For all that rock ‘n’ roll is full of songs that involve large, hirsute males boasting about their sexual prowess and remarkable ability to metabolize alcohol, rock songs that actually examine what it means to be a man are very few and far between. This, of course, is hardly surprising — men have never been encouraged to express their feelings, and even in our enlightened post-feminist world where everyone is supposed to be in touch with their emotions, there’s still a pretty substantial societal pressure on men to be strong and silent and emotionally inscrutable. Happily, here at Flavorpill, we don’t buy into gender-related bullshit of any description, so here are ten of our favorite songs about masculinity. We’d love to hear yours.
Joe Jackson — “Real Men”
In Flavorpill’s considered opinion, this remains the single best song that anyone’s ever written about the experience of being male in the late 20th and/or early 21st centuries — or the best one that we’ve heard yet, anyway. In six concise, often sardonic verses, Jackson’s lyric manages to cover a whole gamut of conflicted masculinity: the changing role of men in society, the experience of being unsure about your sexuality, confusion as to how to relate to both women and your own peers, the tyranny of conventional gender roles, and plenty more. It’s a great, beautiful, poignant song.
The Cure — “Boys Don’t Cry”
It’s blessed with one of the most instantly recognizable riffs ever, and yet it’s about an inability to communicate — the gods of music, it seems, are not without a sense of humor. It’s fairly obvious that the title and chorus here allude to the idea that men are somehow supposed to demonstrate emotional strength by never showing emotion, but even the ostensibly confessional and regretful verses are shot through with the narrator’s inability to fully express himself, and also to empathize. Take the opening lines, for instance: “I would say I’m sorry/ If I thought that it would change your mind.” Not, you’ll note, “I am going to say I’m sorry/ Because that’s how I feel.”
U2 — “Twilight”
Pretty much all of U2’s debut album, Boy, is about the transition from adolescence to adulthood, and for anyone not familiar with their earliest recordings, it’s a surprisingly subtle piece of work. Although it’s ostensibly a fairly simple lyric about the passing down of knowledge from generation to generation, this song also alludes strongly to awakening sexuality, and how it can often make you uncomfortable, particularly if it’s been drummed into you that what you’re feeling is somehow wrong (like, for instance, fancying your teacher). The chorus (“In the shadow/ Boy meets man”) can be read in a couple of ways — it could just be a simple metaphor for the transition to adulthood, but there’s a definite sexual undertone, and it’s hard to believe it’s entirely an accident. This song elicited similar reactions to the album’s cover (regular U2 cover star Peter Rowen, aged six and naked from the waist up) — it managed to make conservatives very uncomfortable indeed, only serving to prove the point that nascent sexuality is a topic that society is still very reluctant to address.
Bruce Springsteen — “The River”
“I come from down in the Valley, where mister, when you’re young/ They bring you up to do just like your daddy done”: plenty of Springsteen’s songs look at the idea of what it means to be a man, but we doubt he’ll ever again write a lyric as good as this one, the title track to his fantastic 1980 double album. The tale of an exuberant youthful relationship ground down into empty tedium by a combination of shotgun wedding, social disapproval, and financial hardship is sad enough, but sadder still is the narrator’s sense of mute bewilderment at the distance that’s grown up between him and his wife, and his inability to change the situation. This song always brings a tear to our eye — which is, of course, a thoroughly unmanly admission. But still.
Cat Stevens — “Father and Son”
It’s easy to dismiss this song as being irredeemably wet, but for all its soppiness, there’s also something genuinely touching about. As a large proportion of the three billion men on this planet can probably attest, father-son relationships are difficult things, often shot through with a strange combination of unexpressed love, jealousy, rivalry, and pride. “Father and Son” captures all of these things, and does so from the perspective of both father and son — it’s a surprisingly complex piece of writing for an AOR drive-time staple.
The Flaming Lips — “Fight Test”
Wayne Coyne is no one’s idea of a macho man, so on first listen, the lyrics to “Fight Test” are strangely incongruous: “To fight is to defend/ If it’s not now than tell me when/ Would be the time that you would stand up and be a man?” Whether the “fight” refers to an actual physical conflict is open to interpretation — but either way, the point is that there are times when you need to stand up for yourself, or you’ll get walked all over. Curiously, the song references the melody of “Father and Son,” although Coyne says that when he realized the similarity, he altered the offending parts — not enough to satisfy Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam’s record company, though, who are now enjoying 75 percent of the royalties for this song.
Manic Street Preachers — “A Design for Life”
“A Design for Life” is as much about education and working class identity as it is about masculinity per se, but it still has plenty to say about the alienation felt by many working class men in a society where their skills are no longer needed nor valued. The song owes at least some of its inspiration to the experience of men who’d worked for decades as coal miners and who were left bereft of both employment and purpose when Margaret Thatcher closed Wales’s mines in the 1980s — an experience repeated around the world in many various forms over the last few decades, as the economic transformation of first world societies away from agriculture and primary industry has often left the men who have filled such jobs for generations wondering quite where they fit into this brave new world. The chorus couplet “We don’t talk about love/ We only want to get drunk,” in particular, fairly drips with bitter irony and a sense of unexpressed emotional conflict.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy — “I See a Darkness”
If “Real Men” is the best song ever about the nature of masculinity, then we’re going to go out on another limb here and say that “I See a Darkness” is the best song ever about male friendship. Even in 2011, expressing love — platonic, non-sexual, emotional love — for a male friend is just as likely to get you a can of Bud thrown at your head as anything. Similarly, some topics (like depression, and suicide) remain very much off limits for conversations between self-respecting dudes. These are both topics that “I See a Darkness” addresses — how even the closest friendship can leave you feeling like you have to confront darkness alone.
Unicorns — “Emasculate the Masculine”
We were interested to see that Unicorns were a name that kept cropping up in the comments section to our post last week about great bands who only made one album — we’d figured Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? was an album that’d been largely forgotten, although it was certainly a pleasure to find that we were wrong. This song comes from their final EP, and is a fairly savage lyrical assault on the things you’re supposed to find important as a man: “And everyone I know/ Is leaving for the weekend/ With tickets to the game/ Everybody sounds the same.”
Pulp — “I’m a Man”
As ever, you can rely on Jarvis Cocker for a considered lyric about an unfashionable topic. This song takes a huge and often hilarious swipe at idiot machismo, but also acknowledges that alternative constructions of masculinity are few and far between, even in today’s allegedly enlightened world — ultimately, as Cocker acknowledges with the last line of the song, for all that he’s not impressed with what it apparently means to be a man, “that’s what I am.”