From Drake to Shawn Mendes: Why Sensitive Bros Took Over Top 40 In 2016

Remie Geoffroi
             

In a year when a woman won the popular vote of the U.S. presidential election but a man became president-elect, female singers surrendered much of their pop stronghold. Taylor Swift and Katy Perry didn’t release albums, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears failed to ignite radio, and Beyoncé kept Lemonade off most streaming services. Meanwhile, established hitmakers like Drake, Bruno Mars, The Weeknd, Justin Timberlake and Justin Bieber all maintained their sensational success, while upstarts like The Chainsmokers, Shawn Mendes, Charlie Puth and Lukas Graham scored durable chart hits. Just two years ago, female artists ruled the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-tying 19 straight weeks; in 2016, male artists picked up the slack, with 35 weeks at No. 1.

“The year did swing male, but that plays to the pop-music consumer still loving cute dudes,” says WBBM Chicago assistant programmer/music director Erik Bradley. “There will always be girls who love boys, and they tend to drive the market.”

Contrary to the unyielding ­optimism of the recently disbanded One Direction, however, much of 2016’s masculine pop class vented contemplative fears, as if they already had seen the election results and anticipated the uncertain road ahead. Columbus, Ohio, duo Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out” — the year’s key rock-radio success that crossed over to pop — not only pines for a simpler past but also fears the future’s debts. Later in 2016, Twenty One Pilots notched another smash, “Heathens,” that detailed their fans’ afflictions: “You don’t know half of the abuse.”

This trend of deflated masculinity took shape during the past two years, as Bieber begged for forgiveness with “Sorry,” Puth and Wiz Khalifa cried over a dead friend in “See You Again” and Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran and The Weeknd all licked wounds that wouldn’t heal. With largely slower tempos and less aggressive beats than the peak-hour EDM that had come to define female-driven pop, male acts provided muted colors that contrasted with the brightness and bounce of Swift and Perry. By 2016, these somber starboys had ascended while constantly looking over their slumped shoulders.

One of pop music’s defining features is that its ­creators project little concern for society’s ­expectations, but in an age when every action is ­measured by “likes,” today’s pop is eager to ­accommodate and hungry for affirmation. Some, like The Weeknd, still erect a rebellious exterior, but inside, they’re racked with hyperawareness. This was the year where the psychological ­uncertainty and soaring deliveries of Adele were made manly.

Billboard Year in Music 2016

“There are a lot of falsetto male voices nowadays, and some of their songs might have been intended for a girl to sing,” says Puth, who had two top 20 hits in 2016. “Originally Shawn Mendes’ melodies were low, but he’s getting higher melodically, and that’s where the pitch of girls’ voices fall. They can sing along, so it’s a win-win.”

Higher vocal registers, combined with self-doubt (and the drive to ­comfort those who suffer from it), helped make this year’s male pop crop both relatable and soothing. Bieber may have started 2016 ­throwing shade at an ex on “Love Yourself,” but by summer, he offered lifelines on “Cold Water” with Major Lazer and “Let Me Love You” with DJ Snake. Mendes similarly aims “Treat You Better” to a paramour who “deserves a ­gentleman.” Puth can’t move on from his female counterpart (played by Selena Gomez) on “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine is drowning his ­heartbreak in alcohol on “Don’t Wanna Know.” Lukas Forchhammer of Lukas Graham heeds his dad in “7 Years,” then mourns his death on “You’re Not There.”

Alex Pall and Drew Taggart, better known as The Chainsmokers, fashioned moody dance music into the year’s longest-running No. 1 hit. On “Closer,” Taggart’s singing debut alongside duet partner Halsey, they revisit teenage lust “in the backseat of your Rover” to momentarily escape drinking ­problems and bad social choices. The song’s hook is either a lie or a sad truth: “We ain’t ever getting older.” Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles,” which broke the 12-week streak of “Closer” atop the Hot 100, also revels in adolescence but flaunts a more ­wistful arrangement than any of the duo’s past ­hip-hop chants. And The Weeknd’s “Starboy” ­wallows in the superficiality of the fame the singer’s huge 2015 engineered: He drives a $1.2 million McLaren P1 “just to hurt you,” and he sings the line “We don’t pray for love, we just pray for cars” as if pleading for forgiveness.

Contrast his tortured tenor with the sass of Bruno Mars, the other major pop entity of the fourth ­quarter, in “24K Magic.” Like The Weeknd, Mars flaunts affluence, but does so with a cheekiness that lightens his swag. And even Mars can’t match the ecstasy of Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” Timberlake’s ever-boyish masculinity is as casually assured as Gene Kelly’s, and here he finally nails the Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson tribute he has aspired to his entire solo career.

The biggest hit of the year and most-streamed song in Spotify history, Drake’s “One Dance” was as ­ubiquitous as “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” but its ­backbone is more worldly and reflective. Sampling and slowing down Crazy Cousinz’ remix of Kyla’s 2008 club hit “Do You Mind,” “One Dance” ­accentuates its source material’s Trinidadian ­syncopation as Drake peppers his vocals with Jamaican patois.

As a defining artist of the 2010s, Drake has ­broadcast his insecurity and interiority as broadly as his ambition, both softening and emboldening pop’s current masculinity. Sending a somber streak through his ostensibly uplifting party smash, he sets the scene in a context of social stasis and romantic conflict that makes “One Dance” more than a club cut. Specificity and eclecticism give “One Dance” the universality that yesteryear’s boy-band bubble gum lacked.

“A lot of those One Direction songs drew ­hundreds of thousands of people to their tour, but those records would only go so far [on radio],” says Bradley, “whereas it takes something with more mass appeal to go gangbusters.” Steeped in the anxieties of our time yet aiming to please, this year’s male pop acts ­delivered exactly that.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Billboard.


Sensitive Bro 2016 Playlist

“Controlla” - Drake

“Versace on the Floor” - Bruno Mars

“Mercy” - Shawn Mendes

“Unsteady” - X Ambassadors

“Company” - Justin Bieber


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