My youth consisted of endless hours on YouTube, my respite from adolescence. My youth consisted of connecting with strangers across screens – getting to know the intimate lives of people I’d never meet. My youth consisted of Internet personalities like Grace Helbig and Jenna Marbles and Troye Sivan.
From YouTube persona to pop sensation, 20-year-old Sivan has come a long way since his “Coming Out” video went viral three years ago (6.4 million views to date). His first studio album, Blue Neighbourhood, released in early December of last year, peaked at number seven on the U.S. charts.
Two days after the release, in a “thank you” video to his loyal subscribers, Sivan recounted “The Whole Story”: his journey using new media to build his platform from the ground up. He calls Blue Neighbourhood his musical diary. It’s an ode to his Australian upbringing, a collection recorded in his home country (with EMI) featuring fellow Australian artists like Berry Who and rapper Allday.
Sivan, accustomed to singing to a video camera in his bedroom, has finally taking the stage – on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” on “The Ellen Show” and on a 42-city world tour.
Music is a selfish art from both sides of the record. From the artist’s side, Sivan sings for himself. He writes love lyrics with “he/his/him” pronouns, making his songs personal, not universally relatable. Performing for a demographic dotted with preteens, he cusses without care to emphasize his sentiments. Onstage, he lulls each beat, cradles each syllable for his own indulgence.
From the listener’s side, the tendency is to place the lyrics into our own lives. This, too, is self-indulgent, but it’s also connection to the artist at the very core. At the end of the day, Sivan realizes we may not relate to his experiences being gay, but we relate to the universal themes of rejection and self-discovery and love anyway.
As a singer without an instrument, Sivan must work harder to create stage presence. He stomped across every inch of the Royal Oak stage, and he touched the faces of everyone in the first three rows. His performance resembled how Swedish pop star Mø dances for herself while no one watches onstage
A skinny white boy under a light that only made him whiter, Sivan oozed cool – not just in performing “COOL,” but in every number. He redefined swag for a tall lanky kid, as the beat ran through his every vein. His type of swagger is a confident lax – a vulnerability.
Fog obscuring his silhouette before a backdrop of stick houses, Sivan’s performance of “SUBRUBIA” conveyed his love-hate relationship with his upbringing – fond memories of “mama’s good eats” but a place where “where dreams go to die.” He captured how so many of us feel about our hometowns, reminiscent of fellow Australian artist Lorde’s “Royals”: “not proud of my address / In a torn-up town / no postcode envy.”
Sivan continued onto “HEAVEN,” where he raised an impersonal middle finger to a suburbia and a heaven that rejects homosexuals. Raised in a conservative community, he wrote the song at age 15, when he came to terms with his sexuality. With each repetition of the chorus, he evoked tears from all the raised cell phone lights: “So if I’m losing a piece of me / Maybe I don’t want heaven.”
Sivan forgets to remind us that he is so, so very young because his lyrics paint him so sage. At 20, not even of American legal drinking age, he croons in “TOO GOOD”: “So I take a sip, wait ‘til it hits / That liquid guilt is on my lips / I’m wasted on you.”
An innocent-looking boy, he seems unsusceptible to have ever tried any drug harder than alcohol. Yet, in “Happy Little Pill,” the gold single from his major-label EP TRYXE, hooks us with: “Cocaine, dollar bills and / My happy little pill / … Tame my hunger / Lie within / Numb my skin.”
While many of his songs convey coming out, more generally, they communicate coming of age. Within just one album, Sivan encapsulates what Adele has amassed from 19, to 21, to 25. Sivan closed his set with “LOST BOY” and “YOUTH,” encapsulating in a few verses what it means to be young – ignorant yet infinite.
He admits, “I’m just some dumb kid / Tryin’ to kid myself / That I got my shit together” – extracting the most vulnerable qualms from our own minds. He sums up modern love: “Shouldn’t stay too long / ‘Cause we both too young / To give into forever” – the fickle millennial inability to commit.
But amid the ignorance, he reminds us that youth is boundless, “‘Cause we’ve no time for getting old.”
As if the hype of his Royal Oak concert wasn’t enough, mere minutes after Sivan left the stage, he dropped his music video for “YOUTH.”
In a song about losing virginity, Sivan portrays the sensation of being “young and wild and free” – a sentiment that may be hackneyed, but to the young, feels so important. Dancing alone in a crowded room, he highlights the adolescent spotlight effect – the belief that everything matters extraordinarily in the present moment. Laying in a tent, hands entangled with a boy and surrounded by 100 Care Bears, he captures how at 20, he spans the threshold between childhood and adulthood. In his final note, he points to the camera – points to us – his eyes almost winking, telling us, “My youth is yours.”
In his “The Whole Story” video, Sivan says, “I wanna (sing) so badly not only for myself anymore – not only for my selfish dream of wanting to be like Michael Jackson – but I wanna do this for you guys, because I feel like you guys have been so there and so supportive … We can become Michael Jackson.”
YouTube has always been about the consumers just as much as it has been about the creators. So much of Sivan’s youth, starting at age 12, included making YouTube videos to launch his music career – and for some of us, so much of our youth included watching his journey. His youth is ours.