Saturday, January 20, 2018

Failure to critique hyper-masculinity in the Killers’ “The Man”

One of the top-selling albums of 2017 was The Killers’ Wonderful Wonderful, which debuted no. 1 on the billboard charts in late September. The lead single on the album was “The Man”, released back in June 2017. “The Man” is a great song, with a catchy rhythm section and melody, certainly one of the best songs The Killers have produced. There is lots of room to breathe in the melody, and they have fun playing with all of that space. The form is interesting: the chorus doesn’t come in until 1:25 into the song, after two verses and some stalling, and this delayed entrance (the first time out of the tonic key) comes with a big payoff. The 2nd time around, the chorus (B) has this pretty awesome vocal-heavy extension (B2) that only comes back after the 3rd chorus and bridge (B–C–B2). Just a few more small touches that make the song: try just following the bass on a listen—it is just spare enough during the verse, and gets increasingly complex as the song progresses, raising the tension. And I think my favorite thing in the song is this rhythm guitar 16th note figure that only comes in during the 3rd chorus.

The video is pretty great, too—it presents several versions of lead singer Brandon Flowers (or perhaps one version in different timelines) in different hyper-masculine poses: as a sequined cowboy gambler, a Las Vegas show performer, a playboy, a wannabe motorcycle stunt artist, and a guy in a wife-beater grilling steak and shooting guns outside his trailer. By the end of the video, though, all of the versions of himself have been abandoned, thrown out, shown to be a facade, or failed in some other way. Through the video, “The Man” can be read as a self-deceptive ego-trip, a satire and critique of hyper-masculinity.

The problem with the song is, however, that separated from the video, the music and lyrics do not actually convey any critique of the masculine caricature it depicts. There is no lyrical content from the song that ever signals that the hyper-masculine is something to avoid—instead, the character claims that they’ve got nothing to learn, don’t need any help, and don’t care about anyone else. The lyrics never venture quite far enough into absurdity, or at least far enough that someone taking the song at celebratory face value would notice. The lyrics never show that “the man” does need help or is not at the top of the game. This is especially problematic given our cultural moment—for example, the #MeToo movement, who criticize the very type of entitled men described in “The Man”, a movement that gained steam just a few weeks after Wonderful Wonderful came out. 

The music doesn’t convey any satire, either. Music can provide irony (see my post from 2014 about BNL’s Shopping), but in “The Man”, while the rhythm section and falsetto background vocals borrow from disco (a historically un-masculine genre), the song swaggers throughout with fist-pumping facility. There is no attempt to take down “the man” musically. Sure, this type of swagger is what rock music is good at—one could argue that is the original point of the genre. But while the video suggests an attempt that the song is something other than a celebration of toxic masculinity, the source material doesn’t give any hint of that. For a song that is supposed to critique, it is entirely too easy to take it at face value.

By contrast, Sting’s best song on his latest album 57th and 9th was “Petrol Head”, a song also depicting hyper-masculinity, but instead with an automotive angle. It is a much more lyrically clever song and, while still not critiquing its masculine caricature much (there is a somewhat deprecating verse), the song is cheeky and inventive enough that its lack of critique is more forgivable—hyper-masculine people usually don't make lengthy allusions to Moses. Well, maybe Charlton Heston.

I’ll be listing to “The Man” for a while to come—after many repeated listens, I still haven’t gotten tired of it—but always with a grain of salt, and trying not to sing along with the toxic masculinity.

What do you think?

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