Olly Alexander has spent the last year becoming one of the most outspoken figures in pop music, opening up conversations about mental health (he has suffered form depression an anxiety) and LGBT issues (Alexander is gay). What’s impressive is he’s done so in a risk-averse era in which celebrities are afraid to speak on provocative issues for fear of being grilled by social media – Adele, for example, has her tweets vetted by two people and signed off by a third before they’re posted.
The frontman of pop-house trio Years & Years has made arguably his boldest statement yet: a raunchy video for the R&B banger ‘Desire’ which sees him kiss men and women, accompanied by a statement in which he explains the background. “I’ve been wanting to make a video with some of my queer family for a long time”, Alexander writes. “Everyone has a different definition of what they find sexy… For me, whoever it is, two women, two men, a group of gender-queer people, it’s all cute.”
Well, cute might not be the first word that springs to mind when a string of saliva arches between Alexander and a dancer’s lips after they kiss. “Cute” might not be at the absolute forefront of your mind when the camera zooms in on a woman’s crotch or lingers lovingly on a naked arse being slapped by an umbrella. Consider the bit where Alexander walks up to woman, snogs her, then breaks off to snog the bloke next to her. No, maybe “cute” isn’t the word. Jesus, though, it’s sexy.
In the statement, Alexander asks: “Why is it that in 2016, a pop video featuring people expressing their sexuality who aren’t CIS-gendered or heterosexual, feels at all unusual or progressive? It shouldn’t, but it does.” And he’s unapologetic about enjoying his sexuality: “Here’s the thing, I like sex, being able to assert myself and talk about my sexuality is a powerful thing for me.”
It’s impossible to overstate how welcome and important it remains for a gay pop star to say such things in 2016. Alexander is also eloquent and insightful on the role female musicians have historically played in celebrating gender and sexuality, paying tribute to Madonna, Destiny’s Child, Alanis Morrissette, Britney Spears and Whitney Houston. He explains that even though they were championing straight sexuality, “they were so much more interesting to me than the majority of male musicians whose Type A macho sexuality felt completely unrelatable.”
And he’s doing his bit to champion what he terms “queer” sexuality. (In the statement, he acknowledges: “The word ‘queer’ first started being used in the 1980s by members of the community who wanted to reclaim something negative and turn it into something positive. It’s still a painful word for some and lots of people don’t identify with it, but for me it’s a helpful and empowering term”.) Last year he spoke about his dedication to using male pronouns in love songs – see ‘Real’ and ‘Memo’, from debut album Communion – and told Gay Times: “I really care about LGBT and queer issues, so I’ll always, always do whatever I can to speak out about them.”
When Years & Years first emerged from the London music scene and scooped the BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll, Alexander didn’t seem to say much in interviews, trading on pleasant platitudes about his surprise at the band’s success. So it’s been a pleasure to see the 25-year-old emerge as this champion of LGBT rights, as an outspoken man who criticises the government for cutting mental health services and is determinedly sex positive. It would be heartening to think other celebrities might follow his lead.