Carl, Julianne, Craig, Jewly, Chris:
So much to discuss! Carl, I am so happy you brought up Buffy Sainte-Marie’s forceful, Polaris Prize–winning Power in the Blood and even happier that you shouted out one of my favorite records of all time, her 1969 electronic experiment Illuminations. Julianne, thanks for introducing me to the Jersey Club remix of “Miley What’s Good?”; I don’t know how I survived most of this year without it. Craig, I’m glad you complicated my #squad argument by singling out the many splits and beefs of the year (Miranda Lambert’s breakup album is gonna be fire), and also bless you for using the phrase Puther Vandross. And Jewly, thank you for pointing out, once and for all, that the reports of country music’s bro takeover have been greatly exaggerated. That actually sets me up for what I want to discuss in this round: the men of pop, hip-hop, and R&B. Let us cue up Lana Del Rey’s gloriously languid female-gaze anthem “Music to Watch Boys To” and talk about the bizarre, shape-shifting, and (I think) ultimately hopeful state of pop musical masculinity in 2015.
I want to back into this topic by bringing up something that only sort of has to do with music but is by my measure (ha) one of the most fascinating cultural artifacts of the year: Magic Mike XXL. I have had the pleasure of seeing both Magic Mike movies in the theater, and they have been two of the most glorious theatergoing experiences I have ever had in my life—and probably the only occasions outside of an arthouse that I could actually conceptualize what a “female gaze” might look like in contemporary culture. (For now, let’s not go into the complicating factor that both films were, yes, written, directed, and shot by men.) I saw the first Magic Mike in 2012, at an after-work-hours screening in downtown Washington, D.C.; multiple groups of working women in pantsuits and blazers snuck in bottles of wine and passed them around like it was happy hour. Which it was. It was a raucous and oddly communal experience: We laughed at one another’s jokes and applauded and hooted at the routines like we were at an actual (male) strip club. (There was one solitary man in the entire theater, and he seemed scared.) During one of the scenes when Channing Tatum and Cody “Her?” Horn have a Serious Conversation, a grown woman down in front screamed at the screen, “We don’t care—take your clothes off!” and, I kid you not, the entire theater cheered.
I thought, very fondly, of this woman in July when I saw Magic Mike XXL, because it seems like this sequel was made entirely for her. The plot is laughably flimsy, because it does not matter. As Wesley Morris wrote in his brilliant review for the (ugh, it still hurts to say this) now-defunct Grantland: “Not since the days of peak Travolta and Dirty Dancing has a film so perfectly nailed something essential about movie lust: Male vulnerability is hot, particularly when the man is dancing with and therefore for a woman. It aligns the entire audience with the complex prerogatives of female desire.” This helps explain why, even though I thought the first movie was “better” by stuffy critical standards, I enjoyed watching XXL more. The first Magic Mike film glumly, “seriously” diagnosed a kind of crisis of American masculinity. The very-2015 reboot, though, through its brazen shallowness and resonant optimism, seemed to see this rapid evolution of masculinity as something hopeful, freeing men up to be liberated from stereotypes and—like the film’s Reiki healer or, uh, artisanal yogurt maker—become whatever they feel like, whether or not those roles are in line with our culture’s (boring) old standards of what it means to be a man.
We saw both of these dynamics play out and occasionally collide in this year’s pop music, too. Carl, I loved your observation that “the mopey moods of younger male supremacists such as Drake and the Weeknd do make them seem queasy about some aspect of manhood they never manage to name.” One of the year’s biggest hits (spending six weeks atop the Hot 100 chart this fall) was the Weeknd’s zombified booty jam “The Hills,” which boasts one of the year’s least sexy lines this side of Puther Vandross. “I just fucked two bitches ’fore I saw you,” Abel Tesfaye slurs, half-awake, “You gon’ have to do it at my tempo.” And they say romance is dead! (This song brings to mind something that my colleague Rebecca Traister wrote earlier this year, making the provocative argument that so-called hook-up culture too often just results in sex that’s unsatisfying for women. Bella, I’ll text it to you!)
