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Thanks, Harry?

Apparently Harry Styles & Other “Softboys” are to Blame for Fragile Masculinity

February 26, 2020: Singer Harry Styles performs on stage during Citi Concert Series on NBC TODAY SHOW at Rockefeller Plaza
Lev Radin/Shutterstock

Add fragile masculinity to the list of things in existence people can try to blame Harry Styles for.

Politico Magazine article by Derek Robertson tries to link the 27-year-old British singer’s rise in profile to a counter-movement of older, “manlier” “hard rockers” who are going “Trumpy” in an article entitled, “How the Rise of the ‘Softboy’ Fueled the Culture Wars.” Buckle in, folks, this is going to be quite the reach.

Robertson argues that Styles—who “has ruled for some time now”—is part of a “rise of a new generation of male icons who have slowly but surely redefined pop stardom in their own image.” That image, according to Robertson, is the “softboy” (more commonly spelled “softboi”), one where men have a “mastery of softness” versus… not that.

Not only are they now dominating pop culture, but they have intentionally “overwhelmed it.”

He includes K-pop band BTS, rapper Drake, actor Timothée Chalamet, and even Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff with Styles as examples of very popular “softboy” archetypes that are hot in pop culture right now. This is opposed to the archetype that ruled (apparently) prior to Styles’ rise, “the tough guy in denim and leather who used drugs and women with equal carelessness.”

He recalls the time of 1990, when Bruce Springsteen (in his “jeans and a muscle tee” era) and the bands Aeorsmith, Poison, and Motley Crue were culture’s favored entertainers. Now them, their contemporaries, and their fans now fall in the “forgotten men” segment of society that gave rise to Donald Trump over the last few years, according to Robertson.

Never mind that many of the supposed “softboy” antagonists in this scenario weren’t around in 1990 or aren’t even American, but the whole notion that Styles and Drake have successfully pulled off some kind of gender-defying, dramatic, Disney villain-like gambit to push “tough men” out of the mainstream is ahistorical, toxic framing in of itself.

You know what else came out in 1990? Movies like Cry-Baby and Ghost. You know who were some of the other biggest pop entertainers of that era? Prince, Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Boy George and New Kids on the Block, to name a few. They spent time wearing denim and leather, and talking about sex and drugs as well – but they weren’t really showing off their muscles and getting co-signed by former Presidents then, either.

So besides the glaring misunderstanding of pop culture of times past, it would be important to note that while what and how they’re presenting themselves is certainly different, stars like Styles and Drake aren’t that far off from many pop icons before them.

Moreso, the notion that the traditional American concept of masculinity is suddenly missing from culture is maybe one of the oldest misnomers in the cultural-criticism book. Listen, Married… with Children did not produce an entire show for 12 seasons focused on the supposed fading-away of manliness and tradition in the modern era to be ignored like this.

Robertson says that the “manly-man pop icons” of the past are “still abound” in hard rock and country today, because “the genres and subcultures that once would have worked to hurdle barriers to the mainstream have simply elected to build their own, entirely separate ecosystems.” Which is basically saying that as opposed to counterculture punk and grunge artists of the 90s, these musicians now choose not to become mainstream acts. (Maybe that’s because there’s a direct line between punk and grunge acts like Nirvana going mainstream to the “softboys” who are mainstream now, but actual competence of culture would be required to understand that.) 

He then cites research that shows “that Obama-to-Trump swing voters — the former President Trump’s ‘forgotten men’ …who remade the electoral landscape… overwhelmingly preferred the kind of rock and alternative music that went out of fashion in mainstream culture.” (The Economist research itself was not cited correctly.)

That leads to Robertson arguing that “the Styles-ian pushing of gender boundaries” is “more overtly progressive-coded almost by default” and that “while Styles and his fellow softboys earn the magazine covers and sponsorship deals, the space for traditional masculinity in mainstream culture narrows.”

“The rise of the softboy might have been easier for some American men to digest if it were contained to one corner of pop culture, but they’ve mounted a stunningly complete takeover,” he argues.

Which surmises the worst part about this article: It’s not just someone completely mangling the recent history of culture and entertainment, but trying to use people who don’t fit into the old-fashioned definition of masculine as a built-in excuse to explain why men just have to support Trump and fall in with his kind of culture. That’s the whole argument, folks: If people like Harry Styles weren’t so triggering and in-your-face with not being society’s typical kind of man, people wouldn’t feel the need to become rock fanatic, Trump-loving “hard” men.

