Male entitlement is a crucial part of rock’s DNA, and the pop charts — which, in 2016, were ruled largely by the likes of electro-bro duo the Chainsmokers and the grown-and-sullen Justin Bieber — reflected that reality loudly. The way the curdled view of women espoused by giant hits like Bieber’s “Love Yourself” (No. 1 on the 2016 Hot 100, No. 126 single) and the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” paralleled the breezy “not a 10” dismissiveness of the new president rankled even more when contrasted with the bona fide pop stars who were tackling womanhood and humanity with complexity and grace, but who were largely exiled from Top 40 playlists.
Beyoncé (No. 2 album, No. 1 single), for all her internet-shaking ability, only managed to place one track on the Hot 100 — “Sorry” (No. 15 single), all the way down at No. 71. Only Adele (“Hello,” No. 9 single of 2015) and Rihanna (“Work,” No. 9 single) managed to crack the year-end Hot 100’s top ten, while other women — Daya, Bebe Rexha — were relegated to second-billed status, their gasped lyrics depicting alienation and aloneness seemingly brought on by the men they supported.
The Chainsmokers’ “Closer” (No. 94 single), meanwhile, could have been crowned 2016’s official Uber-ride anthem; blippy and lethargic, it spent twelve weeks atop the Hot 100, drilling its insistent playground-ringtone chorus (“backseat of the Ro-ver,” “tattoo on your shoul-der,” ashes, ashes, etc.) into anyone within spitting distance of a radio. Its genesis, according to Billboard, was spite, with ‘smoker Drew Taggart writing conversational lines about hooking up with a former flame, then — whoopsie! — realizing he had nothing but contempt for the woman in question.
That a duo whose first hit was a mockery of women crowding around cellphone cameras — “#SELFIE” (No. 213 in 2014) — would strike pop gold with a whinge about an ex who’s poor and bitchy but still hot enough to bang isn’t too surprising; and it seemed appropriate to 2016, when pop rotated on the axis of male entitlement in ways not seen since the breaking-stuff height of the nu-metal era. “Closer” featured alt-pop upstart Halsey, who’d proved her arena-level charisma with the inane yet potent generational rallying cry “New Americana” and a run supporting bleary-eyed fist-raisers Imagine Dragons; here she was relegated to Taggart’s duet partner, echoing his withering observations of her character’s post-breakup existence in a generic bleat reminiscent of an also-ran from The Voice. And the song’s blasé rallying cry — “We ain’t ever getting older” — summed up life in 2016’s sullen-teen United States almost a little too well.
Abel Tesfaye’s anomie-&-b project the Weeknd is still benefiting from the makeover that included counsel from pop auteur Max Martin, who decided that the pill-popping Torontonian would be the perfect person to reanimate the more paranoid portions of Thriller. On his second major-label full-length, Starboy, the Weeknd brought in French masked men Daft Punk, who at baseline shared his affinity for staying up all night. The title track (No. 29 single), one of the fruits of that collaboration, has the vocodered bounce of “Get Lucky,” although it’s shot through with fame-related unease and copious references to getting high. It, too, was inescapable on pop radio after its release, although on the bright side, Tesfaye’s ladyfriend’s ability to hoover up rails does inspire a profession of love. (Or maybe he’s just high.)
The ruling prince of pop in 2016, Drake, has built an entire career on the pose of the “nice guy,” the sensitive prince who can’t seem to get a woman to understand where he’s coming from, either because he’s famous or because he’s too sensitive. His much-awaited Views (No. 505 album) was a slog of self-pity, its streaming stats goosed by the presence of the buoyant “Hotline Bling” (No. 1 in 2015), coming alive only when his longtime foil and bullshit-caller Rihanna shows up (“Too Good,” No. 179 single).
The losses of David Bowie (No. 1 album), Prince, and George Michael made these petulant, no-way-out depictions of masculinity even more depressing. That those three artists existed in a time when pop was still figuring itself out — when album rockers were making awkward “look, I’m making a video” clips so they could get airtime on the then-nascent MTV, and when programmers in far-flung El Paso could agitate for oddball tracks to eventually crack playlists in bigger markets — is of course relevant here; they tested the boundaries of masculinity in real time and in public, from Prince’s high-heeled splits to Michael’s scrawling of “EXPLORE MONOGAMY” on a woman’s back, and even though they operated in a more generally conservative world, it was one with more leeway to fuck around and, maybe, fuck up — fewer prying paparazzi, a fraction of the tabloid outlets ready to overanalyze and finger-wag, and more wiggle room on the pop charts, which are now boxed in by top-down programming on one side and streaming-era monotony on the other. (“Closer,” as of this writing, is hanging in at No. 11 on Spotify’s U.S. chart, and still in the Hot 100’s top 10.) Draw those lines tightly enough and pair them with all-seeing, all-judging eyes, and it’s no wonder the men of pop want to remain in a tantrumlike state, feeling misunderstood by the world despite being exactly what a large chunk of its inhabitants supposedly crave.
Don’t miss the rest of the 2017 Pazz & Jop, Village Voice Music Critics Poll coverage:
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