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Panpopticon: September's Pop Reviewed By Amy Pettifer
Amy Pettifer , October 1st, 2015 07:18

Amy Pettifer looks at the different ways that ideas and images of masculinity are changing in pop, while catching up with the careers of Justin Bieber, Nick Jonas, Hurts, One Direction and more. Main image DirecTV

“What is he – naked lover, armed warrior, world-ruler, creator, beloved omnipotent child? Or the inadequate shadow of all these things?” So asks Ruth Padel in I’m A Man: Sex, Gods And Rock ‘n’ Roll; a question that aims to bottle an essence of ‘authentic’ masculinity synonymous with the world of rock music, where guitars are weapons, libido is power and distain equals depth. Rock is a dangerous and weighty undertaking while pop – for her and for many - represents the direct inverse; Svengali-ed, pre-meditated, sterile and safe. Words are put into mouths rather than being dug deep from souls and the singing? “…as if someone computer-decided how boy-voices are dressing this year.” Ouch.

So what does that mean for pop’s abundant male protagonists, stripped of guitars and forced to deny the existence of girlfriends? Does occupying a more commercial stage really mean tacitly waving goodbye to potency and hello to an eternal, scripted boyhood? Arguably the answer is no, mainly because these scenarios fail to encapsulate all that pop can be. As the boundaries between genres fade, such dichotomies become outmoded; pop’s limits sprawl ever outward, embracing and skewing dance music, R&B, soul and… well… rock as they go, at the same time bringing multiple examples of what it means to be a man along with them. At its worst, this results in the bleeding of misogynistic bravado into the ears of an ever younger, mainstream audience – at best, it means space for a more pliable notion of masculinity to breathe.

While the last 18 months have been dominated by the presence of breakthrough artists such as Sam Smith who bring a more lived-in maturity and introspection to the party, it is impossible to repress the likes of Justin Bieber and Nick Jonas, who embody the familiar image of the male pop ingénue, growing from chaste, apple-cheeked wunderkinds into ripped, Beckham-ed specimens at the peak of their virility. The transformation can be jarring to witness, especially when a meteoric rise turns into a car crash, as it has for Bieber on more than one occasion in recent years.

As a baby-faced teenager, nurtured under Usher’s wing, his music was always aimed at a universal ‘girl’ and full of the winks and smiles of a promised but unconsummated affection. However, on ‘What Do You Mean’ - his most recent release, current UK Number One and fastest single to ever reach the top of the iTunes chart - the focus in on appearing as a fully activated sexual entity. Divorced from the video, this track is a slick transition into a clubbier universe with a flattened out, trilling vocal and swooping woodwind hook. The melody’s infectious ease floats over the clock tick of the beat, willing you to croon along, and while its "women are impossible to read" narrative is bland, the lyrics slip and repeat like a nursery rhyme, making for something cooler and crisper - Bieber’s gargantuan star presence taking a welcome back seat. The video, however, is a different story, thrusting six packs and weird sex games fully in your face and suggesting that – like everything else in his life to date - Bieber is planning to work through his own pent up carnal energy in public.

Like Bieber, Nick Jonas will release a long awaited solo album in the final months of 2015, previewed, among other tantalising snippets, with the single ‘Levels’ which emerged at the end of August.

Rather than graduating to serious, instrument wielding musicianship, Jonas’ latest solo material marks a retrograde move that puts distance between the guitar based pop made with his brothers in the mid-2000s. His vision of artistic maturity also seems entwined with a slicker, edgier virility, wisely taking cues from Justin Timberlake if falling short of JT’s charismatic flourish. ‘Levels’ has all the hallmarks of a classic floor filler; a crunking, bubble of a beat overlaid with bassy vocals that fatten out his falsetto as it wraps around the chorus crescendo – but there’s some personality lacking. In the video Jonas is a squaddie surprised with a lap dance, a dude in a tyre yard surrounded by bare thighs; a clumsy muddle of tired heterosexual signifiers.

