In April, during his headlining set at Coachella, the reigning pop prince Harry Styles invited a surprise guest, Shania Twain, to the stage to sing a provocatively chosen duet: “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.”
Clad in a low-cut, silver sequined jumpsuit, Styles strutted, twirled and belted out the cheeky anthem’s lyrics. “This lady taught me how to sing,” he told the raucous crowd of over 100,000 when the song was over. “She also taught me that men are trash.”
The performance was fun, headline-generating and relatively radical: It is difficult to imagine Styles’s generational predecessor, Justin Timberlake — or even Timberlake’s successor, Justin Bieber — playing so fast and loose with gender roles. That is partially because the Justins embraced hip-hop and R&B — genres where such experimentation is often less welcome — more directly than Styles ever has. But it’s also because the cultural forces that shape the norms and expectations of what a male pop star can and should be are evolving.
While the year in music was dominated by a handful of female powerhouses (critically, by Beyoncé’s widely praised dance-floor odyssey “Renaissance” and commercially, by Taylor Swift’s moody synth-pop juggernaut “Midnights”), the top male pop stars — Styles, Bad Bunny and Jack Harlow — all found success while offering refreshingly subversive challenges to old-school masculinity.
Styles and Harlow seem cannily aware of how to position themselves as heartthrobs in a cultural moment when being a man — especially one that scans straight and white — can seem like a minefield of potential missteps, offenses and overextended privilege. Bad Bunny, even more subversively, ripped up the English-language pop star’s rule book and offered a more expansive vision of gender and sexuality.
Bad Bunny, the Puerto Rican superstar whose summery smash “Un Verano Sin Ti” spent more weeks atop the Billboard chart than any other album this year, has gleefully rejected the confines of machismo. Instead, he has embraced gender-fluid fashion, called out male aggression in his songs and videos and even made out with one of his male backup dancers during a performance at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards — decisions that carry extra weight considering his aesthetic-hopping pop is rooted in reggaeton, a genre that has leaned on heteronormativity.
Styles, too, has won fans and admirers by treating his gender presentation as something of a playground, whether that means wearing a dress on the cover of “Vogue,” refusing to label his sexuality or flipping the familiar script of the older male auteur/younger female muse in his much publicized relationship with his “Don’t Worry Darling” director Olivia Wilde, who is 10 years his senior. None of it has been bad for business: Styles’s “As It Was” was the year’s longest-reigning Billboard No. 1 and, globally, Spotify’s most-streamed song of 2022.
But there’s also an increasingly fine line between allyship and pandering, one that fans aren’t shy about calling out online. Styles and Bad Bunny have been accused of the very contemporary crime of “queerbaiting,” or cultivating a faux mystique around one’s sexuality to appeal to an L.G.B.T.Q. fan base. To overemphasize straightness and alpha-male stereotypes, though, presents its own risks, especially in a post-MeToo moment. What’s a man to do?
Harlow, the 24-year-old Kentucky-born rapper, spent 2022 trying to figure it out. A technically dexterous rapper with an easy charisma and a head of Shirley Temple ringlets, Harlow is known for making artistic choices that spotlight his skills and convey his seriousness as an MC. He’s also cultivated a persona as an irrepressible flirt with a particular attraction to Black women. He famously shot his shot with Saweetie on the BET Awards red carpet, repeatedly popped into Doja Cat’s Instagram live broadcasts and even parodied his reputation during a star-turning “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig, when he played himself in a skit that imagined him seducing Whoopi Goldberg on the set of “The View.”
Harlow’s music, too, actively cultivates the female listener. As he explained in an interview with The New York Times earlier this year, “I always think about if I was in the car and the girl I had a crush on was in the shotgun and I had to play the song, would I be proud to play the song?”
Throughout his second album, “Come Home the Kids Miss You,” Harlow paints himself as stylish and sensitive, a man who keeps his nails clean and discusses his romantic encounters in therapy. In the grand tradition of his elder Drake, Harlow often uses the pronoun “you” to directly and intimately address women in his songs. His biggest solo hit to date, “First Class,” which spent three weeks at No. 1 this spring, turned “Glamorous,” Fergie’s blingy 2007 hit about luxury and hard-earned success, into a chivalric invitation for a lady to come enjoy the good life on Harlow’s dime: “I could put you in first class,” he clarified.
Stylistically, Harlow’s music is worlds away from Styles’s, but both share a kind of glorification of the female listener, a lyrical attentiveness to her pleasure and a subtle insistence that they are more caring partners than all those other men who, in Styles’s parlance (and on superhumanly empathetic ballads like “Boyfriends” and “Matilda”), are “trash.”
In some sense, this is certainly progress. Consider that Timberlake’s early aughts success involved the excessive vilification of his ex Britney Spears, or that a performance that pantomimed a kind of hyper-heterosexual dominance over Janet Jackson had virtually no effect on his career, but nearly ended hers. Harlow’s collaboration with and public support for the gay pop star Lil Nas X and even his fawning over his female peers are worlds away from his predecessor Eminem, who negotiated his complex stance as a white man in a predominantly Black genre by punching down at women and queer people. Misogyny and homophobia aren’t exactly good for business anymore — and thank goodness.
It’s hard to imagine these men making the same mistakes as their forebears, and overcorrection is in some sense welcome, given the alternative. (Bad Bunny, again, has taken even bolder risks, like vehemently criticizing the Puerto Rican government in response to island-wide blackouts.)
But even responsibly wielded privilege is still, at the end of the day, privilege. And Styles’s and Harlow’s music often betrays that by its relative weightlessness, its sense of existence in a space free of any great existential cares. Styles’s songs in particular seem hollowed out of any introspection; most of the ones on “Harry’s House” pass by like cumulus clouds. The focus of Harlow’s music vacillates between girls and ego, with few gestures toward the riskier political statements he’s made on red carpets (decrying homophobia) and on social media (attending protests demanding justice for Breonna Taylor). That failure to see oneself as part of a larger problem is a symptom of privilege, too. Even if he’s wearing sequins, a man declaring that “men are trash” is just a very subtle way of saying “not all men.” What about the guy saying it?
On “Part of the Band,” a moody, verbose single released this year by the British band the 1975, the frontman Matty Healy imagines overhearing a snippet of chitchat between two young women: “I like my men like I like my coffee/Full of soy milk and so sweet it won’t offend anybody.” The implication is that Healy is decidedly not one of those men, and it’s indeed hard to imagine a listener — particularly a non-male one — making it through all 11 tracks of the 1975’s soft-focused “Being Funny in a Foreign Language” without cringing at something Healy says. (Just one example: “I thought we were fighting, but it seems I was ‘gaslighting’ you.” Yeesh.)
But in Healy’s musings, there’s something often lacking in Harlow’s or Styles’s music: a genuine sense of self-scrutiny, and an active internal monologue about what it means to be a man at this moment in the 21st century. Healy’s songs are, as the critic Ann Powers put it in an astute essay tracing the cultural lineage of “the dirtbag,” excavations of “the curses and blessings of his gendered existence.” Under his relentless microscope, straight(ish) white masculinity is, blessedly, freed from its status as the default human condition and instead becomes a curiosity to poke and prod at, exposing its internal contradictions and latent anxieties.
“Am I ironically woke?” Healy wonders later in “Part of the Band.” “The butt of my joke? Or am I just some post-coke, average, skinny bloke calling his ego imagination?” Cringe if you want. He’s man enough to let the question hang there in the air.