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The Growing Pains Of Nick Jonas

What does it mean to “become a man” in pop today?

November 22, 2014

On November 19, the world celebrated International Men's Day. The occasion provided a moment for eye-rolling, but also, I suppose, an opportunity to reflect on the fractured state of masculinity in pop in 2014. Specifically, on the growing pains of Nick Jonas, who recently shed his promise ring and his Disney past for a raunchy Flaunt magazine shoot that dominated Twitter thirstlines. Earlier in November, Jonas released a (really pretty good) self-titled solo album full of R&B jams that, he told Flaunt, was inspired by The Weeknd and Frank Ocean. He hopes, he said, that people will have sex to it. It's the first Jonas record to carry a "Parental Advisory" label.

Nick Jonas the album reveals a mature new sound—but what about Nick Jonas the person? How do you "become a man" in the pop world today? Once, men transitioned from trusty boyband or TV bopper to grown pop glory with a little meet-cute in a car park or even carefree funk that just called for you to enjoy yourself. On his total jam of a lead single, "Jealous," Jonas asserts his new sexual identity by declaring ownership of his woman: I wish you didn't have to post it all, he sings to his fucking beautiful girl. Protective or possessive, call it passive or aggressive, he goes on, anticipating any criticisms of his psychopathic lyrics by reducing them to a pretty rhyming scheme. This song—the hook for which insists that Jonas has a right to be hellish, which is no one's right—is basically an anthem for insecure men the world over, the types who might use explicitly flattering, implicitly threatening tactics to control women.

I didn't want to believe that "borderline abusive" was Jonas's view of adult masculinity, so I went in search of reassurance on his debut. But ultimately the album—which is written and produced entirely by men, save Angel Haze's guest verse and a co-writing credit from up-and-comer Daniella Mason on the ballad "Push"—had me recoiling from icky lines like I want you, and if I can't have you, no one will. That bit's taken from "I Want You," a shiver-inducing revenge track co-written by Taio Cruz, Eric Hassle and Nick Ruth. So, three adult men who didn't see a problem with lyrics like Does it scare you that I know everything and won't keep quiet? and, most chillingly, You've got the key to my heart, I've got the key to your apartment.

Still, Jonas shines all over this album, and shines most on the tracks that allow him to play the role of the possessed rather than the possessor. On "Numb" he reflects on his post-breakup emotional damage, and on smoldering opener "Chains" he's using the titular metaphor to talk about his own entrapment, not a woman's. There's a kind of Jekyll and Hyde thing going on here that's maybe taken from the playbook of Drake, another male star who grew up in the spotlight. Like Jonas, Drake makes music that's often been labelled as being "for women," and yet is littered with trust issues, as he checks his girl's phone whenever she goes to the bathroom.

In a year of even more retrograde singles like Chris Brown's "Loyal" (above), K Camp's "Cut Her Off," and Big Sean's "IDFWU," I wonder: with these men as role models, how will the next generation of male stars assert their identity? This week, I've been solidly bumping Minneapolis supergroup The Stand4rd's self-titled record, and between the sublimely crafted pop sensibility and moments of brazen honesty, pop's dominant alpha male persona has reliably swaggered into view. The Stand4rd's members, who are aged between 16 and 22, have their own fresh take on pop's tropes, but those stereotypes still weigh heavy on their love-denying narratives. Take the song "Too Involved,", where the Spooky Black and co. tell the story of a guy who's pressuring his girl to stop listening to her concerned friends and give in to him instead.

What all this amounts to is a culture in which growing up for men means not just expressing desire, but expressing aggressive, compulsive desire underpinned by a fundamental mistrust of women. It's a far cry from the sexy but not stalker-y maturation of Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake, the likes of whom Justin Bieber attempted to emulate on on 2013's Journals. That album's Chance the Rapper-featuring "Confident" (below) celebrated the self-possession of Bieber's crush. On stand-out "All That Matters," Bieber told bae I'm grateful for your existence, faithful no matter the distance.

But IRL, Bieber tripped toward adulthood, racking up DUI and assault charges along the way. He lives a lifestyle perhaps not unlike the one depicted in The Weeknd's music. And it's The Weeknd whose influence hangs heaviest on Jonas, and really all of the guys I've mentioned here: Jonas name-dropped him as a touchstone for the new album, he's worked closely with Drake (and we all know Drake takes as much from his co-signs as they do from him) and the House Of Balloons producer Doc McKinney worked with The Stand4rd on their debut.

The Weeknd's 2011 mixtapes voiced a disturbed mentality that was the result of a fast-living, misogynist and consumerist lifestyle, and Abel Tesfaye's genius was that he walked a fine, tantalizing line between glamorizing that way of being and showing how puerile it really was. When the same persona is repackaged colorlessly into upbeat club bangers like "Loyal," "Too Involved" or "I Want You," though, the result may be a generation of men growing up with Tesfaye's outlook as an unquestioned manual on how a mature heterosexual cis-male should behave (with the opposite sex listeners too, encouraged to believe they should be attracted to the same). Never mind a couple of F-bombs and a magazine spread showing his bulge: that's the main reason to slap Parental Advisory labels all over the re-branded Nick Jonas.

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The Growing Pains Of Nick Jonas