Aaaaaand, we’re back, here on KBWB 99.5, Bridges We Burn radio! Thank you for tuning in to this inaugural installment of the New Masculinities Playlist. My name is Brian, and I’ll be your DJ, bringing you all the hits—new and old—in the genre of radical masculine truths. Who am I? I’m a handful of things: a friend of our esteemed editor, a sometime songwriter, a gender justice researcher, an ever-hungry consumer of pop music, an Aries. But most importantly for the present purposes, I’m the guy who’ll be downloading, concert-going, crate-digging, and shower-singing on our behalf, working to build us a library of songs for new masculinities. Let’s get started.
Track 1: Andy Shauf, “To You”
Struggling to get out of bed and get to work one morning last spring, I clicked through to the newest Tiny Desk Concert video to find a slight man with flowing golden hair doing something seemingly impossible: innovating the pronunciation of the lyrics “doo doo doo.” It was clear to me immediately: Andy Shauf’s delivery may have been off-kilter, but his voice was true. After the final perplexing “doo doo doo” of his opening song and a smattering of applause, his eyes darted nervously around the room. He announced his second song as if it were a question: “Okay, here’s another song?”
But then: what a song.
“To You” is a monologue delivered by a Shauf-like narrator to his friend Jeremy. The song’s narrator wants merely to communicate how meaningful he finds their friendship. To make an emotional connection.
It’s just that sometimes when I’m by your side /
It feels so right, it feels like nothing could go wrong /
Does it ever feel like that to you?
It takes a radical masculinity, a Bridges We Burn masculinity, to pull your friend out of a house party to ask him whether he feels as fondly about you as you do about him. Unfortunately, Jeremy rebuffs his friend’s genuineness, leaving him to doubt himself through the rest of the lyrics and repetitively conclude, “I guess it never feels like that to you.”
Here was an inventive, individual man singing his emotional vulnerability on my computer screen. I was startled, and immediately connected with his sense of strained masculine intimacy. I thought to myself: Who writes songs like this!? What I meant was: No one writes songs like this.
But I was wrong. Once I noticed this one song saying something radical and real about masculinity, I kept noticing more. Everywhere. And that’s how the New Masculinities Playlist was born.
Track 2: Jens Lekman, “How Can I Tell Him”
Andy Shauf was a new discovery for me in 2016. Jens Lekman and I, on the other hand—we’ve got history. Lekman has been soundtracking my soul for about a decade, following me all around the world. It was his “And I Remember Every Kiss” in my headphones on those moonlit nights in Calcutta, as I lived an impossible romance. It was his “Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill” blasting out of taxi speakers in Kampala, prompting Martin, my driver and friend, to ask me, “but Brian, are you trying to kill me with joy!?”
I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve written Lekman fan emails about both of those stories. Heck, I even named my cat after a certain movie star, not because I love her work that much, but because Jens Lekman wrote a song about her. I kinda adore the guy.
In announcing the new album he released this year—his first full-length in five years—Lekman revealed that, in the intervening years, he had finished and abandoned a full album’s worth of songs about masculinity. On his blog, he wrote:
Since I had written so much about female characters before, I invented a rule that I could only write about male characters to see what would happen. I started writing about masculinity, about a friend who did steroids when I grew up, about the feelings that bubbled up after being threatened with violence by some teenage boys, about the inability to express emotions and being vulnerable around other men. It got dark, it filled me with shame, it had no direction and there was no light in the end of that particular tunnel.
For the uninitiated, let me confirm: Jens Lekman writes music that can kill you with joy. Which is why, as a longtime fan and beneficiary of his talents, I want him to live a joyful life himself, for his heart to be full forever. Hearing that Lekman had spent years trying to wring pop music insight out of the pains of mainstream masculinity was, in a certain sense, thrilling. This was the topic that consumed so much of my own headspace and professional energy, and here was my pop music idol taking it on as well!
But at the same time, to know that this effort had led to such shame and self-doubt for my favorite purveyor of joy was gutting. I wished I could give him a hug, to tell him exactly what Jeremy in “To You” couldn’t bring himself to say: “Yes, Jens, it feels like that to me too!”
“How Can I Tell Him” seems to be the only song from this abandoned masculinity project that made it onto his (wonderful, often joyful) new album. It might as well be an alternate timeline version of “To You,” where the narrator only ruminates on his feelings rather than revealing them.
He’s my best friend / And we can talk about anything
As long it’s about nothing / As long as it don’t cut deeper than the skin
So tell me how / Tell me how I can tell him I love him?
Where Shauf’s narrator exits his song rebuffed and alone, Lekman’s maintains a status quo that many guys will recognize well: one where the intimacy and love, even if real, can’t be named or spoken out loud.
We part ways at the station / He’s got his bike
He rides into the gap / Between day and night
Before he’s gone, / He shouts, “Later, dude”
I think, “Yeah / I love you too”
I love these two songs. I love the authenticity of the artists who wrote and recorded them. I hope you do too.
In the coming months, I’ll keep building the New Masculinities Playlist. I’ve taken us to Canada (Shauf) and Sweden (Lekman) to begin with, but I promise that the songs and stories I choose won’t only come from sad white thirty-something guys with guitars (though, guilty as charged so far). I’ve got some new wave, some desert blues, some garage rock, some chamber pop, and plenty of other ideas already spinning. Until next time…
You can find the studio tracks of songs referenced above, and listen to lots more music from Andy Shauf and Jens Lekman on YouTube.
“To You” by Andy Shauf
“How Can I Tell Him” by Jens Lekman
“And I Remember Every Kiss” by Jens Lekman
“Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill” by Jens Lekman
“Waiting for Kirsten” by Jens Lekman