bottomless charm of Brendon Urie (lead singer and the only remaining member of the band) and how Urie's singular vision has shaped Panic!'s most recent records. Pray for the Wicked is a grand, flamboyant album brimming with showbiz antics and melodrama. Pray also feels quintessentially queer and Broadway. Perhaps this is because of Urie's stint in Kinky Boots last year and his recent coming out as pansexual. On tracks like the big-band tinged "Roaring 20s," dance-rock "Hey Look Ma, I Made It," exuberant "Dancing's Not a Crime," and piano ballad "Dying in LA," Urie's voice soars. This is the best he's ever sounded on record. 


Celebrate Pride 2018 Mix

Happy Pride Month, dear reader! To celebrate this joyful time of year, I have curated a mix to carry us through the month. Pride is about celebrating both the past and present, so I have few old favorites mixed with 2018 tracks.

I want to note three new songs I've not mentioned on the blog before: 1) "All Things" by Betty Who is not only the superior version of the Queer Eye theme, but it's an awesome way to kick off June; "Dancing" (Anton Powers Edit) by Kylie Minogue perfectly captures the diva's recent country dance  era, and the tune is essential because Minogue will headline NYC Pride this year; 3) "High Hopes" by Panic! at the Disco is one of band's best feel good anthems, and singer Brendon Urie always brings something queer to his music--an aesthetic reinforced by his work as an ally for the community.

I hope these tunes of celebration and hope keep you dancing through June! I send you love and happiness.


Big Pop Music Round-Up: Charlie Puth, Celine Dion, Troye Sivan, and List Goes On!

2018 is panning out to be a stellar pop music year. After a dour 2017, pop stars are pulling out all of the stops, releasing top-notch pop singles. In particular, it's a year for romance, with artists doubling down on love and sex. Below are the highlights released in the past month or so.




Charlie Puth's Voicenotes

I've never been a Charlie Puth fan, and I had dismissed him as another generic millennial crooner a la Nick Jonas or Shawn Mendes. Voicenotes is a game-changer, and this sophomore effort proves his knack for melodies, strong hooks, romantic lyrics, and appropriating nostalgia. The album mixes early 90s R and B, 80s yacht rock, and soft-rock balladry with a contemporary sheen that makes it one of the most pleasurable pop records this year. The album casts Puth as a romantic combatant disillusioned by his west coast fame-seeking paramours ("Attention," "LA Girls"), while still holding out for true love ("Patient," "BOY," "Slow It Down")--or at least some good sex ("Empty Cups").  The album stands out because Puth is not afraid to play it cheesy, and that makes him all the more endearing; "Slow It Down" is a straight-up Hall and Oats homage, and guest appearances by both Boyz II Men ("If You Leave Me Now") and James Taylor ("Change") place Puth in a long line of smooth-voiced romantics. Voicenotes goes down easy and all of the tracks work, but the high-water mark is ear-worm "BOY"--if you love it, you'll love the whole album.




"Bloom" by Troye Sivan

It's a good year to be a burgeoning queer pop icon, and Troye Sivan is the head of the pack. The second teaser single  and title track from his forthcoming sophomore effort is gloriously gay. This cheeky ode to bottoming is at once camp and pop art perfection. Sivan nails the experience of queer sex, and his spot-on lyrics ("I need you to / tell me right me before it goes down. / Promise me you'll / hold my hand if I get scared now. / Might tell you to / take a second--baby slow down) mixed with his of-the-moment production make him ripe for a deserved break into the mainstream. In a year of queer romantic art kicked off by Love, Simon, Troye Sivan is the gay pop prince we need and deserve. I can't wait to hear what he does next.




"Kiss the Boy" by Keiynan Lonsdale

Speaking of Love, Simon, Keiynan Lonsdale (who played Bram in the film) released his first blatantly queer single, "Kiss the Boy." Though softer and sweeter than Sivan's lusty tune, "Kiss the Boy" has more nods to soul music, and plays as a more youthful tribute to falling in love (note the bicycle spoke sounds early in the track). Lonsdale's falsetto, slightly nasal delivery has a charming innocence, and lends this teen romcom tune an approachability. "Kiss the Boy" marks him as a promising talent.




Janelle Monae's Dirty Computer

Keeping to 2018's themes of love and sex, Janelle Monae's Dirty Computer is a futuristic ode to lesbian sex and feminist empowerment in the wake of Me Too. Monae is still preoccupied with Prince references, but this album also feels authentically Monae; she's been a critical darling, but this album feels like she's arrived. Her vision of a female-dominated paradise is perhaps best captured in "Pynk," a utopic tribute to vaginal beauty. "Make Me Feel" is another highlight and finds Monae doing her best Purple Rain strut. Dirty Computer is delightfully explicit, and its celebration of carnality is liberating.




