The jailbait song is one of pop music’s longest-running, if grossest, traditions. “She was just 17, if you know what I mean,” sang Paul McCartney; “So clean, Christine, 16,” wailed KISS; “It’s no hanging matter / It’s no capital crime / I can see that you’re 15 years old,” hissed Mick Jagger. The jailbait herself rarely gets heard from, though early in rock history, Brian Wilson did build altars to teenage innocence: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?”
Troye Sivan, the 23-year-old Australian phenom angling for household-name status, has a contribution to make to this lineage—or, rather, a correction to make to it. The opener of his second album, Bloom, shares a title with Winger’s 1988 hair-metal creep anthem, “17.” But now, it’s the song’s narrator who at age 17 was lured—and lured someone else—into sex that he memorializes in a nostalgic, uplifting tone. “Got something here to lose that I know you wanna take,” Sivan purrs, delivering earnestly the kind of line that Ted Nugent might have imagined coming from a preteen. The song, like all Sivan songs, is built of quavering ’80s goo: Think George Michael, Phil Collins, and Rick Astley, the latter of whom Sivan basically impersonates in a recent video. But it’s also spiced with the digital filigree, aching ohs, and wide-eyed candor of his generation’s pop.
Sivan has said that the tune is autobiographical, and is based off him meeting an older man on the hook-up app Grindr. That’s another thing that makes his twist on the Lolita cliché new: He’s gay. As such, some listeners might fret that he’s amplifying the dangerous stereotype that homosexuality (not to mention online dating) encourages preying on the young. But Sivan’s wistfully swelling chorus adds in a touch of regret, and to anyone who starts leveling accusations, well, the jailbait-rock canon serves as a neat example of double standards.
Sivan proceeds in similar fashion throughout Bloom, scoring small a-ha! moments by queering familiar templates of love and lust. Over the soft strut of the single “Bloom,” he uses his high, clotted coo for floral imagery that’s meant, he’s hinted, to be taken as very specific sex references. On the sleek, pseudo-tropical highlight “Lucky Strike,” Sivan’s rote romanticization of cigarettes nuzzles up with lines such as “And my boy like a queen / Unlike one you’ve ever seen.” A former child actor and self-made YouTube star who’s been availed of major-label resources, Sivan is making an undisguised play to get the world singing along to a love story that’s different in its pronouns.
The music’s different in other ways, too. In his affect, production, and writing, Sivan telegraphs extraordinary sensitivity with an extraordinary, sometimes stifling, sense of control: Call it the Careful Whisper. It’s not that the songs show no daring, but rather that their attempted innovations come in the form of underplaying, such as by limiting the rhythmic rev-up in the bridge of his Ariana Grande duet, “Dance to This,” to just a few seconds. His resistance to bludgeoning his way to payoff is not only admirable but also savvy, fitting with pop’s generally unambitious mood lately. But true catharsis got strained from the mix: Is the creation and gradual dissipation of a slight lump in the throat all he’s trying for?
A diehard of Sivan’s—and there are many of them—might say that the desserts are in the details. His lyrics subsist on specifics that aren’t actually all that specific and figurative language that’s actually fairly literal, all of which is directly out of the guidebook of Taylor Swift, an early booster of his career. Seasons, fruit, flowers, fountains: He deploys them as apt double entendres, but they’re still some of the most used poetic images imaginable. Ditto for the physical descriptions of his lovers. We hear about blue jeans and buzz cuts, also go-to descriptors for Swift. They must have the same type.
It’s hard to put out of mind, too, that Swift also has done clever things with songs about age. Remember “Fifteen,” her keening counsel that young girls shouldn’t overcommit too soon? Or “Dear John,” the dressing-down of a guy who took advantage of her naïveté? Those tracks made vivid and lasting replies to pop’s macho traditions, and Sivan’s mode is too conciliatory, his songwriting too precious, to achieve the same punch. But perhaps his modesty in the face of swagger, his gently bitten lip in place of a middle finger, is subversion enough.