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Stranger in a Room: Oliver Sim's confrontation of fear and HIV

Bringing fear and ugliness to the forefront of his music, The xx’s Oliver Sim celebrates the liberation of expressing yourself opposed to the fractured society that projects shame onto those seeking self-definition.

By Jake Paterson, Co-Deputy Music Editor

Being queer in a largely online society is not a liberating experience for many. Despite the opportunity for reinvention moving to university for the first time, statistics from Stonewall highlight how 42% of LGBTQ+ students at university have hidden their identity for fear of discrimination.

Where preconceived ideas about what being queer is in an online sphere when the most expressive personalities take the headlines, those navigating between binaries often fail to see representation and get criticised for their indecision or process of working themselves out. 30% of bisexual men say they cannot be open about their sexual orientation with any of their friends. When your own sexuality is up for debate online, the self can only become more fractured and hidden away.

Whilst other social phenomena within the music industry such as queerbaiting take popular hold, where queerness often seems like a commodity for people to use rather than a genuine means of self-expression, finding sincerity and role models that represent you is increasingly difficult. Discovering yourself is therefore no gentle process, and the fear of not being able to express this leads to shame and secrecy.

Oliver Sim took the press attention behind his latest record Hideous Bastard to share that he had been living with HIV since the age of 17. Whilst movements and political organisations like ACT UP did crucial work in the 1980s to raise consciousness and fight misconceptions, 40 years on the stigma around living with HIV still remains prevalent. Organisations such as Brigstowe, who ran a stigma challenging campaign throughout Bristol in November 2022, continue to fight for greater education and awareness.

Those living with HIV still experience discrimination: the Terrence Higgins Trust reported last year that 74% of people living with HIV in the UK have experienced stigma or discrimination because of their HIV status. Often others make moral judgements about people taking the steps to prevent HIV transmission, or even go as far as feeling that people deserve HIV because of their choices, the effects of discrimination dramatically impact the mental health of those living with it. Fear of the stigma itself can often lead to a fear of being honest and open with friends, loved ones and medical professionals – which in turn can make misunderstanding and miscommunication proliferate.

What amounts from the issues raised so far is a present-day fear of confronting both homophobia and the stigma around HIV to create true self-expression. Much as the Silence=Death project in 1987 used the pink triangle in its imagery, known from its association with the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, the most effective way of confronting fear is with reclaiming it as celebration and widespread publicity.

Sim’s music then explored a simple statement about opening up to the truth in front of the cameras:

'Radical honesty might set me free / If it makes me hideous'

- Lyrics: 'Hideous' (2022)

Image: 'Fruit' Single Cover | Young Records

Growing up without the role models representing the queer community and those living with HIV, Sim turned to horror movie archetypes for their repressed femininity, rage and being run out of town. Characters like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, who were typified by their wearing of masks and incongruity, resonated with him.

This influence led to a crucial decision for Sim: to bring the ugly and grotesque to the forefront of his art. Fear, shame and guilt could instead come out in the form of artistic expression. Hideous (dir. Yann Gonzalez), the queer horror short film released adjacent to the 2022 album, sees Sim dressed as a deformed monster: overtly ugly and hiding nothing. Stylistically, the film is unapologetically camp; its glossy romance echoes Susan Sontag’s sentiments for camp to be the “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” (Notes on Camp, 1964).

The film celebrates this unnaturalness to unearth fear in a joyous and personal way. Touching on darkness and humiliation, the film comes to a climax when Sim, at his most hideous dressed as the monster, kisses actor Cesar Vincente who reminds him that he is still beautiful. This moment finds beauty in sincerity and inspires those still hiding in fear of true self-expression.

Departing from not using gendered pronouns in the love songs written with Romy Madley-Croft for The xx, the lyrics on Hideous Bastard present relationships without fear. Within The xx, the ambiguity of who the pair were writing about stemmed from a desire to not have their sexual orientation presented to the world explicitly at the beginning of their careers. Now though, both Sim and Madley-Croft write about queer love openly, and subsequently provide representation for those, including us as students, still living in fear. The band’s musical furtive romance found the hearts of millions over a decade ago, and now as solo artists they continue to inspire even in today’s fractured society.

The songs that encompass Hideous Bastard take after the sparsity of The xx’s discography. They’re often dark, melancholic and deeply heartfelt as on ‘Saccharine’ or full of anger and release: see ‘Never Here’ or ‘Hideous’. Taking after 'Stranger In a Room' the song from Jamie xx's debut In Colour, the instrumentals take the form of minimalist synth arpeggios circling around each other or guitar lines that naturally and holistically work themselves out.

‘GMT’, a song about desire and longing over a long-distance relationship, cuts to the bone in the same breath as it pulsates and grooves. It’s these quiet moments of deep emotional capacity that define the record, letting the feeling of being trapped by fear pour out of you to instead find harmony with how you truly feel.

Liberation comes in the form of the songs ‘Fruit’ and ‘Run the Credits’. By revealing ourselves as we are, Sim suggests that we are not stripping ourselves back to something vulnerable and fragile but powerful; the most grotesque parts kept hidden are fundamental to our self-expression.

Music allows us the capacity not only for artists to turn fear into something beautiful and liberating in a constricted society, but also to open up pathways for listeners towards recognition of themselves. Hideous Bastard is a record that inverts ugliness and fear as empowering, and in a world where that’s often seen as a weakness, it is a rare moment to cherish.

Featured Image: 'Stranger In a Room (Live in 2016)' Single Cover | Young Records

Have you listened to Oliver Sim's solo work?