The New British Invasion: How Gay Pop Stars Are Winning Over America
American teens are pining over openly gay male pop stars from the United Kingdom and Australia. Years & Years’ lead singer Olly Alexander could be American radio's next big gay star.
Photo courtesy of Interscope
On stage at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood, CA, a boy in a blue, green, and orange jumpsuit humps the air. His name is Olly Alexander, and he fronts the British band Years & Years. He lacks chest hair, and with each gentle twerking motion, flamboyant pubescent boys scream. In the third row, three such teens take multiple group selfies.
About once every decade, teens scream over a hoard of imported British and Australian singers. In the 1960s, it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; ten years ago, it was Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. They call it the British invasion. Years & Years is part of a new, very different, crop of Brits and Aussies, one that includes Sam Smith and Troye Sivan. None of them are as talented as Winehouse—they're all decent—but they're all explicitly gay.
In England, Years & Years became one of the country's big breakout stars last year. Thanks to a catchy hook ("I was a king under your control"), their single "King" hit number one on the UK charts. Now, they're bringing their act to America, a storied British tradition that occasionally results in a Spice Girls situation but typically ends with something like Oasis, a huge British band that becomes the equivalent of Hanson in the US.
Years & Years has started taking off in the states, though. "King" reached number 37 on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 Chart, and they played the main stage at Coachella. Their set was rocky (Alexander's vocals sounded shaky against the band's crystal clear dance sounds), but they've continued reaching a broader audience in the states. Their appeal stems from a new generation of rising queer celebrities, from American singer Halsey to Brits and Aussies like Sivan and Smith.
"We are seeing a lot of people talking about sexuality and identity," Alexander says. "Troye Sivan, Halsey—they're really in touch with their fan base, who are really aware of those issues."
Alexander lounges in the back of a chauffeured black Escalade speeding down Sunset Boulevard. A speck of glitter shines in his curly leg hair. Basketball shorts hang over his skeletal frame, and his socks say, "FOCUS ON ME." For the past month, he has lived in a bus, touring America. "[Walmart is] very fascinating for me," Alexander says. "You can literally buy scary knives and goldfish. Everything is super-sized. It's like a theme park!
During his most recent Walmart excursion, he bought a fanny pack. Although the car is jam-packed with music industry types—an Interscope Records publicist, Years & Years' manager, and a stylist—Alexander comes off as more of a twink next door than a major label star who recently played Wembley Stadium. "It was scary, [but] It was mainly fun," Alexander recalls. His mom and grandmother attended the concert, and afterwards they took a party bus to the burlesque club the Box. "My mum loved [the Box]," Alexander says. "She was wasted. I was wasted."
As a kid, Alexander primarily lived with his mother in Gloucester, England, a small town near Wales. Recently, he says he asked his mother if they were middle-class and she said, "I think we wanted to be, but we didn't have enough money to be, which is most of England." In primary school—the British equivalent of elementary school—Alexander auditioned for the school play, a musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, and scored the role of the Mad Hatter. "I really loved [singing]," Alexander recalls.
He started writing songs at age ten. The songwriting increased after his parents separated when he was 13. He hasn't seen his father since the separation. "He's musical, actually," Alexander says. "He played guitar and piano." Alexander's musical output increased as he started questioning his sexuality. His confusion about his sexual identity, standard teen issues, and the divorce all compounded into depression. Music helped. "When I was a bit younger, I loved Rufus Wainwright—just the fact that he existed," Alexander says. When he was a teenager in the late 2000s, gay music consisted of cult acts. The media hyped gay singer Adam Lambert's 2009 debut album, For Your Entertainment, but his career tanked after he kissed a male musician during an American Music Award performance.
Alexander has been open about his sexuality, to better reception. In concert, he twerks while singing lyrics like, "I'll do what you want tonight." Although Alexander has a very slender frame, fans have become obsessed with his butt. "hi @ American peopLE pls will u do a huge favour and get some good booty snaps while he's over there WE R BUTT DEPRIVED thanku thanku," tweeted a twitter account called @ollysbottom. (The account is solely dedicated to Alexander's rear end.) Fans have started labeling Alexander as a twink—gay slang for a tall, skinny barely legal boy. Some gay men find the term complementary; others consider it degrading. Alexander sees the word as somewhere in the middle.
"I think the word 'twink' is pejorative. There's something endemic about the gay community where we praise masculinity more than anything else," he says. "[Twinks are] powerless—they're skinny and weak—but twinks can be pretty and cute."
Audiences, of course, have fetishized male pop stars for over half a century. In 1956, a broad-shouldered Elvis Presley became a phenomenon when he humped the air while singing "Hound Dog" on the Milton Berle Show. Six decades later, Justin Bieber flashed the audience at the 2014 Fashion Rocks show, revealing a buff body. What's different about Alexander is he's the opposite of the stars American audiences have typically coveted: He's a skeletal gay British boy with gap teeth.
"I want to feel sexy with the body I have," Alexander says. "I shouldn't have to have muscles or look a certain way for society to say I'm sexy, but nobody's really stood in the way of people taking my clothes off if I want to."