‘Area Code’, an unfinished song posted by Jonas on SoundCloud earlier this month, confirms the duskier, sexier drive of his new material; its pleading, vocoder-ed vocal leaving ample space for someone to drop in a rapped verse. Such is the power that artists like Drake have wielded over the contemporary music landscape, providing a gold standard of lyrically deft, infinitely catching rap and R&B that pop producers are desperate to ape.

Walking hard in Drake’s footsteps but striding more boldly into the mainstream is fellow Canadian artist Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd, responsible for one of the best tracks of the summer in ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ and a complex, brooding album in Beauty Behind The Madness released at the end of last month.

Unquestionably, Tesfaye possesses something electric – a voice that hauntingly echoes the cadences of Michael Jackson, snapping and rasping around dark and curious lyrics of a dangerous infatuation. He carries this most danceable and rousing of tracks without losing to the cheesy excesses of Pharrell and Mark Ronson – and while, as Iggy Pop recently commented of the track, "Yeah – that just fits", you can’t help feeling that something is being held back or concealed.

This second album proves Tesfaye to be a fascinating split self; an irresistible pop crooner on 80s tinged ‘In The Night’; a master of multi-level epics like ‘Losers’ – corralling spare piano, hand claps and brass into something twinkling and dark that simultaneously recalls Britney’s ‘Baby One More Time’ and Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange.

But then there are the dramatic confessionals lamenting intimacy issues, rubbing up against the lazy bravado of ‘Tell Your Friends’ and single ‘The Hills’, splattered with more references to “popping pills” and “fucking bitches” than my ears can take. Perhaps even more so than Drake, Tesfaye seems to embody what Mark Fisher calls “rap’s embattled masculinity”, a tortured juggle of swagger and ennui: “When I’m fucked up that’s the real me”, he growls on ‘The Hills’ – is it? From this sonically genius but tonally mixed-up album it’s impossible to know.

Sitting some light-years from this brand of ‘front’ but possessed of no less complexity is Australian newcomer Troye Sivan, an actor turned mellifluous pop prince who has been gradually unfolding an enticing body of work via his YouTube channel. Following on from the perfect, smoky electronica of tracks like ‘Happy Little Pill’, Sivan released the Wild EP in early September, accompanied by the ‘Blue Neighbourhood’ trilogy of videos, in which a passionate, emotional drama plays out between childhood friends turned illicit lovers.

Over the heavy weather, sparse production and aching vocal of ‘Wild’ - strongly calling to mind Ryhe’s 2013 album Woman - the narrative presents a kind of interaction often hinted at but rarely visualised in pop music. The angry masculinity of an alcoholic father figure threatens to stall and perhaps ultimately doom a tender, exploratory love between two young men, speaking of struggles that will surely chime with his growing audience. The drama is ramped up on ‘Fools’, but growling samples, driving piano and exploding beats make for an energising climax. A full length release, featuring collaborations with Jack Antonoff (who spun magic on Taylor Swift’s 1989) is expected before the end of 2015, an exciting prospect, as it is artists like Sivan – existing explicitly as they truly are – that make pop a more alive place; a meatier, more nourishing prospect for fans from all walks of life.

Also feeding an apparent hunger for crepuscular electro-pop is Manchester duo Hurts, whose third album Surrender is out on October 9. Lead single ‘Some Kind Of Heaven’ established them well within the lineage of Erasure, Jimmy Somerville and The Human League – all glassy vocals and shimmering synth, willing you full throttle to the dance floor but remaining somehow slick, buttoned up and adult. Elsewhere on the album tracks like ‘Perfect Timing’ are the epitome of school disco slow dances, careening with unselfconscious sexy sax and quaking guitars; elicit but delicious and triggering adolescent moments I’d forgotten to remember.

Hurts’ origin story goes that the pair met at a club and bonded over music while a fight broke out around them, but on new single ‘Lights’ they chuck themselves fully into the fray – establishing an emptied British nightspot, all sodden carpet and bitterness, as a battleground for the dispossessed. Produced with Ariel Rechtshaid, whose 80s influenced approach (impossible to avoid in 2015) makes inherent sense here, the track takes a euphoric, twisting turn through Moroder-edged disco that builds and bolts in all the right places to allow for spontaneous choreography of head turns and jutting hips. A classic pop dance to the death.

