The Changing Face of the Male Pop Star Heartthrob
What women are after, at least in their pop idols, isn’t the fantasy of a perfect body, but rather the articulation of the complicated language of emotion. And talent.
When I was a teenager, Usher was my ultimate heartthrob. He had everything: the cheeky smile, the sensual, body-rolling dance moves, the abs you could grate cheese on. I’ve always loved cheese. It was the late 90s, and male pop stars only required two things to be considered heartthrob-worthy: a baby face (chiselled jaw and frosted tips optional) and the ability to dance. Which is how I came to fall for Ricky Martin.
The men or boys you heartthrobbed for back in the day fell into several buckets. First there were the boy band crushes—either the larrikin British boys like Take That and Boyzone, or the more self-serious American boy bands like The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC and their only prodigal child, Justin Timberlake. Then there were the more ab-tastic objects of affection like former Aussie soap star-turned-singer Peter Andre (who inexplicably never found fame on this side of the pond), the uncomfortably sexual sorts like Enrique Iglesias, the “alt” hunks like Lenny Kravitz, and then the hip-thrusters like Usher and Mr. Martin—but they all had one thing in common. Despite embracing feminine falsettos and professing the possession of actual emotions in their music, they remained decidedly masculine. Their testosterone was evident in their rippling muscles and their aggressive sexuality. The late 90s musical pin-up was just feminine enough to make him a counterfeit Man of Feeling, but he was also a dick swinger. His machismo was, looking back, vaguely homoerotic, especially in the context of the boy band (or is it just me who sees the subtext in the “Quit Playing Games With My Heart” video?). And yet, he was also implicitly homophobic in his Friends-era insistence of his straightness.
For instance, the aforementioned “Quit Playing Games With My Heart” features five grown men in open shirts, writhing in the rain together, but in the canon of the Backstreet Boys, they’re pointedly singing to women only. And as they make clear in “As Long As You Love Me” it doesn’t matter who that woman is, as long as she’s completely devoted to her man. In “Backstreet’s Back,” the Boys are at a flamboyant Halloween party in Heidi Klum-worthy outfits, but they’re snarling “Do you think I’m sexual?” at the female spectator (the sexy zombie/vampire/mummy ladies in the video as well as us, the audience). In “I Want it That Way” the Boys dance around in angelic white with heavenly crossfades taking us from scene to scene, but they’re singing about how they never want their woman to express a desire antithetical to their own. The 90s heartthrob lived in this kind of contradiction, presenting a seemingly emotive version of subtle masculinity, while still aggressively adhering to the power structure of heteronormative gender roles.
The pop heartthrob of the 90s wasn’t too far removed from the Rock Gods of the 60s and 70s and the Hair Gods of the 80s. Whether in skinny jeans and make-up, trashing hotel rooms (Mick Jagger, John Lennon, David Bowie), or sporting leather vests and voluminous perms (Axl Rose, Jon Bon Jovi), modern heartthrobs have always blurred the line masculine and feminine, but this has always been a performance. Even Elvis Presley, with his hips that didn’t lie, was a deft and irresistible marriage of the two. His perfectly coiffed hair, milky soft skin, and dreamy love songs swayed towards the gentle and feminine, while his war-vet, sneering mugshot, jailhouse-rocking ways swung back to the aggressively masculine.
Very rarely are heartthrobs born of raw, primeval masculinity. Unless, of course, they are Bruce Springsteen. In order to be desirable in pop, men generally need to display a certain amount of femininity in their looks (lovely hair, clean-shaven)—but must also have plausible deniability of that femininity (which is where having a playboy public persona comes in handy). Our heartthrobs, no matter how feminine, have always insisted on their virility, whether through their lyrics or public womanizing. I mean, it took Ricky Martin more than a decade after the release of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” to come out. Which is what makes the Love Gods of 2015 so unique to their yesteryear heartthrob counterparts.
Consider pop’s current Love Gods: Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Bruno Mars, John Legend, and Justin Bieber. You can see just by looking at that list, (aside from maybe Biebs, who seems to be something of an outlier, even a throwback), that our heartthrobs are a little more diverse, and a little less washboard-y than they’ve ever been. Sheeran is Ron Weasley incarnate, Smith is openly gay, Mars, despite having the dance moves, is a tiny little guy, and Legend is a proud family man. And yet, collectively, these are the men we yearn for.
I’m not saying any of this like it’s a bad thing. I believe the nature of masculinity and its bearing on the male pop star is constantly evolving, for a series of reasons. Most obviously, there’s the influence of the internet. We know the internet has changed the way we disseminate and absorb culture, and that in terms of music, it’s allowed us to experience and share a much more diverse range of artists than ever before. It urges us to glorify a lot of crap (viral wedding videos, the Kardashians), but it also allows us to recognize talent that we might otherwise have dismissed as unworthy of a magazine cover. Because one thing our new Love Gods have in common is their immense talent as songwriters in their own right, something that, at least in the 90s, wasn’t a requirement if you had puppy dog eyes, the ability to at least sort of carry a tune, and learn the choreography.
Gender and sexuality are also far more fluid now, or at least far more acceptably fluid than they were for past generations of pinups. So while the pop stars we’ve loved and kissed the posters of have always flirted with femininity, flirtation is no longer a requirement. Sam Smith is openly gay, and while chart-toppers of the past have either (poorly) attempted to hide their homosexuality (Ricky Martin, George Michael), or been openly gay and therefore been prefixed as “gay artists” (Elton John, Boy George), Smith enjoys success as a Love God regardless of sexuality. For instance: my straight boyfriend is perfectly enamoured with him, as am I, a straight woman. Twenty year old rising Aussie artist Troye Sivan is in a similar position: he sings about boys, but is equally swooned over by girls. These days a singer’s sexual preference doesn’t necessarily dictate the way that we, as fans, emotionally connect to our idols. Very slowly, an artist’s sexual orientation is losing its sway on the way we perceive them.