Alexander's sexuality has helped his career. According to openly gay music journalist John Norris, this marks a change in music history. "I remember a time when to be gay in pop music was to be utterly closeted," he says. He interviewed many closeted gay pop stars during his legendary tenure at MTV News and remembers three types of gay pop stars: guys with beards; "good soldiers" like Lance Bass who waited till their band dissolved to come out; and very flamboyant men who claimed bisexuality and acted bitchy if you questioned them.
Culture Club lead singer Boy George fell into the third camp. Today it seems obvious that he's gay, but thanks to the AIDS crisis, George had to give coy responses about his sexuality. In a 1985 Barbara Walters interview, George dodged her questions. She berated him, and he finally confessed to being bisexual. As the decade progressed, he became ruder with journalists. "Over time, he was just a bitch," Norris recalls. After George's homosexuality became public information, American radio stations refused to play his music. ''His image is such—because of the drug thing and the fact that he's gay—that radio didn't even want to hear the record, let alone play it,'' a source at George's label, Virgin Records, told Rolling Stone in 1987. ''It's been like hitting into a stone wall.''
The other gay British pop star named George, George Michael, tried harder to stay in the closet. "Thirty years ago he was [touching] the side of a [naked] girl in 'I Want Your Sex' or he was looking across the table at his girlfriend in 'Last Christmas,'" Norris says. In 1998, cops arrested Michael in the the bathroom of Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills, CA. Authorities charged Michael with "engaging in a lewd act," the legal term for cruising for gay sex in a public space.
"This was a person who was spoken about, in the era of Faith, [as being on] the level of Madonna and Prince and Michael Jackson," Norris says. "He was outed by a cop in a sting in Beverly Hills." Following the arrest, Michael spoke to Norris for his first televised interview about his outing. Norris says Michael seemed thankful that someone had finally pushed him out. "It was amazing to see him after that," Norris recalls. "He was like a different person."
Like Boy George, Michael failed to chart in the US after he came out. Today, major label publicists mention their artists identify as "queer" in press releases. "It's a reflection of the times we're in," Norris says. "I never thought we would have marriage equality. There are so many things i never thought would happen."
In his dressing room backstage at the Fonda Theatre, Alexander sits on a table, eating strawberries out of a red plastic bowl. Next to him sit a bottle of Gordons, red solo cups, and red bowls filled with chips and salsa. Across the room, Years & Years' keyboardist, Mikey Goldsworthy, sits on a couch next to the other keyboardist, Emre Turkmen. Where Goldsworthy wears a button down shirt and rocks a beard, making him look like a 1970s guitarist, Turkmen wears glasses and a sleeveless button-down over a T-shirt. The guys are discussing the importance of masturbating on tour when they get to sleep in hotel rooms instead of on their tour bus.
"I jerk off all day," Turkmen says.
"Depends on how good the wifi is," Goldsworthy points out.
"After you go four days, you have to jerk off!" Alexander says. (He's amazed by the term "jerk off," since British men say "wank.") "People imagine you can sleep with as many people you want to [on tour]. You're always on a bus. Nobody wants to get in your coffin and have coffin sex!"
When they aren't masturbating in their hotel rooms, the guys like to listen to music together. "I've been listening to Kendrick Lamar a lot," Goldsworthy says. "Last night we listened to [the entirety of Michael Jackson's] Off the Wall," he adds. "I think as pop music goes, you can't beat him."
Years & Years have been making music together since 2010. Goldsworthy had moved from Australia to England before starting the band. "I was just kinda there on holiday, and I got stuck there. I thought the music scene was much better than Australia," he explains. "All the labels are in England." He posted an ad for a musician on FindingBands.com, and Turkmen responded. One day six years ago, they heard Alexander sing in the shower and asked him to become the lead singer for their band.
Since then, they have fallen into a collaborative songwriting process. According to Goldsworthy, Alexander writes the top lines and chord structures on a piano, and then Goldsworthy and Turkmen "dismantle" the song, rearranging the music. The duo will write on the road, but Alexander mostly writes at home because he requires a piano. On their American tour, he has brought along a toy keyboard so he can increase his productivity. He's fond of writing lyrics on his iPhone during lengthy bus rides. "The [songs are] about magical fantasy, occult practices, and sexual politics," Alexander says, while moving his hands around in the air like a witch.
Alexander's bandmates identify as straight. The band takes the Blondie/No Doubt/Garbage model, but with a gay male lead singer instead of a girl. Goldsworthy and Turkmen rarely think about this model, they say; it happened organically.
"Olly's gay," Turkmen says. "You wouldn't say we're a gay band the same way you call [someone else] a hetero band."
"The Red Hot Chili Peppers are a hetero band," Goldsworthy says. "Metallica is a hetero band."
"I would love it if less bands were hetero," Alexander says. "Do you want to fight me on this?"
Alexander stands outside the Fonda Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. At his feet lies the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His handler calls him inside the building, but Alexander sees fans racing towards him.
A young man in a pink sleeveless button-down shirt holds his hand out to Alexander. Shaking, he asks if they could record a Snapchat video together. Alexander agrees. "Oh, my god!" the boy yells in a high-pitch voice. He jumps in front of his teen dream, extends his arm out in prime selfie position, and then presses record. "Hi!" Alexander yells.
Rock Hudson's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is a few feet away.