As a non-binary person, one of the aspects of pop culture to I like to look at closely is how different artists respond to the pressures put on them by society to conform. Specifically, the pressure to conform to archaic ideas of how they relate to masculine tropes.
Like a former boy band member seducing woman after woman in their lyrics and in their music videos.
Or a cowboy and country singer belting out songs about shooting men and going to prison because he's 'tough as nails'.
Or a beautiful pop singer only singing about superficial issues that don't go beyond cute kisses and crushes.
As award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said: "By far the worst thing we do to males — by making them feel they have to be hard — is that we leave them with very fragile egos."
So, I decided to zoom in on three white, male music stars who I think are expressing their art in a way that subverts expectation. I picked them, not only because I love each one of their music, individually, but because they're all making big waves in the industry right now. I also think that this subsection of musicians occupying a specific place of privilege can often be the group that perpetuate stereotypes the most, so I wanted find examples of people who fly in the face of that.
HERE IS HOW HARRY STYLES, ORVILLE PECK AND TROYE SIVAN ARE SUBVERTING IDEAS OF TOXIC MASCULINITY THROUGH THEIR MUSIC:
Responding to music and connecting to an artist is often an involuntary thing. Sometimes you hear a musician recommended by your streaming service that you might not have otherwise listened to and you just connect with them.
That's what happened to me with Orville Peck. I've always been a quiet fan of country artists like Kacey Musgraves and The Dixie Chicks, but something about Orville made me feel like I should tell the world about him.
Something about his blend of subversive cowboy stereotypes, drag queens and other LGBTI imagery really connected with me. He does this by embodying the idea of the "Marlboro Man" in his masked stage persona. A cowboy, who doesn't need anyone, never letting others see his vulnerable side with a gravelly voice that harkens back to Johnny Cash or Hank Williams.
The classic and often toxic idea or masculinity that is often damaging to perpetuate. But then when you watch his videos you see how he references roses, intimacy beyond the physical, and sultry seduction. Not to mention powerful drag queens and a broad church of people from all backgrounds.
One of the best examples of this is his new video for Summertime. In it, he wears all black and looks the image of bravado, but then he holds a pink flower and croons wistfully: "Punish those who love young/Never right on time/Watch each other fallin' ", expressing a rare vulnerability.
WATCH THAT VIDEO – RELEASED ON WEDNESDAY – HERE:
Another artist that flies in the face of toxic masculinity is Harry Styles. He wrote an album almost entirely about the end of a relationship with a woman but did so with overt kindness and addresses his responsibility for things ending. On the track To Be So Lonely, after verses of shedding blame, Harry sings: "And I’m just an arrogant son of a bitch who can’t admit when he’s sorry."
Which I think is so refreshing in a world where a lot of male pop stars are singing about how they're the perfect man to get married to and have babies with. Not only that, but while performing these songs to throngs of adoring fans the former boyband member wears a pearl necklace and ivory lace amongst other things.
His most recent album, Fine Line, is filled with that kind of vulnerability which is the antithesis of toxic masculinity.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Harry spoke about that vulnerability: "I’m discovering how much better it makes me feel to be open with friends, feeling that vulnerability, rather than holding everything in."
He went on: "I feel pretty lucky to have a group of friends who are guys who would talk about their emotions and be really open. My friend’s dad said to me, 'You guys are so much better at it than we are. I never had friends I could really talk to. It’s good that you guys have each other because you talk about real shit. We just didn’t.' "
WATCH HARRY PERFORM TO BE SO LONELY AND OTHER SONGS FROM HIS ALBUM ON NPR'S TINY DESK, HERE:
It's not always easy to address internalised heteronormativity. It took awhile for me to overcome it and Troye Sivan is no different.
In a 2019 interview The Guardian, he said: "I have to get comfortable with the fact that I am kind of effeminate sometimes – or really effeminate sometimes".
He added: "That I want to paint my nails. Overcoming all those stupid rules that society embeds in you as a kid about gender and sexuality is a conscious task."
In his music Troye unpacks finding love on songs like Seventeen and breaking up on a song called The Good Side, but I find the most interesting example of Troye being a different kind of pop star is on the track titled, Bloom.
In Bloom Troye talks, through a floral metaphor, about a specific sex act with another man. Singing: " It's true, baby/I've been saving this for you, baby" and " Take a second, baby, slow it down/You should know I, you should know I/I bloom just for you."
WATCH TROYE PERFORM BLOOM HERE:
While I commend these artists, I do want so much more. More challenging of the status quo, more art that makes you listen twice and more men willing to do the work of breaking down toxic masculinity.
*Alex Isaacs is Channel24's Music Editor.
(Photos: Getty Images/Harry Styles, Fine Line album cover)