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Drunk-Dialing Pop And The Fragile Male Ego

What Drake, The Weeknd, and Rihanna tell us about themselves in their late-night calls

By Sinead Stubbins

Drunk dialing and texting are universal experiences for anyone who has a phone and just enough liquor in their system to make bad ideas feel like great ones. It’s ripe fodder for pop music because it’s a relatable quandary of the modern age, a melodrama we’ve all been party to. However, the drunk dial song often lays plain something else in its moments of vulnerability: a fragile male ego.

The quintessential drunk-dial power play is Drake’s “Marvins Room,” from 2011's Take Care. The song's source material is just as messy and dramatic as its storyline: It (allegedly) samples a conversation with an ex who later sued Drake over the song. Drake excels at portraying the jealousy and bitterness that we all feel, but never, ever want to admit to; or, as Meaghan Garvey wrote, "let she without a shattered iPhone 4S full of 3 a.m. 'are you drunk right now?' texts cast the first stone."

“Marvins Room” operates on a particular emotional polarity of need and resentment. After too many cups of rosé in a club that suddenly feels claustrophobic (do clubs in Toronto not sell rosé by the glass?), Drake finds an ex-girlfriend’s number in his old phone. He’s been busy, but he’s certain that she still “thinks about the times we had” … right? Drake sadly observes her friends nearby, but sees that she has moved on. “Guess she don’t have the time to kick it no more,” he says to himself, questioning why he still has the time to kick it.

"Marvins Room" isn’t really a song about mourning lost love. It’s a song about the frustration of not having something that you feel entitled to. One minute he’s calling her out of boredom at the end of another party ("I was just calling ’cause they were just leaving"); in the next, he’s asking his old girlfriend to ease his existential guilt about the impact fame has had on his morality ("I'm lucky that you picked up … I need someone to put this weight on"). Throughout, Drake is looking for validation, threatening a shift in his tone at any moment. “I’ll start hating, only if you make me,” he warns again and again. She’s a passive participant in this call, and it’s her fault if it all goes bad.

Contrast this with "Hotline Bling”: Four years after "Marvins Room," Drake bemoans the change in a girl who used to depend on his late-night ardor but eventually stopped calling. Drake, feeling left out of her new life and used to being the center of the universe, imagines that the reason she’s not around is her issues, not his: “Why you never alone?” She’s not the malleable “good girl” she once was. Drake’s delineation of what he expects from the women in these songs, what is good and bad behavior, is a potent reminder of the social contracts women have to abide by: Wait for him to call, don’t be eager, play hard to get – but not too hard to get, because you'll get shamed for that, too. In a familiar trope, the phone is used as a tool for sorting the good, reliable wifeys from the duplicitous women who are trying to play you: Think Kanye’s "Blame Game," where a cheating girlfriend’s accidental call revealed “the whole thing,” or YG's guest verse on Jeremih's "Don't Tell 'Em," where he crows about a missed call from a rival's girlfriend on the assumption that she's dying to sleep with him.

The balance of malice and vulnerability in The Weeknd’s "The Hills" is, to its credit, more opaque. Abel Tesfaye’s songs construct the image of someone who falls into every interaction with a casual dismissiveness, who takes part in slow-motion train wrecks that ultimately leave him empty, but which he can’t help but repeat. (In the video for "The Hills," Tesfaye is literally in a car crash with two models.) Discussing the cruelty in his lyrics, Alexandra Molotkow says on The Cut: “Plenty of male musicians make a show of both their appetites and their uncaring, but Tesfaye’s nastiest songs aren’t just about fucking you, and fuck the consequences; they’re as much about the consequences.” In "The Hills," Tesfaye is sleeping with a girl he can only dial at “half past five” when her man is on the road, an affair so obvious that all her friends know about it.

This song sums up Tesfaye’s destructiveness, tinged with helplessness and topped off with sexual aggression. You get a sense that even if there wasn’t a third person in the picture, Tesfaye would still only drunk dial this girl at dawn; he’s avoiding the “real love” that others yearn for, and is careful to let her know that he “fucked two bitches” before he came over. He specifically doesn’t want you to “feel [him]," just "touch [him]," because an emotional connection might trigger the self-analysis he’s trying to avoid. To properly perform masculinity is to employ a callousness that is encouraged on the grounds that instant gratification from women is a God-given right.

Drunk dialing isn’t a trope restricted to contemporary rap or R&B. In INXS’s "By My Side," Michael Hutchence feels compelled to call “in the dark of the night, those small hours” while he’s surrounded by strangers and looking to soothe his restless mind. The Arctic Monkeys's 2013 single "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?" is a rare instance of an intoxicated rock star feeling judged by a woman for “talking the same shite” and generally being just another boring, horny dude – the song is less a flex, more a self-deprecating joke about male entitlement. Very occasionally, a woman is also allowed an active desire in a drunk-dial exchange. Lady Antebellum’s much karaoke-d "Need You Now" is a fraught exchange between an estranged couple, powered by old photographs and too much whiskey. Of course, the subject of "Need You Now" is emotional love more than a woman’s alcohol-induced lust.

The most poignant recent example of a female pop star drunk dialing in song is Rihanna’s "Higher," a fan favorite from Anti. Rihanna is alone, blunt in one hand and drink in the other, calling a lost love about an undisclosed indiscretion. In her April cover story in Vogue, Rihanna compared "Higher" to a “drunk voice mail,” a call that you make even though you know that you shouldn’t, but you’re “just desperate.” Notably, Rihanna’s show of vulnerability doesn't come with a side of posturing cruelty. Where most drunk-dial songs are based on gendered manipulation – men expose the contradictory expectations of women as both foils to be conquered and willing yet discreet participants – Rihanna shows that a woman can candidly express desperate desire without losing her agency. Her drunk dial is based in the pursuit of romantic love, but like Drake and The Weeknd, she still wants to get laid; the reason for the call is that her drink is making her “feel pretty” and she’s past the point of mystery and “poetic lines." All she knows is that this person lights her fire in a way that no one else can.

Rihanna’s voice on "Higher" is almost painfully strained, like when you’re trying to talk while swallowing back tears – but it doesn’t make her sound weak. She is honest and stripped bare (according to the Vogue story, a fair amount of whiskey was also involved in the actual recording of the song), and her ability to live through this discomfort is powerful. Women are not meant to actively chase men or appear too needy, but Rihanna flips the script. She’s actively seeking out sex and love at an “impolite” time, all thoughts of gendered respectability out the window. This refusal to be passive is revolutionary, particularly because of the even more severe double standards Rihanna experiences as a woman of color.

Unlike Drake and The Weeknd, Rihanna doesn’t equate emotion with weakness. Her candor becomes her power, in ways that it can't for those male artists, who feel forced to counter their emotional openness with a dash of contempt. Masculinity hurts men, too: Performing male gender roles requires an awful lot of self-surveillance to keep the front intact, whether it's in a drunk-dial pop song or not. In "Higher," Rihanna's only fear is that she has “a little bit too much to say.” But her authenticity is so compelling that it's hard to imagine anyone accusing her of oversharing. The first comment on the Genius page for "Higher," by a user called nuthaniel, sums up the prevailing response to Rihanna's two-minute song: “WHY ISN’T THIS LONGER.” In laying it all out in alcohol-drenched, ashtray-filling glory, Rihanna leaves us wanting another one.