2014 was a frustrating year on many fronts. From unchallenged police brutality to newfound awareness of the cruel objectification of women, 2014 was a slap in the face to the misguided claims of us living in a post-racial, post-objectifying society.
In this way, 2014 served as a necessary evil; the stories that challenged our conceptions of American life in the 21st century were horrific and not without needless human sacrifice. But they did open a lot of eyes to the ways in which certain demographics benefit from our current institutions. “White privilege” became an idea that could not be shrugged off as a term pushed by the liberal media, because the stories of unarmed black men being shot in our streets and women being hurled “compliments” about their appearance strictly affected women and people of color, and not white men.
But something interesting happened to pop music performed by male artists as the year progressed. What began with a burst of optimism and love, with songs such as OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars,” Pharrell’s “Happy” and John Legend’s “All of Me” quickly morphed into something more aggressive and unapologetic.
In a year that saw women take ownership of their stories and lives in hard-to-ignore ways, many male artists took this new information and looked the other way, and in some instances attempted to rationalize questionable male behavior.
By the beginning of the fall, a full year after “Blurred Lines” raised important questions about women’s involvement in male sexual fantasies (and sadly, realities), songs even more explicitly antagonizing became some of the season’s biggest hits.
The anti-hero has become one of the most prevalent tropes in current television series, beginning with Tony Soprano and going all the way to Don Draper. With it has come a greater understanding that sometimes good people do bad things, and bad people do good things. But larger than that, it has shown how much it distorts reality to call someone “good” or “bad”. A coin may land on heads, but there’s still the tail on the other side.
The anti-hero is much less prevalent in music, and still is to this day. There was simply nothing intrinsically heroic about much of the subject matter in some of the year’s biggest pop hits by male artists. Leading the charge was Top 40 stalwarts Maroon 5, with Adam Levine embracing his most villainous role to date on #1 single “Animals”. “I’m preying on you tonight, hunt you down, eat you alive,” he predatorily sings on the chorus. Then there was Ed Sheeran, emblematic of what , releasing his own aggression towards the opposite sex. calls the “Nice Guy” trope
On his most successful single to date, “Don’t” (“Thinking of You” is closing in on that title), Sheeran makes sure to paint himself in the best possible light next to his conniving, cheating ex. “I never intended to be next,” he sings during one of the song’s verses, before making sure he leaves all the blame on his former flame. “But you didn’t need to take him to bed that’s all / And I never saw him as a threat / Until you disappeared with him to have sex of course.” Even though he has no intentions of this relationship becoming something more substantial, it still pains him to see his love interest pursue her own relationships, to express free will.
It’s the concept of free-will (or lack thereof) that fuels two of the other big male-driven Top 40 hits of 2014. John Newman provides the vocals on Calvin Harris’ Motion hit “Blame,” which features Newman singing on the chorus, “Blame it on the night / Don’t blame it on me.” It’s not his fault he’s a cheater! In fact, he makes it clear whose fault it really is. “Can you see it? I was manipulated / I had to let her through the door / I had no choice in this / I was a friend she missed / She needed me to talk,” sings Newman on the song’s second verse. Not able to take ownership of his role in the infidelity, Harris and Newman look for an easy scapegoat: the other woman.
Then there’s “Jealous,” Nick Jonas’ breakthrough solo single. The song is much more playful than those hits from Calvin Harris, Ed Sheeran, and Maroon 5, but there remains an inability to accept culpability in his words. The song finds Jonas in a relationship with a strikingly beautiful woman who has every other guy wanting her for himself. “It’s not your fault that they hover / I mean no disrespect,” he accurately surmises. His girlfriend cannot help how other men perceive her. But he follows that by singing, “It’s my right to be hellish / I still get jealous.”
Sure, it is his prerogative to feel jealous, but that’s all his prerogative may entail. When it goes beyond that, to restricting what she can wear or who she can hang out with, is when it becomes a problem. And nowhere in the song does he put limitations on what she can do, but the implication is there that he has the right to feel as though he owns his girlfriend’s body.
This is no new phenomenon in music. There have been plenty of songs that focus on similar subject matter. But it is fascinating to look at this collection of songs in light of the ways our society evolved in 2014.
No longer can white men shrug off claims of police brutality or the objectification of women as myths or things that don’t really affect that many people. No longer can the notion of “white privilege” be scoffed at.
What gets lost in those discussions is what people of color and women want when they address this privilege. It is not brought up in an attempt to remove these “privileges”, which in actuality look more like rights. All that is being said is that there is an imbalance in how white men are perceived and everyone else in society is, and we should be doing more to ensure that the privileges and rights white males are given are extended to all races and genders and sexual orientations.
But as it stands, there is an undeniable privilege to being white in this country. As a white man, I am not expected to speak for all white men, and more importantly, I am allowed to live on my own terms. That’s a privilege minorities do not face, where one speaks for all, the actions of one is the will of many.
The music made by men in 2014 is not wholly different than the music that has come before it. The thing that has changed is the context of the world around them. Some male artists will likely acknowledge these privileges, their own roles in sexual experiences with others, and how they largely benefit from our current societal structures. But like with every great revolution, and as we witnessed in 2014, there will be those who go down kicking and screaming.