A Different Kind of Hymn: The Religious Subversiveness of Years & Years' "Sanctify"

 Olly Alexander, lead singer of British band Years & Years, stars in the music video for their hot new single, "Sanctify."

Olly Alexander, lead singer of British band Years & Years, stars in the music video for their hot new single, "Sanctify."

 

If you listened to someone just recite the words of the chorus in “Sanctify,” the new single from British electro-pop band Years & Years, you’d probably be forgiven for assuming it was some new Christian worship song. “Sanctify my body with pain. Sanctify the love that you crave. And I won't, and I won't, and I won't be ashamed. Sanctify my sins when I pray.” It sounds, well, quite a lot like a prayer.

But add in lead singer Olly Alexander’s crooning tenor and a heavy club beat, and you’ve suddenly got a song that seems far more fitting for a Saturday night sex club than a Sunday morning service. Then, drop a stunner of a music video to go along with it all, which features a surreal sci-fi narrative, bright red outfits inspired by Ziggy Stardust, and a vogue-heavy striptease from Alexander that would gag any drag queen. In the futuristic music video, Alexander plays a human slave forced to entertain androids. Feeling alone in a desolate world, and finding solace in sexual expression and dance? Yeah, that makes it pretty clear that Years & Years has no interest in worshipping the kind of God that often gets praised in your typical American church service: one that is male, cisgender, and straight. Instead, they’re bowing down at the subversive throne of queer resistance, and along the way, reclaiming the language of religion that has been used to harm LGBTQ people to tell this queer story of sexual rebellion.

But even before getting to the video, I found myself immediately drawn in by the religiosity of those lyrics. Whether or not a queer person grew up in the church (Alexander did not), their awareness and experience of their sexual orientation was almost certainly shaped by conservative Christian ethics. Anxious parents still send their gay children to Christian-sponsored conversion therapy. Our Christian-backed president has kicked out transgender troops from the military. And the Supreme Court is still deliberating whether or not a Christian baker can deny their wedding cake services to a gay couple. As Alexander notes in his documentary, Growing Up Gay, “I personally have yet to meet an LGBT person that has been unscathed by growing up LGBT.”


Have you ever tried digging a hole at the beach, pulling the sand away only to have more sand slide down into the dent you just made? That’s what my self-imposed exile from Christian music feels like: I can always dig for more tunes, but they never make a dent. The search feels futile.


Since beginning my journey out of the closet six years ago, I’ve struggled with listening to, much less enjoying, Christian worship music. It’s hard for me to sing along to a song about how God loves us all when I know that most people who hear that song, not to mention the artist behind the track, often add an asterisk to their expressions of God’s universal love: how God loves us white people, or us straight people, or us male people. In my senior year of high school, I skipped out on the first few days of our youth choir tour; the worship songs we sang did nothing to make me feel welcome amidst the toxic masculinity I experienced there. And on more than one occasion at my Christian college, I walked out of our worship service with tears flooding my eyes and fists clenched.

These days, I’ve pretty much given up on Christian music. I’ll listen to just about anything else. From Mumford to Kendrick to Carly Rae Jepsen, I have a musical taste that knows no bounds, until things get godly. Sometimes, when I have Spotify on shuffle, I’ll get into some song with a good beat, only to realize about 30 seconds into it that it carries a religious message. I instantly skip it.

But try as I might, I can’t escape my Christian music-centered upbringing. Like any good evangelical, I grew up learning the songs of Chris Tomlin and the Newsboys and David Crowder, and I can still recall Bible verses from memory simply by singing their “Scripture Rock!” choruses to myself. As my friends in middle school discovered Rihanna, Akon, and 50 Cent, I filled my head with the “holier” music of Switchfoot, Relient K, and David Crowder. And I can still usually identify if a song is Christian just based on its opening chords.

Have you ever tried digging a hole at the beach, pulling the sand away only to have more sand slide down into the dent you just made? That’s what my self-imposed exile from Christian music feels like: I can always dig for more tunes, but they never make a dent. The search feels futile.

 Olly Alexander sings during a Years & Years performance in Poland in 2014. Photo by  Yarl .

Olly Alexander sings during a Years & Years performance in Poland in 2014. Photo by Yarl.

Then a song like “Sanctify” comes along. There’s a special kind of subversion in harnessing the traditionally anti-gay language of the Christian religion to explain the homosexual experience. But further than that, Alexander sees a special kind of drama in the narrative of the Bible–a flashy, grandiose drama of magic, camp and soap-opera intrigue–that could easily fit alongside the queer lexicon of works like The Importance of Being Earnest and The Wizard of Oz. “Religious iconography is such a goldmine for me in terms of it's so dramatic,” Alexander noted in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar.