"Accelerate" by Christina Aguilera

Christina Aguilera is also preoccupied with sexual freedom on her forthcoming Liberation. The first single, "Accelerate," is a curious preview of the record. Xtina is no stranger to erotic songs, and "Accelerate" recalls "Dirty"--her 2002 confrontational coming-of-age tune--but the song is too freeform. In fact, as Aguilera's first solo single in over five years, it is curiously devoid of a strong hook or through-line. The first two movements of the track meander between her vocals and raps by the featured Ty Dolla Sign and 2 Chainz. The song doesn't gel until the last third, in which Aguilera vamps with some sexy "ooo"s. It's no masterpiece but exudes a laidback cool.




"Ashes" by Celine Dion

Who would have thought Celine Dion would become front-and-center in the meme culture of 2018 by singing an old school ballad in her signature melodramatic 90s style? "Ashes" is not all that different from the tracks she contributed to the Beauty and the Beast and Titanic  soundtracks: it has big emotions and big vocals. Yet, it works as a return of classic Celine epic balladry, and it also suits Deadpool's campy and queer sensibility. Dion is a left-of-center choice for the lead single from Deadpool 2, but that is what makes the song such a pleasant surprise. The video has garnered the tune attention, but after a few listens, "Ashes" gets under your skin toon. Celine Dion is still in remarkable voice, and "Ashes" reminds listeners why she remains an icon.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour



2017 was a dark year for music, with many artists turning to icy beats and hard edges (Katy Perry and Taylor Swift not least among them) to express their anger and heartbreak in the bleak political climate. Following such a grim pop cycle, Kacey Musgraves' exquisite  third record, Golden Hour, feels like a breath of fresh air. Its mix of Americana, folk, and soft rock, as well as its focus on love, recall the best of Carole King and James Taylor, heightened with contemporary touches. It's an open-hearted, big sky of a record--the best of career so far.


Though the album has its share of folk guitars, Musgraves and her producers lend the tunes a cinematic scope with modern accouterments.  Vocoder spices up "Oh, What a World," and disco flourishes on "High Horse" transform the tune into a pop gem. The entire record thrives on contemporary details, like on "Lonely Weekend," a gentle, hooky ballad in which she sings, "I keep looking at my phone, putting it back down / There's a little part of me that's got the fear of missing out." She resolves this social media era tune by later concluding: "It's alright to be alone sometimes" before the song breaks open with a wall of harmonized voices. It is nothing shy of brilliant, and it's the best thing she's recorded.



When Carole King released Tapestry in 1971, she helped create the singer/songwriter soft rock sound, as well as captured the heartbeat of her generation. Golden Hour follows that tradition. Does that make it less of a country record, and more of a mainstream piece? Definitely, but if there is an artist who deserves more mainstream appeal, Kacey Musgraves has proved to be it. Golden Hour is already a strong contender for the best album of the year.


Love Simon and the Love Simon Soundtrack




Between the ages of 12 and 18, I watched Pretty in Pink, the John Hughes-penned rom com starring Molly Ringwald, several times each month. I leaned on that movie and its exploration of forbidden love (in this case, due to economic class), feeling like an outsider, and standing up for yourself and your individuality in the face of adversity. In hindsight, I realize I connected with these themes because of my closeted homosexuality, and Ringwald's character, Andie, embodied the perseverance I hoped I'd one day live up to. Pretty in Pink moved me in an essential way, and I was moved in a very similar way at an advanced screening on Love, Simon  this past weekend.

Love, Simon is the movie I always wanted as a teenager--the kind of movie that could have even eclipsed my deep love for Pretty in Pink, had such a film existed when I was coming of age in the early 2000s. Based on a novel by Becky Albertalli, it follows Simon through his first love and coming out.



Yes: it's much easier for a lot teens to come out in 2018 that it was for my peers over a decade ago. (Not to mention how difficult it would have been for a teen in 1986, the year of Pretty in Pink, to come out. Check out Dave Morton's underappreciated, sweet, and harrowing Edge of Seventeen  for an authentic take on being a gay teen in the 80s.) However, despite the progress that has been made, it's still very difficult for teens (and adults) to acknowledge their sexual orientation because we still live in a world where straight is seen as the default and gay the exception.

Love, Simon explores this delicate time. It's also a sweet romance and captures the breeziness of adolescence. Director Greg Berlanti has a light, skillful touch bringing gay romance to the screen (as he has already proven with The Broken Hearts Club).

The film also features a wonderful soundtrack. The music in Pretty in Pink helped make that film a teen classic, and Love, Simon (I hope) will have the same fate. Featuring an abundance of tunes by The Bleachers, as well as Troye Sivan, The 1975, and Amy Shark (among others), the album balances contemporary sounds and nostalgia. Like Andie, Simon is a music fan, and the character's cool taste shows on this well-curated selection of tunes from the film. The album helps you connect with Simon, and because of that, it's a great success.



There's a lot we could talk about with Love, Simon: the importance of gay representation on the big screen, how the film casually but beautifully deals with diversity, or that the films we watch as teenagers--often about other teenagers finding their way--can be some of the most important movies of our lifetime. For a simple, sweet, and funny romance, Love, Simon accomplishes a lot, and I am happy it is in the world. Go watch it (and read the book and listen to the soundtrack too). It will warm your heart.