Trigger warning: contains description of rape and sexual assault.
When I was 17, I was raped by someone I had known since I was a kid. I remember his hands mapping me, as my body tried to expel the narcotics I’d been fed. In the darkness, I verbalized the kind of pernicious and pervasive thoughts that seem to settle in the mind of a teenager: “I’m ugly, I’m weird, I’m unloveable.” During this tirade, I referenced the vast difference in our ages. He shushed me, and whispered: “Age is just a number.”
Last week, Troye Sivan said those very same words to me.
He opened his sell out show at London’s Hammersmith Apollo with “Seventeen”—the first track on his second studio album Bloom, released in August 2018. Sivan the track wrote about an older guy from Grindr, a year before he’d publicly come out on Youtube in 2013. I can’t say it's about sexual assault—the lyrics are too vague to pin to any sort of definitive experience, and it would be unfair of me to do so. Speaking to Billboard last year, Sivan just said: “It’s a true story of a curious gay kid who puts himself in some kind of shady situation to find connection.” But that doesn’t mean his words don’t resonate.
Bathed in a spotlight bouncing off the glaring paleness of his chest and white mesh vest, Sivan started the show in front a curtain. “I got these beliefs that I think you wanna break / Got something here to lose that I think you wanna take from me” he sang sweetly, from "Seventeen." Lights at his feet flashed on and off, throwing shadows against the deep red of the curtain. They danced above and around him, as he continued: “Got something here to lose, that I know you wanna take / And he said ‘age is just a number, just like any other’ / We can do whatever, do whatever you want.”
Watching something that spells out an experience you’ve had and reads it back to you verbatim, is a disconcerting experience. It’s perhaps even more so for queer people, or people of any underrepresented demographic—we’re so unused to our stories being told by us, and for us, that when it actually happens, it can come as a shock. For stories alluding to a pain that runs so ubiquitously through our community—like assault, or damaging relationships—it cuts even deeper. A US study found lifetime prevalence of sexual assault for lesbian and bisexual women ranges from 18 percent to 85 percent, and for gay and bisexual men from 11 percent to 54 percent—much higher than the general population—so I’m not speaking about rare instances.
But hearing “age is just a number” again, in a way I couldn’t escape or skip past, wasn’t actually painful. Instead, it was joyous. In front of me, a young queer lad danced, working his mouth around the words whispered breathlessly into so many of our ears, lifted by the ear splitting screams of an undulating mass of adoration. Here, miles and years away from whatever inspired the track, Troye was being celebrated, accepted by a crowd that were deeply, deeply in love with him. The subject matter this particular song dredges up might be dark for me personally, but the experience of seeing him perform last week was the opposite. It was light, freeing.
As pop stars go, Troye Sivan is fascinating.
His star is very much ascendant, with Bloom charting at number 3 and number 4 in Australia and USA, respectively. He wrote Oscar-nominated song “Revelation” with Sigur Ros’ Jonsi, and also bashed out collaborations with Charli XCX, Lauv and Ariana Grande. He lives in LA with his model boyfriend, Jacob Bixenman and their dog. He’s rich, conventionally attractive, and living out his dreams. Bloom is about all of this. It is an album about contentment. About that seemingly perfect life. About his undying love for Jacob (whose “Bloom Book” of intimate pictures of the two of them accompanies the album). It is, for all intents and purposes, a fairly smug proposition by someone who, by all rights, probably would be a bit smug.
Look a little closer though—beyond the idyllism of seemingly unreachable happiness—and you’ll see that within Bloom, Troye sews a seam of pain, trauma and memory. It’s in that space, that scratchy, uncomfortable place, where sparkling joy glistens up against something darker, that you can guess the true heart of Troye Sivan lies. It’s there that you realize the power of his stardom intertwines with his queerness in many ways. It’s what makes watching him, particularly as a queer person, so enjoyable. “Baby, we're barely holding on / Even the sweetest plum, has only got so long,” he sings on “Plum”.
The thing about gigs is that they’re supposed to make you feel something. They are, in some way or another, supposed to move you—otherwise, what’s the point? There are so many amazing acts and artists out there who have the ability to do that. So many experiences to be had that make the overpriced pints, the pushing and the shoving, the wait for the tube getting home, worth it. Thing is though, most of the time, you’re left to tell your own story about what you’re seeing. To project and hang your own meanings and responses upon the musical hooks and choreographed dances in front of you. But Troye Sivan makes it easy.
Towards the end of the show, Sivan sat surrounded by lamps, the like of which you’d find in your nan’s house. He perched on the arm of a sofa, the haunting piano refrain of “Postcard” echoing around the venue as his lyrics laid out that crushing, enveloping sadness that can only spring from sweet love. Later, as he belted out “The Good Side”, the song he’s “most proud of,” I realized that he’s built each and every one of our living rooms. He’s mirrored our lives, spun them out under the great art deco arch and invited us back into fragments of ourselves.
The sense that he was enjoying himself was pervasive, infectious. But that he was doing so in a home-like set, mirroring places we grew up, made it special. He started the final song of the set, “Animal”, by announcing that he’d be coming back on for an encore to do two more songs. “Thing is,” he proffered, “I really like the drama and allure of an encore”. That's what makes him so compelling. When you watch Sivan, you could be watching any of us, in those precious, stolen moments when we’re dancing around our front rooms and flats, lip syncing and flailing our arms about—thriving, not just surviving.
You can find Ben on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.