Troye Sivan and Thelma Plum are leading an Australian pop explosion
Whether it be internationally or back here in Australia, Sivan and Plum are leading a pop revolution that's only growing.
We've spoken tirelessly about the blossoming of Australia's pop music market in the past two years, from artists like Kota Banks standing amongst left-field pop experimentalists like Charli XCX to the polar opposite, like shoegaze-pop break-out Hatchie or nostalgia-driven returns from The Veronicas. Truthfully, however, the flourishing of Australian pop music spans beyond niche sub-genres and artists like those aforementioned (every day, it feels like there's a promising new arrival to our pop market, and every other day it seems like another Australian pop musician finds their footing in commercialism or international acclaim), encompassing unique sounds that's become distinctly Australian - much like how Wave Racer et. al pushed the 'Australian Sound' on dance music - yet vastly different to one another, showcasing that our bustling pop market is in its own lane, and turning into something adored because of this.
While it's easy to argue that Australia's isolation makes our music distinct from the dominative sounds pushed by US and UK pop heavyweights, ARIA's end-of-year chart summaries reveal anything but. Since 2000, for example, only four Australian artists have finished the year with Australia's most commercially successful single - last year's Youngblood by 5 Seconds of Summer the first time since 2006, about when Australian Idol's influence on commercial success felt less prevalent as in past years - and the list of Australian artists to even reach the top 20 within the past decade is countable on two hands (for an even more disheartening fact, only two have been women - Sia and Iggy Azalea). While Australia's strengthening grip on pop music may not be as reflective on the charts as it is critically (at least not singles-wise), the growing market for local pop and every sub-sound it takes means we're living in somewhat of a pop explosion at the moment, and chances are, we're not ever going to be looking back.
At its current state, it seems that Australia's pop music world can be split into two major sections; those musicians starting to make a lasting impact in the US (something which has largely been capable of electronic acts like Flume, Alison Wonderland and RÜFÜS DU SOL, but not pop acts) and those who back home, are showcasing the strength and diversity of a growing scene. Generally speaking, those in the latter category often lead into the former after an international break, but occasionally Australian acts are able to jump into international waters without making a lasting impression in Australia, and it's something that's become more common in 2019.
CXLOE, for example, is very much a cult-adored 'triple j-pop' musician who despite one of the most consistent discographers for a newcoming pop musician, is only just finding herself on the lineup for Falls Festival - albeit down the bottom. She has, however, worked with mega-songwriter Leland (Troye Sivan, Selena Gomez) behind-the-scenes and performed a co-headline show alongside him in LA, positioning herself as a musician rising in that niche singer-songwriter role akin to Sasha Sloan. Ruel, another example, has one of Australia's most dedicated and wide-spanning audiences, with his own 'stan culture' taking him from an R&B-pop teen newcomer to an artist with the capability to sell-out headline shows in the US and Europe, and play festivals such as the Tyler, The Creator-curated Camp Flog Gnaw. Allday is another in the more hip-hop leaning space, as is Mallrat, while acts like Golden Vessel tinkle in the production role as their wavy electro-pop grow beyond Australia.
When talking about Australian artists finding their footings internationally, however, there's one artist that stands tall amongst the rest - Troye Sivan. While he's always been a commercial success at home - his debut album, Blue Neighbourhood, was a top-ten charter in Australia, and his 2015 EP Wild went to number one) - he's a pop heavyweight in international waters with a similar pull to that of acts twice his age and experience. His defining 2018 album Bloom was a Billboard top ten debut, and in the time since his explored both the commercial and underground sides of contemporary pop music - from performing with Taylor Swift at her Hollywood Rose Bowl show to performing with pop-pioneers Robyn and Charli XCX; the latter of which he co-curated a Pride festival titled Go West Fest alongside.
Troye Sivan's success comes down to a multitude of factors which seem to interconnect and emphasis each other. On his Bloom album, for example, hyper-pop Max Martin productions sit side-by-side with tender romantic ballads about growing old, while his public queerness - in both subliminal songwriting and in the celebrity eye - have made him one of music's most important too; something reflected in a growing audience full of hyper-engaged fans that look up to him both as a musician and an LGBT persona in the public space.
Back home, however, there's an ever-growing list of local up-starts whose success doesn't span oceans like Sivan's, but are just as worthy. In the past few weeks alone, we've had acts like Muki, Keelan Mak, Montaigne, Kota Banks and G Flip debut new music, each presenting unique spins on a genre otherwise deeply-explored, ensuring they stand out from amongst the crowd as they navigate a market that on the world stage, is deeply saturated. While all these names are favourites of ours, Thelma Plum is an act in this space particularly worth emphasising, not just because she's one of Australia's best songwriters, but as she navigates this world in an industry built against her - an indigenous woman.
On Better In Blak, her just-released debut album years in the making, Thelma Plum proves not just why she's an Australian heavyweight in a local pop scene dominated by those unlike her (white men, is what we mean here), but one capable of seething into a larger international market. There are upbeat moments that showcase her glittery vocal and abilities to craft festival-ready moments akin to those that have moved internationally (like its lead single Clumsy Love and title-track, Better In Blak) just as much as there are delicate moments that take a step back, like the Dave Le'aupepe-assisted Love and War which stands high as one of the year's most important moments in a musical sense. "The night before [writing Love and War] Four Corners had that program about the Don Dale boys in the Northern Territory," she said in our feature profile earlier this year. "We both grew up as people of colour... It was something that I get imagery from and then we wrote about that."
In her music, Thelma Plum places infectiousness hand-in-hand with critique and nuance, stripped back social systems but in a way that's charaded by colourful beats and her soaring vocal, much like how Stella Donnelly - another Australian reaching international water - disguises lyrics on rape culture and sexual assault with happy-go-lucky sounds and summer guitar strums. Commercial Australia won't listen if the music directness isn't masqueraded and easy-to-digest, and that's what Thelma Plum has become an expert on; Better In Blak being a masterclass of cultural critique while also one of the year's most triumphant records.
Australian pop is changing on so many levels. Now, it's just a matter of keeping up.
Troye Sivan will be touring this September, joined by Thelma Plum and Tyde Levi.
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