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Courtesy of Aftermath Records

April 9, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Masculinity in Music

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Considering America’s current political climate and the media’s obstinate fixation on criminal motive, it’s not surprising some people might suggest that the U.S.’s broken conception of masculinity could have something to do with recent mass shootings. While attempting to link the two is a causal leap, and in the wake of tragedy comes the risk of sounding a bit tone-deaf, I believe it’s as good of a time as any to begin discussing masculinity’s modern definition. Further, we can use art as a lens to determine masculinity’s place in society.

While many people would argue that women in the U.S. face far more pervasive disadvantages than men and, as a result, conversations on masculinity are subordinate to those of femininity, there is no implication that I am arguing that men face systematic disadvantage. Moreover, many of those who would argue that American women face systematic oppression would also argue that masculinity (the patriarchy, toxic masculinity, etc.) is at least in part to blame. This only reinforces the relevance of this discussion.

Additionally, I don’t intend to disregard transgender individuals in this analysis.

“Toxic masculinity” has been flirting with common parlance for quite some time now, but as a term does not have a definition. There is truth to the notion that an unhealthy ideal of masculinity pervades our culture. One’s value as a man is dependent on his income and occupational status, the extent of his sexual exploits and to what degree he can appear to be phlegmatic in the face of hardship.

This vision of masculinity has had pernicious implications both for men who unconsciously strive for such an ideal and for society as a whole. However, insofar as toxic masculinity reflects the postmodern claim that masculinity in any form ought to be eradicated, I disagree with the term.

Men today face a false dilemma between pursuing a superficially hierarchical and unsatisfying vision of what it means to be a man or not pursuing masculinity at all. Both options are equally as alienating. Men today need to know that they can pursue masculinity that values determination, discipline and willpower without conflating tyrannical oppression.

In modern pop and hip-hop music, many male artists have glorified hedonistic lifestyle choices as the apex of what it means to be a man; as a result, the dominant narratives in this kind of music have been hyper-masculine.

While I certainly believe that aggressive lyricism has an important place in music in eliciting strong emotional responses, portraying this narrative has become so commonplace that it is perceived by listeners as more of a comprehensive life vision than an artistic investigation into impulsivity. Even when artists deliberately use their lyrics as fodder to emphasize their flow or beat, or depict excessive lifestyle choices in order to be satirical, many people take the lyrics at face value instead of exploring the artist’s intent (it’s a similar phenomenon of high schoolers plastering their rooms with Wolf of Wall Street posters).

Artists certainly shouldn’t be responsible for how listeners interpret their music (think Eminem’s early diatribes against his detractors), and I am by no means making the claim that modern artists are to blame for any broken notion of masculinity we have to today or that artists shouldn’t make music that depicts or even elevates unhealthy lifestyle choices. Rather, art often reflects the dominant beliefs of a time period, so I believe that we can use popular music to draw conclusions about social trends in society.

Recently, however, more and more mainstream male artists have been willing to express a wider vision of masculinity that concedes emotional vulnerability and queer identity, which is imperative to offsetting the unilateral perspective of what it means to be a man that many young men feel they are beholden to. For instance, Tyler the Creator is an artist who since his beginnings as the de-facto leader of the hip-hop collective Odd-Future has garnered as much controversy as he has popularity — his inflammatory style of rap has been described as both misogynistic and homophobic. By contrast, Tyler’s most recent record, Flower Boy, portrays a man who isn’t ashamed or afraid to describe his loneliness, his insecurities, and his bisexuality. Moreover, Tyler’s friend and co-member of Odd Future Frank Ocean has in recent years become a queer icon, having come out before releasing his emotionally raw sophomore album Blonde, and who’s Reddit fan page is fittingly named “Boys Do Cry.” These are successful, influential men who are willing to be open about emotional difficulties, proving that it is admitting weakness that is a true virtue, and that they are no less men because of their sexuality.

Moreover, recent discussions of depression in hip-hop may also suggest shifting tides in regards to pre-conceptions of masculinity. Artists like those previously mentioned, in addition to the likes of Yung Lean, Lil Uzi Vert and Logic, have become widely successful over the past few years on platforms that allow them to highlight their own emotional and mental struggles. And while stigmatizing mental illness is by no means a male only issue, according to a survey conducted by the  Mental Health Foundation, men are statistically less likely to reach out for help for mental health concerns than women. Male public figures, like those previously mentioned, actively addressing mental illness in their work hints that barriers men feel in discussing these topics are dissolving.

These artists are proving that we can still be manly and be sad; they’re not reveling in their shortcomings, nor are they glorifying mental illness. Rather, they’re raising awareness, and in the process, expanding hip-hop to express the gamut of human emotion — not only the swagger and confidence that has been a hallmark of the genre, but also the self-doubt and alienation that many young men today are feeling. Doing so creates a more robust image of what it means to be a man, of somebody who is resilient principally because he is willing to reach out for help, who is confident because he is comfortable enough with his sexuality to be emotional. Hopefully, in time, men will realize that they don’t need to be hardened to maintain their identity as men and will begin to understand that if they don’t want to, they don’t need to relinquish their masculinity in order to redefine themselves.

 

Jesse Martens is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at jtm238@cornell.edu. Guest Room Runs periodically this semester.