Yes, that brings us back to Drizzy one again. (Sorry.) One of the great disappointments of being a Drake fan has been, as he grows into a more proficient rapper, watching his stance on women devolve. Dude was never exactly Henry James, but early Drake songs like, say, “Best I Ever Had” had relatively human depictions and expectations of women. But over the past few years, Drake’s been moving away from vulnerability and more toward a defensive, puffed-chest posturing that just feels … old-fashioned. Julianne, you’re totally right that Future does most of the emotional heavy lifting on What a Time to Be Alive, and I’d go so far as to say that Drake’s verses on the otherwise dazzling “Diamonds Dancing” are, for me, the low points of the record. He speaks to his woman like a 1950s sitcom husband: “You know what I need from you when I get home/ You better not be on the phone.” Even “Hotline Bling” in all its glory still proves the point: Drake’s ideal woman is straight out of a retro teen movie or a Cindy Sherman photo, waiting patiently by the receiver. But of course, Drake is allowed to be emotionally unavailable to these women and keep a different one in every city. What bugs me about Drake’s more recent songs is that they constantly spite women for engaging in the very behavior he glorifies in himself; none of his songs seem able to depict or even fantasize about a more egalitarian partnership. (Which means that Serena, girl, I’m relieved you got out when you did.)
But thankfully, while Drake and the Weeknd were sulking in the corner, plenty of other guys at the party were having more fun and partaking in life’s simpler pleasures. I liked Jason Derulo’s slick, bubbly, and playful Everything Is 4 quite a bit, especially the refreshingly light-hearted pep of songs like “Want to Want Me” and “Get Ugly.” And although I am not sure Jason Derulo wore a shirt in 2015, elsewhere it almost seemed like “menswear” was becoming a viable pop microgenre. I’m partially thinking of rap’s unabashed fashionista ASAP Rocky, who this year put out his best record yet, the hazy, psychedelic At. Long. Last. ASAP. (You know we’re at an unprecedented moment in American masculinity when a guy can self-identify as “pretty” and still be in the process of working through some internalized homophobia.)
But the artist I most want to mention here is the only man in the yoga class, Nigerian-American newcomer Jidenna. As a signee to Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland Records, he certainly has no qualms taking orders from a woman in a suit, and his playful ode to Nat King Cole swag, “Classic Man,” was one of my favorite singles of the year. What I love about “Classic Man” is its assertion that masculinity is more about style, performance, and panache than something innate. The flipside to allowing women to achieve more power and be considered complex, flawed human beings is allowing men to revel in surface, style, and artifice. This is how we begin to undo those tired stereotypes that there is something inherently “deep” about the male experience—especially that of often-one-dimensional brooders like the Weeknd and Drake.
But maybe the most radical of all of these guys is Miguel. While I didn’t love his kaleidoscopic Wildheart as much as some critics did (I respect Miguel’s self-production game, but I sometimes wish he had someone reining him in when he gets a little too schmaltzy, or, like, asks Lenny Kravitz to play on his record), I appreciated its carefully articulated sensuality and its emphasis on female pleasure. Songs like “The Valley” and “Coffee” are infinitely riskier than a supposedly shocking song like “The Hills,” because (cue the horror-movie scream) they depict both men and women as actual human beings, with both surfaces and depths. I loved what the critic Anupa Mistry wrote about this album for Pitchfork: “Languorous and detailed, it transcends the genre’s established narratives with a focus on pleasure and partnership instead of one-sided pursuit.” Wildheart is basically the Magic Mike XXL of contemporary R&B. It has the “Pony” striptease and the part where Channing Tatum pours Andie MacDowell a glass of wine and listens to her talk about her divorce. Swoon!
I can’t believe I didn’t even get a chance to mention Bieber. Or the year’s best gender-bending covers, like Erykah’s take on “Hotline Bling” or Haim’s spin on Tame Impala’s “’Cause I’m a Man.” Or, dear lord, the Coldplay song with a consciously uncoupled Gwyneth Paltrow on it. Julianne, thoughts on any of these Classic Men?
Oh me, oh me oh my,
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