Just hours before I meet Rod Thomas — the real name of Welsh electro-pop musician Bright Light Bright Light — a brand new Taylor Swift single is released into the world.
“I find the Right Said Fred reference quite strange,” Thomas tells me, referring to the similarities between Swift’s new track and sultry 1991 UK dance hit I’m Too Sexy, a likeness already trending worldwide as we talk. “Not bad. It’s not uncool, I just didn’t expect that.”
What do we expect from a woman at the top her game in the glass palace of pop? Perhaps not the recent sexual assault lawsuit versus a former radio DJ who groped her in 2013. Swift won the case with a symbolic $1 settlement — but more importantly, delivered an impassioned political point highlighting how assault often goes unpunished. Thomas recognises how vital the verdict was.
“I don’t think people would necessarily think that she’s being very political. It’s very normalised with her,” he says. “It’s great that she does talk about things in a way that doesn’t feel preachy, and it doesn’t feel like she’s righteous. More than anything, the court case was a real moment of political power for her. She handled everything extremely well and extremely intelligently… women shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of thing.”
Thomas grew up in a tiny Welsh town before moving to London to make music. It was a staggering transition from life “outside of a small village outside of Neath” to performing as an unsigned artist on the Graham Norton Show with Elton John. Thomas describes Swift as “an important figure for people.” But who did he look up to?
“When I was growing up my role models were quite fractured because I was a gay child who didn’t really have a relatable role model,” Thomas said. “Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, and Elton John seemed so confident and flamboyant and that’s not what I felt like. I didn’t feel like I fit in their world. You’d look at pop stars that were all male groomed — straight, straight, straight — and that didn’t work with me. I don’t really remember people making political commentary that I related to as a child growing up.”
You’d look at pop stars that were all male groomed — straight, straight, straight — and that didn’t work with me.
Rod Thomas, Bright Light Bright Light
Musically, there’s vibrant parallels between the disco-dance of Thomas’s work as Bright Light Bright Light and the colourful exuberance of Pet Shop Boys. Thomas’ collaboration with friend and ex-touring partner Elton John, All in the Name, could easily share a synth or two with Go West.
Politically, the similarities continue. Pet Shop Boys once politely texted David Cameron’s assistant to tell the former UK Prime Minister to pardon Alan Turing — a brilliant mathematician convicted of gross indecency for homosexuality after the Second World War. It worked, and 50,000 British men were then pardoned under the “Turing Law.” Thomas is “very proud” to fight for LGBTQI issues all over the world, but is humble when talking about his own work.
“Lyrically, I don’t tend to be very political, but I do lots of political work,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve earned the right to be political in what I sing about. I don’t feel I’ve earned my stripes to be the spokesperson for any particular cause. But I try to be as supportive as I can to political causes I believe in.
Thomas advocates for LGBTQI rights both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, he’s an ambassador for LocalGiving, a charity that raises awareness and funds for local issues. In the US, he DJs – and donates his performance fees directly to American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He also ran 5km every day for a week to raise money for Pride Cymru and ACLU during Charity Run challenge week. You don’t have to have Elton listed in your contacts to make a difference — even on Thomas’ personal ebay account, 10% of all profits go straight to charity.
“I raise a lot of money for LGBTQI charities and ACLU in the US. I do whatever I can to help out without trying to make myself the mouthpiece or the focal point for the cause. There are a lot of other people who can articulate much better than I can when it comes to important issues. People are much better read than I am. My music is politically charged but not politically focused.”
My music is politically charged but not politically focused.
Rod Thomas, Bright Light Bright Light
Thomas performed live at Global Citizen’s office in New York on August 16, wearing a kickass tie-dye rainbow suit in support of LGBTQI rights. Global Citizen campaigns on equality internationally, and you can take action here. But in the current climate, that can be a difficult problem to contend with.
“I’m horrified by everything happening in the UK and the US,” he says. “I’m British, but live in America, and it’s quite depressing living somewhere that seems to have fallen under such a dark cloud. I look back at where I’m from, and I see dark clouds there as well. It’s hard to digest that.”
“I’m lucky because I’m a white male,” he continues. “I’m gay, but I’m a white male. So in the general scheme of the Western world I’m pretty safe. But I think a lot about people who aren’t white cis male — and I’m very scared for people who I know and love around the world and what they have to face every day.”
But clouds part and sun will inevitably break through, with all the cyclical predictability of another platinum album for Taylor Swift. I ask him about what he thinks is the purpose of pop music. This time his answer is simple.
“Unity,” he says.
Bright Light Bright Light is about to embark on a UK tour. Go get tickets to the September tour here — it’ll be a real good time, promise.