If a pop star in 2014 was projecting strength, representing progressive causes, defining modern rebellion, pissing people off, or just generally dominating the cultural conversation, that person was almost always a woman. Pundits rightly pointed this out again and again. But what about men? The rise of women has seemingly coincided with male pop stars falling off a cliff. While the ladies rule, the guys are stuck doing whatever this is.
This is Imagine Dragons at the 2015 Grammys, looking “like a flaccid penis with male-pattern baldness,” as I said at the time. But it’s not just Imagine Dragons. The current state of male pop stardom is awash in diminished artists mired in diminishing returns. Real, honest-to-goodness men — once a fount of charisma, toughness, dignity, artistic fearlessness, and overall awesomeness — have become an endangered species in pop. Meanwhile, lame dudes are everywhere: Usher is doing Cheerios commercials, Calvin Harris is sheepishly sleepwalking through an Entourage movie trailer, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams are getting sued, and Chris Brown is still Chris Brown. At least those ineffectual reggae-mad hosers in Magic! didn’t have the temerity to issue a successful follow-up to “Rude.” Otherwise, all of this is enough to make a guy sing the Jeff Bebe blues: “Is it that hard to make us look cool?”
Not all is lost. Some of our finest contemporary male pop stars — Drake, Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo — have reemerged in recent months to help rehabilitate mandom’s place in popular music. How’s everybody else doing? Let’s figure it out using the Male Pop Star Index. Below, I’ve ranked 20 guys based on how they rate against six archetypes, with a maximum of five points awarded in each category.
- Stevie Wonder, a.k.a. “Touched-by-god genius.”
- Michael Jackson, a.k.a. “Ubiquitous cultural footprint.”
- David Bowie, a.k.a. “Can you change your sound and persona every two to three years?”
- Bono, a.k.a. “Pop star as politician.”
- Jay Z, a.k.a. “Modern-day Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story.”
- Jim Morrison, a.k.a. “Can you make drunken buffoonery appear poetic?”
If you notice that your favorite male pop star isn’t ranked, it’s probably because that person hasn’t been active in a while (Frank Ocean, Chris Martin, Justin Timberlake), is in decline (Lil Wayne), is against being labeled a pop star (Dave Grohl, Eric Church), or is too boring to contemplate (Flo Rida).
Now, let’s man up.
Christopher Polk/NBC/NBC via Getty Images
20. Jason Derulo (5.5/30)
Sex for the most iconic pop stars was as much about presentation and performance as it was actual sex. You flaunted some forbidden, unspeakable unknown that the rest of the culture deemed too taboo to confront directly, and frightened people out of their damn minds on the way to successfully seducing them. Think Elvis Presley’s hips or Prince’s pioneering duster-plus-bikini-underwear Dirty Mind guise. For those guys, sex was a weapon — it made you a little mysterious, then a little alluring, and then basically allowed you to own the whole world.
Jason Derulo has a different philosophy: If it looks like humping, and it sounds like humping, and it smells like humping, then you might as well remove the subtext along with all other forms of protection. Derulo approaches sex like Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia addresses the Constitution — as a resolute literalist for that booty.
You can’t say it hasn’t worked: In the past six years, Derulo sold more than 30 million singles and won three Teen Choice awards. He has popularity and “prestige.” In the video for his latest single, “Want to Want Me,” Derulo doesn’t change up his award-winning formula — he is either doin’ it, thinking about doin’ it, or exercising in preparation for doin’ it. Now, maybe you like this song, and maybe you want to file a restraining order against it. (Or at least hose it down for several minutes.) But the last word you’d use to describe “Want to Want Me” is “mysterious.” It’s more like “meh-sterious.”
19. Hozier (6/30)
“Take Me to Church” is a good song. I’ll never stop believing that — put “Take Me to Church” in 1,000 more movie trailers, I dare you. But if you’re looking for a microcosm of what men in popular music are often reduced to in 2015, consider that blues-pop singers once looked and sounded like this,1 and compare that with the nice, skinny fellow sporting a man bun. Note to aspiring guitar heroes: None of your heroes wore man buns. Act accordingly.
It’s not like I just pulled some old blues song out of thin air — Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do” peaked at no. 4 on the R&B chart in 1957 and even made the pop Top 40 back when sales figures for black artists were typically underreported.
18. Zac Brown (7/30)
Zac Brown is to country what Hozier is to blues — perfectly fine when taken on his own terms, and kind of a letdown if you know what you’re missing. It’s hard not to feel ripped off when you want whiskey and Waylon Jennings and get served Corona and Jimmy Buffett.