The shift in this dynamic isn’t something that’s happening blindly either. In conversation with Out, Smith discussed his goal of shifting the focus from sexuality to music: "My aim is to tell people how good it's been for me so that, hopefully, gay men or parents with gay children can look at my story and think, ‘Wow, that's how it should be. That's what we can work towards.’ That's been my whole motive—to not make it a talking point. My music should be a talking point." With the focus on his tear-inducing love ballads, it’s hard not to swoon over Sam Smith. In a historical context, it makes even more sense, considering artists like David Bowie and Mick Jagger purposefully adopted camp mannerisms and the visual aspects of gay culture, to aid in both their success as musicians and desirability as Love Gods. But Smith’s sexuality isn’t worn as a hat, nor is it engineered for popularity. It’s organic and authentic; inextricable but innocuous, completing his goal of rendering sexality as something tangential to his artistic talent and thus by default, a heartthrob.
The nature of feminine desire is also in a state of flux. Fourth wave feminism is fighting to remove the shame and stigma attached to the open performance of a woman’s desire. “What women want” is a hot topic, and we’re clamoring to hear answers from the mouths of women. This relates to pop music in that we’re no longer telling women they want a Nick Carter. We’re listening to women telling us they want an Ed Sheeran, a Bruno Mars, a John Legend. What women are after, at least in their pop music idols, isn’t the fantasy of a perfect body, but rather the articulation of the complicated language of emotion. And talent. If these men are any indication, the notion that women are definitely drawn to talent is decidedly true.
Talking about Sheeran for Vulture, Amanda Dobbins and Lindsey Webber refer to him as “muppety.” In attempting to explain his appeal, Lindsay describes it as follows: “His sound is pleasant enough; he’s actually talented; and let’s just say his look is extremely... nonthreatening?” Indeed, there’s something to be said for a man who isn’t constantly thrusting, constantly asserting that yes, he has a penis, and no, he’s not afraid to use it. Add to that the Taylor Swift endorsement that Dobbins and Webber also touch on, and Sheeran becomes the man women want. Sheeran is a communicator, and with his angelic tones he conveys a type of masculinity that’s very sure of itself, but the swagger’s subtracted. For instance in “Don’t” he’s clear and unapologetic about his feelings, but unwilling to be a cuckold. This song is the antithesis to “Hotline Bling”—Sheeran is a jilted lover who’s not too proud to admit he’s hurt, while Drake is angry and vindictive, turning on his ex with petty, sexist barbs. Which is why Drake can’t be a modern Love God.
John Legend’s gentle but decisive nature is similar to Sheeran: he sings about a woman’s “beautiful mind” and how he’ll be “around for every mood” as much as he praises her physical beauty. (All of which is helped in its sincerity by his very publicly displayed devotion to wife Chrissy Teigen.) Elsewhere Bruno Mars sings in equal part of regret without malice on “When I Was Your Man,” as he does of rampant sexuality on “Gorilla.” Because women are increasingly asserting themselves as autonomous equals, so too are the Love Gods of 2015 giving them agency in their songs. And considering Bruno Mars, who defies the pre-established 90s heartthrob standard just played his second Super Bowl, maybe this is trickling down and having a ripple effect on culture across the board. Perhaps women have demanded these new Love Gods, pop has delivered, and now that’s playing out in a larger, social dialogue.
As for Justin Bieber: He’s pretty confused and Purpose shows that. Biebs would’ve fit in just perfectly with the heartthrobs of the 90s—he’s got the moves, the abs, the wounded gaze, and the on-trend hair. But he’s traveled through time, surviving child stardom, to be with us now, and he so desperately wants to fit in. He wants to be taken as seriously as the other guys, especially as a Love God, but it’s hard because up until recently he’s stands as a remnant of an era in masculinity where testosterone muted any sort of gentlemanly sensibility. Now he’s trying to redefine his brand to reflect the speed of the new era. “Sorry” seems to convey that. While teenyboppers read it as an apology to ex Selena Gomez, it’s just as much a letter to his fans as it is to her. In “Sorry” he sings, “I’m missing more than just your body,” acknowledging, for once, that desire isn’t merely visual or fleshy. And in “Where Are You Now?,” the lyric “I gave you the shirt off my body” suggests a confusion, in a post-post-Backstreet Boys era, about what level of shirtlessness is desirable to his audience. OK, maybe this is a stretch, but let’s just go with it. Purpose could be a sign that Biebs is starting to understand that just being a heartthrob isn’t enough to be a Love God, and that women don’t want their desire mansplained to them with hairless abs and demanding lyrics anymore.
The Man of Sensibility emerged in art in the late 18th century, but he’s only just starting to become a cohesive force in pop music. He’s here now as an answer to the changing demands of a culture increasingly driven by the feminine. Gender, sexuality, and emotion are, slowly but surely, rejecting the traditional totalitarianism of masculinity. And the Fight Club-era masculine anxiety about that is starting to dissipate. We will always have “manly-men.” I will always yearn for Usher. But now we can see our most secret desire—whether as women, emotionally stunted men, or non-binary expressions of gender or sexuality—to be heard. The new Love Gods tell us someone is listening, and is holding up a mirror to the kind of men and idea of masculinity we’ve always hoped to have the opportunity to idolize.