Growing up literally in the shadow of the church–his childhood home backed up into a churchyard–Alexander grew familiar with the imagery of religion. “Even though I wasn't religious, I was really fascinated by the whole ceremony and grandeur of being inside a church and lighting the candles and it just felt magical,” Alexander told Harper’s. Alexander certainly isn’t the first pop star to envision church iconography as a sort of gay fantasia: Lady Gaga’s “Judas” and “Alejandro” music videos make sacrilege sexy, and Madonna’s gospel-influenced “Like A Prayer” works as either a hymn to God or a hymn to lust.

“Sanctify” defies the ways that I learned religious music should operate and what agendas religious music should reinforce.

While the lyrics of “Sanctify” sound religious, let’s be clear: this song is very much about hooking up with straight boys who are questioning their sexuality, a situation many homosexual men have been on both ends of. This kind of exploration often comes with a mix of shame and excitement, as those involved often defy the dictums of the church and society to better understand themselves and their desire. Alexander has eloquently noted the duality of the sexual experience that inspired this song: “For this guy struggling so much with their sexuality, I became this kind of saint and sinner, good and evil person, because I was helping this guy explore the sides of their sexuality they felt they couldn't, but also, I was leading them down the path to sinfulness and, like, deviancy.” This life-or-death, heaven-or-hell duality that a legalistic worldview inspires is instantly familiar to someone like me, who still has to reckon with Christian friends and family that believe I live in sin.

Queer people, especially those of us raised in the church, are all too familiar with the ways religious language has been used to deny our humanity. Phrases like “Love the sinner, hate the sin” are used to disembody our lived experiences, as if our sexual orientation or gender identity is separate from our “true” self, as if the imago dei–the image of God–can’t possibly be seen under all this gayness.

But in the same way that the word “queer,” once was (and to some extent, still is) used as a slur, has been restored to its place of pride by my generation of LGBTQ individuals, artists like Years & Years are turning damaging words from the church upside-down, inverting their meaning to build up our power as a queer community. When Alexander sings, “You'll find redemption when all this is through. Father, forgive me for finding the truth,” he’s not talking about finding the Gospel truth. He’s talking about finding one’s sexuality, about coming to terms with one’s orientation, and still feeling like you need forgiveness just for living that truth. At the beginning of the chorus, when he sings, “Sanctify my body with pain,” I remember the pain of reconciling my sexual orientation, the depression and self-harm and anger–and remembering how Christians told me those things were a sign that God wanted to cure me of my queerness, to sanctify my body.

And Years & Years isn’t the only queer artist utilizing religious language, either. Sam Smith, the non-binary singer who broke into the mainstream with 2014’s single, “Stay With Me,” wrote “Him,” for his 2017 record, in which the titular “him” refers simultaneously to a male lover and to the biblical God.

 Parson James and Sam Smith represent two other queer artists who utilize religious language in their music. Photos courtesy Capitol Records and RCA Records.

Parson James and Sam Smith represent two other queer artists who utilize religious language in their music. Photos courtesy Capitol Records and RCA Records.

Parson James–a biracial gay singer best known for “Stole The Show,” his collaboration with music DJ Kygo–challenges his own upbringing in a conservative North Carolina church in songs like “Temple,” where he sings, “Oh, lordy, I wish it was just some day, but here's another Sunday / Oh, lordy, the people here, they all say that I'm making a mistake / Oh, lordy, they're whispering my name now, putting it to flames now / Oh, lordy, what is it that I've done to become the bad one?”

Perfume Genius, the stage name of artist Mike Hadreas, sings of sacred dances and his lisp proving him a prophet in his song “Don’t Let Them In.” Discussing the religious influence on his song, “Otherside,” he told NPR that “hymns have always sounded like sung spells to me. I never felt included in the magic of the God songs I heard growing up — I knew I was going to hell before anyone ever told me that I was. People found comfort in this all-knowing source, but I felt frightened and found out. I developed some weird and very dramatic complexes. It took me a long time to not think of the universe as a judgmental debit-credit system.”

“Sanctify” isn’t the first time Years & Years has used religious language in a queer context: their debut single “Worship” talks about Alexander’s “blind devotion” and “high praises” for a man, and their first album, Communion, tackles self-loathing, lust, and vulnerability under up-tempo house beats suitable for any gay bar.

Queer people are writing a different kind of hymn: a hymn that tears down oppressive institutions and liberates queer people to express their sexuality and joy. When I hear a song like “Sanctify,” I don’t have to feel angry or betrayed or suspicious of the motivations behind the words. “Sanctify” defies the ways that I learned religious music should operate and what agendas religious music should reinforce. It proves there’s no monopoly on the language of religion. When Christians use worship music to denigrate and dehumanize others, that doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation.

This last week, my family and I celebrated the high holy days of the Christian tradition: Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday, then Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter. Worship music filled our house, and in response to this music–right on cue–the old pangs of betrayal, anxiety and suspicion filled my heart. I don’t know when I’ll be ready to listen to Christian music again without feeling triggered and tensing up. But it’s okay. I reached for my phone, queued “Sanctify” on repeat, and plugged in my earbuds. I hit play.