17. Adam Levine (8/30)
Making fun of Adam Levine is a hallowed pastime — I enjoy it myself on occasion. But Levine will always have the last laugh. This guy simply refuses to go away. Any time it looks like his career is on the wane, Levine feasts on the lifeblood of an unsuspecting collaborator or TV franchise and is suddenly reinvigorated. Has anyone seen Gym Class Heroes since 2011’s “Stereo Hearts”? Is Travie McCoy’s undead carcass just roaming the countryside somewhere? Please don’t let Levine get near those sweet kids in Rae Sremmurd.
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images for HJPR
T-16. Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith (9/30)
One is a classy singer-songwriter from England with no apparent interest in sleeping with Taylor Swift. The other is a classy singer-songwriter from England who is definitely not interested in sleeping with Taylor Swift. You have probably heard both of them by now — their most recent albums were the world’s most streamed on Spotify in 2014. Between them, they are set to win approximately 87 Grammys over the next decade. Sheeran and Smith are as inescapable as anyone in pop, in the same dull, invisible way that plain white walls are common in our nation’s office buildings. You’re surrounded by those things every day and probably never think about it. Boom! You’ve just been Sheeran’ed/Smith’ed.
14. Harry Styles (9.5/30)
Harry Styles was the most famous guy in One Direction until Zayn left, which is why I docked him a half-point in the MJ category. (Michael never took a backseat to Tito for any reason.) He’ll probably have the best after-party stories when somebody writes the 1D oral history, but for now the most interesting thing about Styles is that he inspired one of the best songs on 1989. He’s like a bizarro-world Jay Z whose greatest claim to fame is being the surfbort in “Drunk in Love.”
13. John Legend (10/30)
Give this to John Legend: He out-Bono’ed Bono. Legend wrote a song for an Oscar-nominated film about a revered proponent of racial equality, and he actually won an Oscar himself. Also, this happened:
This is precisely the reaction Bono expected when U2 wrote and recorded “Ordinary Love” for 2013’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Instead, all anyone remembers about U2 at the Oscars is how it was Cumber-bombed on the red carpet. How long must Bono wait for his tear-stained Captain Kirk? How long?
12. Marcus Mumford (10.5/30)
No matter what you think of Mumford & Sons, you can’t dismiss their impact — no other just-OK rock band from this decade has influenced the culture nearly as much. Now, Marcus Mumford is attempting his own low-stakes, Bowie-type transformation by plugging in. Will he be greeted as a visionary or with “Judas!” catcalls? Here’s a more pertinent question in 2015: Who cares? Indie-folk is so 2011. Mumford is positioned at the exact median of male pop stardom at the moment — inoffensive, inconsequential, and ultimately inessential.
11. The Weeknd (11/30)
Marcus Mumford for people who have a room at home designated for their spanking paddles.
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
10. Luke Bryan (11.5/30)
“Be a man, don’t be a guy,” Lili Taylor advises John Cusack in Say Anything. But if being a man is beyond your capabilities, being a guy is preferable to being a boy or a dude. Luke Bryan understands this. He always sounds like a dude trying to sing like a man. If you ever tried as a teenager to call yourself in sick at school by affecting the low-toned gravitas of your father, you can probably also pull off a Luke Bryan impression. He’s the “Call me sir, goddamnit!” of country singers.2
I docked him a half-point in the Morrison category for discontinuing his spring break LP series. As his allegiance to drunken debasement goes, so does his stature on the Male Pop Star Index.
9. Justin Bieber (13/30)
In 1974, David Bowie ingested roughly 43 percent of the coke in Los Angeles3 in order to prove to the world that he was no longer Ziggy Stardust. Justin Bieber is presently facing a similar predicament: How does he convince the world that he has grown out of his “teeny-tiny twit that any one of us could crush with a simple flick of the index finger” phase? Start with wispy facial hair: 2015 is the year of the new, elegantly mustachioed Bieber, as suave as Bowie in his Philly soul period. Also, Bieber tasked a cadre of comedians to mercilessly insult his appearance, fame, and especially his music on national television. It’s tough medicine for a tough transformation. After all, it’s not as if Bowie were actually an alien.
For further guidance, watch this.
8. Jack White (14/30)
“I [have] a lot more to do with Jay Z than I do with the Black Keys,” Jack White told Rolling Stone in 2010. His primary intention might’ve been to dis the Black Keys for the 82nd time, but in terms of his overall career, White has always portrayed himself as a Jigga-like transformational figure. White came from humble roots, he rose to fame playing gritty music, and he started his own record label and built it into a mini-empire. That’s his official origin story, and White takes it very seriously. This is why White got so testy about that fancy-guacamole story — it undermines his hustler cred. But cred is the least of White’s problems. He needs to loosen up. For starters, don’t apologize for your fancy guacamole. Instead, strive to make your guacamole even fancier. You made White Blood Cells, Jack. You’ve earned it. Empty some truffle butter, Cristal, diamonds, and Woody Johnson’s Manhattan co-op into that motherfucker.