It’s a ridiculous, borderline queerphobic (which makes sense, when you realize Robertson is a fan of the “uncancellable” Bari Weiss‘ and company’s work, and thinks Dave Chappelle is just “a weirdly radical egalitarian”) notion that suggests that once again, it’s everyone else’s fault that Trump and his legion of right-to-far-right fanatics exist, but surely not the fanatics themselves.

Not to mention that the argument is completely fixated on the idea that there isn’t enough space for those “manly” entertainers available now, who, in Robertson’s cited examples, all just happen to be white, cis, and straight. Not to also mention that this idea that there is only “enough space” for certain people is a very ridiculous argument constantly used to excuse the lack of marginalized representation or pit marginalized people against each other.

He cites the Billboard Top Ten songs from earlier this month, glossing over the presence of women like Olivia Rodrigo and Dua Lipa on the list as “standard,” while maligning the men on the list as “softboys”: “gender-bending” Lil Nas X (the only time he’s mentioned, which easily befalls the argument on its own), “Muppet-like” Ed Sheeran, “softboy elder” group Coldplay, BTS and Drake.

He conveniently ignores the existence of the several non-white male entertainers that arguably fit traditional masculine gender norms—such as rappers Future, Wizkid, DaBaby, Kanye West, J. Cole— that have done just fine on the charts this year.

Maybe it’s because hip hop, the most popular genre of music currently, and hip hop culture, which heavily influences pop culture, is not even mentioned in the article. Yet rock and country are “That more aggressive side of pop culture” that is now “undeniably diminished,” and they’re centered as the only possible safe haven for men in this “softboy” driven universe that men are so desperately looking for.

And conveniently, the several white rock and country male artists that have spent weeks in the Top 100 this year, including Walker Hayes, Jason Aldean, Chris Stapleton, Kenney Chesney, Morgan Wallen, Kane Brown, Luke Bryan, and Scott McCreery, are also not mentioned.

Robertson believes there’s a direct link between this, and the shift to the “Trumpified GOP” from the “post-Romney” era. In the end, he also tries equivocating “a forgotten Y2K-era rocker reinvents himself as a conservative warrior” and “the softboy” as the same kind of rebel, just with different perspectives. There’s some truth to that — they’re both groups of people trying to freely express themselves in a new reality.

But they’re far from the same—the so-called softboys are staying true to who they are. The “warriors” are rebelling against the very existence of a new reality. So who’s “soft” in that scenario?

Here’s what others have taken away from the story:

Luckily, Robertson was kind enough to share what he believes are the “misreadings” people are taking away from his article. The notion “that I’m making some kind of normative statement about how culture should be, or that this is a lament for the Woodstock ’99 era… is just not accurate, and to read that into it is a basic failure of reading comprehension,” he states.

He also says that he isn’t “overlooking past femininity in pop/rock music (i.e. bowie, prince, etc.)” and that “this is something I address in the first section,” referring to the mention of “the ostensibly ‘feminine’ look of hair-metal bands like Poison or Motley Crue.”

He further claims that he didn’t mention hip-hop because “hip-hop complicates this as there’s a separate racial dynamic at play.” I’ll let the reader draw their own conclusion as to what that means. “I nod here at post-drake Vulnerability Rap but that deserves its own piece that someone else could do far more justice,” he admits.

“also I’ll note most of this criticism has come from my fellow liberals, especially the kind who tend to believe representation in culture matters,” Robertson continues, “which makes it perplexing that they don’t seem to believe this shift could have real externalities, which is the entire point here.”

It’s surely “perplexing” that “liberals” see a difference between the representation of “softboys” that, according to Robertson himself, is fairly new in the mainstream, and the “non-softboys” which has existed forever, but the person writing about it doesn’t.

Of course, the internet did not buy Robertson’s explaining of their “misreadings,” and the universal clowning continued.

Besides the clear and obvious erasure in the article…

…there’s also those perplexed by the focusing in on Harry Styles to make this easily disproven point anyway.

Meanwhile, Robertson of course doubled down in the most cringeworthy fashion. We wouldn’t expect to see any revisions or retractions anytime soon.

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