“Pop is so powerful”, Thomston tweeted before the release of his latest single Lightweight. It’s an admission that many male artists, on this side of the world, don’t make often but the Kiwi artist has never been afraid of the ambition that comes with pop.
Lightweight is Thomston’s most outwardly pop single to date. He takes on that pulsating four-to-the-floor beat that has taken artists like Carly Rae Jepsen and Robyn to glory, building a liberating, love-drunk chorus that ebbs and flows with beautiful precision. It’s not the sort of song you make by accident. It’s one born from ambition. Ambition to flow into the ears of millions - not thousands.
It’s the third song in a string of tracks that have marked Thomston’s musical rebirth, of sorts. He went from making subtle, metaphorical pop music on his debut Topograph to signing, “I thought you were holy water but you were just acid rain,” over a grandiose choir on Acid Rain. Thomston has never been afraid to make pop music but his return has been a fearless and rare move in the grand scheme of Australasian pop.
Thomston’s passport marks him as Kiwi but, as Australia has a history of doing, we’ve been claiming him as our own for a minute now. He’s competing in a genre here that really doesn’t have much competition at all here. Not that it means he’s going to have a Steven Bradbury moment to ascend to the top. The fact is - few male artists on this side of the world have global pop ambitions, or make pop music at all for that matter.
If you look at the male artists that have found global mainstream success, you’d be hard-pressed to call them popstars. Dean Lewis has found favour with his triple j-tinted music while Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker has become an unlikely musical god, surrounded by popstars without erring into the genre himself.
Our biggest male artists in Australia range from Gang Of Youth’s Dave Le’aupepe to Matt Corby who are hardly about to have a FutureLove/SexSounds moment. That’s not a diss. Gang Of Youth’s fans are likely not yearning for SexyBack but it does show the lack of male pop here. Triple J is the biggest new music platform here and while they dabble in alternative-leaning pop, they don’t embrace it in its purest sense making it more difficult for artists like Troye Sivan to organically grow a local following.
Sivan sits alongside 5 Seconds Of Summer and Guy Sebastian as our biggest male pop artists. Sivan successfully converted a large YouTube audience into a worldwide fanbase who have mostly forgotten his online start. Sebastian won the first edition of Australian Idol and is arguably the first and last successful, male popstar born on a talent show as The Voice has failed to launch a major career. Meanwhile, 5SOS built a teenage following around their pop/punk sound and have matured into slick popstars, surrounded by a team of all-star writers.
Globally, there’s an abundance of male popstars. Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber are still at the top of the charts after years while Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake continue to tally big numbers with each album. While the US has the most heavily populated market, the UK has names like Years & Years, South America is having a moment with Bad Bunny and J Balvin and Asia, of course, has the all-conquering BTS.
Thomston sits alongside a crop of new male popstars including LAUV and Bazzi who have successfully made hits while still making, forward-thinking, inventive pop. Like Thomston, they’re not afraid to embrace showmanship, carefully tailoring everything from their model-like cover art to their fashion-heavy video clips.
Australia and New Zealand are having a golden moment in pop at the moment. Jess Kent, Wafia, Theia, Robinson, G Flip, Kira Puru and more are all finding local success, finally breaking down an age old cultural notion that pop is a dirty word. That’s an international phrase but one that particularly rings true here where our biggest pop exports have often had to find success overseas before finding acceptance here.
It seems unproductive to argue that there needs to be more males in this list of upcoming popstars when we’re in a constant fight to have more female representation in music. That may be true for almost every other aspect of music but in Australasian pop there’s an unspoken connotation that it’s an emasculating genre. That sometimes results in homophobic slurs as Guy Sebastian has faced for almost the entirety of his career. There’s something loud, unashamed and colourful about pop that the alternative music snobs of this country can’t embrace even if Sivan is a critical darling in the rest of the world.
Thomston has found that power of pop and it’s taken his music to a new level of ambition. He's unphased by any negative connotations surrounding the genre and has global, mainstream ambition. Lightweight proves that he may just be able to pull it off. It’s up to us whether we elevate him to his inevitable popstar platform or let the rest of the world beat us to it.