This week, Calvin Harris released his video for “My Way.” And despite his claims that it’s about working at a grocery store, the video looks more than a little like a tribute to Taylor Swift.
Horses and polka dots and colonial decor abound.
And why shouldn’t Calvin Harris work out his emotions through art? Why shouldn’t he, after a very public romance, attempt to reclaim his portion of the narrative outside the realm of Twitter temper tantrums? And why not lace imagery associated with his ex-girlfriend through a video accompanying a song about Safeway? Calvin Harris is entitled to feel breakup feelings just like any of us.
But there’s a way male pop stars have begun to sing about their breakups that have made them seem powerless and not powerful. Over the last year or so, we’ve heard Drake whine about ruined dates at The Cheesecake Factory and seen Bieber bring his mom into the mix. Shawn Mendes sits on the sidelines, complaining that he could love a woman better, while Niall Horan used his solo debut to lament over a woman who’s moved on. Which is frustrating when you compare these to anthems by Taylor Swift or Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj, all of whom use their post-heartbreak anthems to construct images of strength, empowerment, and self-improvement. Juxtaposed against these, male pop stars seem a little childish, or even a tad too thirsty, until you realize that the problem may be ours for holding them to these roles for far too long. We’re Justin Timberlake still singing “Cry Me a River” in 2007.
The relationship between dude musicians and their feelings is a complicated one. We’ve seen Ed Sheeran dedicate his entire discography to Nice Guy™ rhetoric while pouring feelings over his acoustic guitar. In the same realm, The Weeknd has navel-gazed, claiming he’s “not worth the misery” while in the next breath bragging about his sexual conquests. And Zayn has over-romanticized the turbulence of “fighting and fucking” to the point of bothering neighbors. Both The Weeknd and Zayn, in particular, have married their emotional oversharing to their bad-boy personas seamlessly — a time-honored tradition for successful male pop stars. Whether via New Kids On The Block, NSYNC, LL Cool J, or even Next (never forget “Too Close”), heartfelt sentiment tends to be chased by puffed-up masculine bravado. One minute a guy is singing about driving himself crazy thinking of you, the next he’s all bye, bye, bye.
This helps explain our knee-jerk reactions to today’s male pop emoters. Since before puberty, most of us have learned that the emotions of male artists are usually followed by this kind of cold reversal. It’s easy to arm ourselves accordingly, dismissing what might be real sentiment as a means of protecting ourselves — especially since we’re usually proven right.
When Drake pines over a girl who goes out more now that he’s out of the picture, it paints one of a spoiled brat who’s bothered that he didn’t get his own way — which is miles away from the heartfelt “boy, bye” of a song like “Sorry” by Beyoncé. When Justin Bieber claims that his mother never really liked his ex, he’s the equivalent of a tiny boy on the playground, hurling insults at someone who threw sand in his face — a far cry from a song like Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” where she sings about moving on in a healthy way. And when Calvin Harris accompanies a song about the grocery-store blues with super-obvious Taylor Swift imagery, it hardly makes the same impact as a clever, self-deprecating jam like “Blank Space.”
Which really sucks because it’s also a trap. Now we’re so sold on the idea that pop masculinity looks and feels a certain way that we keep artists within those boundaries. We wait for them to prove us wrong instead of embracing the complexities of human nature or questioning the construct the music industry has built. We hear emotional ballads and want the artists who perform them to “man up” or fulfill the feelings-less stereotype we’re used to. But then when they do, we’re left disappointed and proven right again.
So yes: Calvin Harris obviously has every right to use his sad grocery-store song to somehow reflect his breakup with Taylor. But for us to trust him or to trust it or to trust any male artist, we need songs that parallel the honesty we’re seeing in the music of their female counterparts. We need Calvin to admit the video was his way of working out feelings, or we at least need him to reveal that while originally he was inspired by Safeway (sure), it maybe at some point since then evolved into a post-breakup jam. We need male pop stars to acknowledge the unfair nature of double standards and the myth of male masculinity the way female pop stars have had to challenge their own gender roles. We need them to break free of the system that’s built them up and allowed them to thrive — even if it’s by making songs that straddle the confusing lines of apathy and emotion (since sometimes that’s how breakups and rejection are).
And most importantly, we maybe need to remind ourselves to look at the expectations we place on male artists, male emotions, and male artists’ experiences. Because if we’re not happy with sad-boy jams in the wake of female power, we need to call it out and ask for more. Emotional reflection needn’t limit itself to stereotypes. In fact, the best music usually doesn’t.