In sweeter, less combative climes we find 20-year-old singer songwriter Kelvin Jones who, like George Ezra and James Bay, two of 2015’s biggest male solo successes, occupies a corner of pop where guitars are certainly predominant, if not quite weaponised. Taking influences from the restraint of BB King and the taut pop architecture of Michael Jackson, Jones is a soulful presence, his upcoming single ‘Call You Home’ (released October 9) gorgeously complete and un-frilled.

An immediacy between song-writing and artist can often be literally and figuratively lost in the mix when it comes to pop music, so it’s heartening that artists like Jones are proving there is room for pop that eschews raunch tactics or, worse, juiceless balladeering. This song is lightness and simplicity, emotive but infinitely preferable in tone to the cottonmouth and whine of Sam Smith, with Jones himself thankfully radiating a lack of ego and hype; his debut album, which will appear next year, is set to be a fine thing indeed.

There are seemingly multiple possibilities for what a male, pop persona can encompass today, including – but not limited to - slickness, edge, soul, sensitivity, darkness, femininity, guile and several disparate shades of cool. But the holy grail of this of course is the boy band, where rogue male elements writhe to form a bristling whole; a four or five headed beast able to appeal to any and all fluttering teenage hearts. When it comes to boy bands, the notion of libido as the preserve of rock is crushed – under the weight of rampaging hormonal hordes – unequivocally and for good.

The genre appears to routinely die a death, to seem somehow wholly a thing of the past, but all is takes is the emergence of a certain, unpredictable chemistry – a cocktail of charisma so terrifyingly potent when mixed right - and pop’s present is suddenly changed forever. At this moment, and for the last five years, the only boy band worthy of discussion has been One Direction, making it fascinating to look at them now as they near that particular and well-worn point in their story arc, one member down and signs of them individually straining at the leash becoming all the more obvious. At the end of July they released ‘Drag Me Down’– the first single not to feature Zayn Malik – ahead of their tightly guarded fourth album due for release in November.

I’ve always perceived One Direction to be professionally beige, their album and song titles (Midnight Memories, ‘Same Mistakes’, ‘Steal My Girl’) seemingly drawn from the labels of cheap aftershaves and half-finished sentences - but once you get into their songs, the appeal is clear to see; they are boyish, wry, un-saccharine and possessing no end of raw melody and catching chorus. In these stakes, ‘Drag Me Down’ is no exception, harking back to something elemental in the genre; its machinic rhythms and posing into a low angle camera redolent of a classic, more Americanised sound. “It’s fine” – they seem to be telling us; just as the boy band genre persists, they too are still here.

But all that feels beside the point or at least only a fragment of it. Boy bands are born into the world miraculous and scrubbed clean – all that matters is potential. The potential that moguls spy in them and aim to monetise; the potential universe of emotions and relations they represent for fans, a void shaped perfectly for You to occupy, as perfectly illustrated in the video for ‘Night Changes’, the last single to feature Malik.

But this potency, so manically absorbed by fans – as alive and fierce as anything existing in rock - is not about individual sexual fantasy or romantic longing, it’s more about wanting to preserve the thing as it is, contained but alive, like a plasma globe that thousands of hands collectively touch but whose contents no-one wants to disturb. It’s the preservation of that ball of energy that is precious to fans of the ‘boy-voices’ that Padel derides, to the point that so-called “Directioners” author homoerotic fan fictions that ‘ship’ one member of the band with another, not wanting to entertain the possibility of intruders or fissures.

But things have now cracked wide open and Harry, Niall, Liam and Louis will complete their fourth album and massive tour before taking a hiatus – which is boy band-ese for the beginning of the end. At a recent London gig they exercised latent desires to drop the ‘boy’ and retain the band – wielding guitars and tossing hair - but it’s no match for the dissipation of that vibrant, vital energy caught up with a group of their kind at the height of fame. When it breaks, or leaks or weakens – hearts are irrevocably broken, fates are sealed - stuff goes everywhere. What could be more powerful – more god-like - than that?