7. Bruno Mars (15/30)
Nobody works harder at being a successful male pop star than Bruno Mars. When Mars performed at the Super Bowl in 2014, he sang, danced, drummed, sold concessions, parked cars, and scored two touchdowns. He is a true polymath who will stop at nothing until he’s the biggest star in the world. And he’s basically making it happen — “Uptown Funk” has been everywhere for months. As for his coolness level, Mars is … adequate. When he sings, “Fill my cup, put some liquor in it / take a sip, sign the check / Julio! Get the stretch!” it’s a convincing enough approximation of badassery, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Boston accent in The Departed.
6. Pitbull (18/30)
Can Pitbull party? Pitbull can party. Can Pitbull go outside of his comfort zone? Pitbull can go outside of his comfort zone. Can Pitbull create musical masterpieces that will resonate for generations to come? Sorry, I don’t understand the question. Can Pitbull push beyond himself and think in terms of world domination? This is Pitbull a few months ago: “I put out a goal every year: ’09 was freedom, ’10 was invasion, ’11 build empire, ’12 build wealth, ’13 put the puzzle together, ’14 buckle up and ’15 is make history.”
Can I hang out with Pitbull? Seriously, are you reading this, Pitbull? I want you to teach me things.
Rick Kern/Getty Images for Samsung
5. Kid Rock (19/30)
Yes, he’s a hog-murdering psychopath with a troglodyte’s view of gender and LGBT issues. But he also happens to score well when compared against defining male pop-star archetypes. He’s the double-wide Bowie, continually reinventing himself as a rap-rocker, NASCAR country balladeer, Bob Seger wannabe, and a straight-talkin’ culture warrior. He’s the no-coast Morrison — he was married to Pamela Lee, he was arrested for fighting outside of a Waffle House, and he recently wondered whether getting himself incarcerated for firing his cannon in Malibu would be good for his career. He’s a Bono-like statesman for red-state America, where referring to Obama as “Obummer” and Mitt Romney as “the most decent motherfucker I’ve ever met” registers as dignified. Even with his minus-11 Stevie Wonder genius rating, Kid Rock is indomitable, for good or ill.
4. Drake (20/30)
Is Drake cool? Do people want to be Drake? Sure, as much as you’d want to be anyone who’s fabulously wealthy and famous enough to get the best table at any Toronto restaurant. But when I think about Drake, I picture the cover of 2011’s Take Care — seated at that black table, a gold-plated owl next to him, surrounded by golden-framed paintings, and holding a long-stemmed golden goblet. Drake has constructed a perfect vision of opulence, but to what end? He wants to show how miserable he is. This is Drake’s thing. He has everything, but he knows he’ll never truly possess it. For a guy like Drake, fulfillment is eternally out of reach when you’re the guy who doesn’t get to touch Nicki’s ass.
3. D’Angelo (21/30)
The “reclusive weirdo mastermind” is a staple of male pop stardom, from Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett to Sly Stone and Axl Rose. Women are rarely afforded the courtesy of their strangeness being romanticized. (Otherwise Michelle Shocked would be Jeff Mangum.) But the list of artists who have gone away for more than a decade to get lost in a haze of drugs, booze, and eccentric sandbox-bound behavior only to return with their powers somehow enhanced is very small and might only include one name: D’Angelo. He seemed destined for a “bad night in a Paris bathtub”–style denouement and instead produced Black Messiah, a politically charged Innervisions for the ’10s. Even if he goes back to the haze after this, D’Angelo could very well be the most triumphant reclusive weirdo mastermind comeback story in pop history.
2. Kendrick Lamar (23/30)
Kendrick benefits from the recency effect. To Pimp a Butterfly is the country’s no. 1 album, and anyone who cares about pop music is still processing all the ingredients crammed into this protein shake of a record — the identity politics, the Tupac sound bites, the G-Funk bass lines, the jazz-rock skronks, the wang-based sketches, that part where he quotes “Smooth Criminal,” that other part where he calls out Oprah. Kendrick, unquestionably, is the person right now who is expected to make important statements. (His Stevie and Bono ratings are off the charts.) If anyone is burdened with “voice of a generation” baggage, it’s Kendrick — which means we’re about two weeks away from resenting him a little. (Some people are already there.)
1. Kanye West (30/30)
Kanye West is to other male pop stars what the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats are to other college basketball teams. In terms of compelling public figures that provoke conversations, outrage, and memes even when doing literally nothing, Kanye’s dominance is so complete and all-encompassing that you might be tempted to cheer against him. Like John Calipari, he’s a little too sure of himself and probably a cheater — he seems interesting by design. He has closely studied and subsequently integrated all the moves originated by other male pop stars. Kanye is a transformational, chameleonic, ubiquitous, and vulgar genius. He cares about fashion as much as Bono cares about AIDS in Africa. He is the sum total of all six male pop star archetypes. Kanye was always going to be the person at the top of this list.