Remember the 90s? They were good, weren’t they? We had the Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child and Diana was still alive. Then Blair came along and everything was great for a bit, until everything was bad again. Remember the early 00s? We had some of the best music of all time. Max Martin was changing the sound of pop, boy bands were cool again, Britney was on top of the world. Everything was great, for a while, then indie came along and everything was boring again.
Fast-forward to 2018, and Years & Years have just released their new single ‘Sanctify’, a track that leans heavily on the distinctive sound of late nineties pop, along with a bewitching sci-fi video. You can read Jack’s review of the track right here.
Surprisingly, ‘Sanctify’ steers clear of the sparse tropical-pop that’s currently so en vogue, a favourite for pop stars looking to launch a successful second album campaign (hi James Bay). Instead – and to much relief – Years & Years have taken a left-turn, shunning the ultra-modern for the nostalgic, embracing a sound that owes a heavy debt to late nineties and early noughties pop. Olly Alexander’s voice has always carried a hint of Justin Timberlake, but never has this been more striking than against the smooth RnB-infused arrangement of ‘Sanctify’, courtesy of producer Kid Harpoon. This is no accident. Speaking on the band’s Vevo channel, Alexander lists the likes of Timberlake, Britney and Christina Aguilera as major influences for the track. While he has long been enthusiastic about his love for nineties pop music, only now is this passion finding a fitting home.
Though the video for ‘Sanctify’ is a futuristic affair, Alexander playing one of the last humans on a planet dominated by androids, this only adds to the feeling of nineties nostalgia. It’s reminiscent of Backstreet Boys’ ‘Larger Than Life‘ or Spice Girls’ ‘Spice Up Your Life‘, both big-budget videos that played with sci-fi themes. Though ‘Sanctify’ isn’t quite as tongue-in-cheek, it’s atypically bombastic for a modern pop video, perhaps in an effort to grab the attention of the American market, who have so far slept on the band’s brand of queer-influenced dance pop.
‘Sanctify’ is another track that explores ideas of queerness, inspired by a sexual encounter with a man who identified as straight. “On the one hand, the guy is struggling with his sexuality and feeling unable to express himself as anything other than straight while also desiring me,” Alexander told NYLON magazine. “I’m on the other side feeling like both a sinner and saint or a devil and angel, leading this guy down a path of ‘sinfulness’ while, at the same time, helping him explore his sexuality.” Here, Alexander further toys with the nineties pop formula, imbuing it with a queerness that was largely absent from the heteronormative standards of the pre-millennium years. It’s as though he’s rewriting the pop songs he listened to as a kid, only now they include the narratives that were missing from a sanitised market aimed squarely at children. If Baby Spice caused controversy advocating safe sex in ‘2 Become 1’, there was certainly no room for openly gay guys singing about leading straight men astray for a night of eye-opening homo-sex.
‘Sanctify’ feels like a step-up for Years & Years, a band who seemed on the verge of falling victim to their own hype. On their latest track, the trio are back doing what they do best, crafting thoughtful dance pop with a distinctly queer edge, Alexander still the unrivalled king of bringing queer themes to a (largely unknowing) mainstream audience. By channelling the sound of manufactured late-nineties pop, the group not only buck the current trend for charmless tropical house, but go some way to rewriting the decade for people who were woefully underrepresented for far too long.