Don’t Drag us through the pop mud
When men leave pop bands, they go serious. When women leave pop bands, they release Crazy in Love
When former One Directioner Niall Horan released his debut solo single last week, he joined the ranks of the dull, real and authentic guys (Drags for short) dominating the charts who are pining to be taken seriously as real artists. On This Town, Horan sings about heartbreak in Mullingar and it sounds like was fuelled by a mug of milky, lukewarm tea and a plate of stale Rich Tea biscuits. Or, to put it simply, it sounds like it was written by Ed Sheeran, the ringleader of the Safe Brigade.
The song goes against everything that being in a globally successful boyband represents, not unlike Brian “with an i” McFadden’s statement song from 2004 Real to Me, where he ditches “showbiz dinners and the free champagne” (that’s Westlife, FYI) so he can “invite the family ‘round and drink some English tea” instead. Authenticity to Artane’s son means a scraggly beard and a parka jacket. Authenticity to Mullingar’s son is an acoustic guitar. When men leave pop bands, they go serious. When women leave pop bands, they release Crazy in Love. It’s unusual to call for more male representation in any industry but, to paraphrase Paula Cole, where have all the fun boys gone?
With boybands, the kind that stick to the 1990s formula of two good singers and three backing dancers, there’s an element of safety in numbers. Backstreet Boys, Westlife and 5ive all succeeded as a unit but individually, they didn’t stand a chance. For a brief moment in time, the only exceptions to this theory were N*Sync’s Justin Timberlake and Take That’s Robbie Williams.
Timberlake’s 2002 single Like I Love You is a testament to great pop music but his recent single, Can’t Stop the Feeling, is a soulless song from a movie about trolls and it feels like the man we once called Trousersnake is trolling us all. The two ex-boy-banders were on The Graham Norton Show together last week, and as Williams performed his latest single, the unfortunately titled Party like a Russian, and told stories about getting wanked off by fans, his brand of lad pop felt very dated. If Timberlake has gone too safe with his music, Williams has sprinted, jocks down, in the opposite direction.
While most mainstream female acts today hold royal and even divine titles in the pop game – Beyoncé is Queen B; Britney Spears is the Princess of Pop; while Kylie Minogue is its Goddess – few men in recent years have been worthy enough to wear the crown that Michael Jackson moulded with his bare hands. Beyoncé, Rihanna and Taylor Swift are getting stronger by the minute, possibly feeding on the young to maintain and strengthen their prowess. But the conveyor belt of Horan, Sheeran, Shawn Mendes and Passenger are keeping it dull and low-key, using their pop careers as a stepping stone to become a watered-down Bon Iver. There are not enough secluded log cabins in the world for this lot.
So who will save us from the Drags? Problematic bae Justin Bieber was a hopeful contender with his reinvention last year, taking many people by surprise as they suddenly became Beliebers. But even with bangers such as Sorry and What Do You Mean?, he doesn’t seem to be having fun in his role. Like Zayn Malik, he makes being a superstar look like an underpaid, thankless chore.
One beacon of light in this age of male doom and gloom is the ever-joyful Bruno Mars. His new single 24k Magic, which he describes as an “invitation to the party”, is out this Friday and he might be the only one who can rescue us from this damp squalor.
Niall Horan: heartbroken in Mullingar the poor, dull lamb