Australian queer heartthrob Troye Sivan, who released his excellent sophomore album Bloom on Thursday, should be one of the biggest stars in the world right now. He has a combined 20 million fans on social platforms, he’s performed on a bunch of nationally-adored TV shows including SNL and Ellen, and he’s received a ton of love from the press — just last week, Paper described him as an “unstoppable solo artist.” His album is expected to debut in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 with 65,000 units earned, a respectable but not awe-inspiring total. "My My My!," the album’s anthemic first single, peaked at number 80 on the Billboard charts and none of the other releases have fared any better. In 2018, it seems to be impossible for any pop artist to really conquer.
Pop music is having a rough summer. While streaming numbers climbed astronomically all-around, the most popular songs, as measured by the charts were near unanimously based in hip-hop or R&B. Only Ariana Grande, with a new R&B-influenced sound, and Maroon 5, with a guest verse from Cardi B, were able to crack the Top 10 of the Hot 100. Even Taylor Swift, who has sold over two million copies of her album reputation, hasn’t been able to crack the top 10 threshold with her last two singles.
Pop fares even worse on the streaming charts, where radio, whose programmers are still reportedly cautious of working “urban” music into their pop rotations, aren’t part of the puzzle. On Apple Music’s Top Songs on Tuesday September 4, only six of the top 100 songs on the service were not hip-hop or R&B. Three of those songs were from Grande’s album sweetener, one was the aforementioned Maroon/Cardi song, one was a collab from Benny Blanco, Halsey, and Khalid, and nu-EDM king Marshmallo snuck in there too. The entire top 25 is pop-less. The week before, without Eminem’s surprise album taking up space, there were only 10 pop songs out of the chart’s 100 entries, with more Ariana songs taking up the bulk of that 10%. Rock and country are completely M.I.A.
Underground pop stars have always existed and this view might be a bit charitable, but I think Troye Sivan is the first of a new wave of artists — pop stars who can thrive in spite of the genre's current state of repose.
Chart positions aside, the album is great. It is a thrilling exploration of Sivan’s young queer love life. “Lucky Strike,” a lithe song about a sexy smoker, is one of the best pop songs of the year, full stop. It’s a hazy love song with a chorus that makes you want to scream yaasss at your best friend across a dance floor. Sivan’s close group of collaborators — including producer Leland, star in her own right Allie X, and skilled writer Alex Hope — have gotten better over time as well. Their writing and production is more personal and dreamier than ever before. I, and other queer people, have complained about out singers like Sam Smith for being stingy with pronouns and direct descriptions of same sex love, but happily there’s nothing like that on Bloom. The album’s title track is a sly sing-along about comfortable anal sex, and on “Seventeen,” he talks about an older lover with warm candor.
I do wonder if straight audiences have not fully embraced Sivian and his “bops about bottoming.” The video for “Dance To This,” in which he plays a sweet dance partner to Ariana Grande, has about the same amount of views as all of his other videos from this cycle combined. Yes, that could be because of Grande’s more established starpower, but I can’t help but look at his very queer videos for “My My My” and “Bloom” and wish they had attracted the same amount of attention. I think he has too much integrity to hide or change who he is or the art he makes, but I hope he never has to have a single annoying conversation from his label about it. Bloom is simply Sivan’s best work yet and I hope that he’s given the time to find the most solid footing possible in the trickiest pop landscape in years.