Earlier this month, Drake was, as he often is these days, feeling himself — so he posted a shirtless selfie to his Instagram Story. While it may have been just to show off the massive new addition to his tattoo collection, it didn’t hurt that the already sculpted rapper was looking even more sculpted than usual. The pic received the kind of attention you’d expect: thirsty blog posts, drooling tweets and plenty of new phone wallpapers for his horniest followers.
If you’re also in the market for a hunky new phone background, 2018 provided plenty of options: Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds and The Chainsmokers could hardly put their pecs away. Charlie Puth seemed to end his concerts bare-chested as often as Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie did. Rappers like Travis Scott, Machine Gun Kelly and Tyler, the Creator were frequently shirtless. Childish Gambino delivered some of his most important performances of the year without a shirt. And while he doesn’t perform live with great frequency, if at all, Zayn has more than enough emo thirst traps on his Instagram.
Of course, top male musicians flaunting their stuff onstage and off is a timeless tradition — think of rock stars like Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis, Iggy Pop and Chris Cornell. “For male rock stars, taking their shirts off was a way to turn on the cheesecake, but with plausible deniability,” Rolling Stone critic Rob Sheffield explains. “They could pretend it’s just so hot and sweaty up on the stage, they have to rip their shirts off to keep rocking, not to vamp it up. It’s a way for them to strut their stuff but hold on to their precious credibility.”
Yet stylist Candice Lambert, who’s worked with the likes of Pentatonix and Kelly Clarkson, says that evolving social norms and fashion trends have led male artists to be more deliberate and unabashed about how they express their sex appeal. “People are allowed to be who they are a little bit more, and I think that influences everything,” she explains; she points to Brendon Urie’s choice to come out as pansexual in an interview earlier this year as an example of more candid conversations about sex and sexuality in the mainstream. “That’s out there, so maybe now other people will come out, and then that also has to do with clothing. Some people might not be able to say those things yet. So how do they express it through fashion?”
While late icons like David Bowie and Prince famously played with androgyny in their clothing choices, that kind of experimentation has only become more commonplace today — Lambert says she puts many of her male clients in women’s clothing now. “I feel like clothes are genderless and people are more open” to bold style choices, she says, whether that’s A$AP Rocky’s decidedly feminine red-carpet look at the LACMA Art and Film Gala earlier this year, or in the case of many musicians this year, not wearing a lot of clothes.
Stylist Anthony Franco, who has dressed Panic!’s Brendon Urie in the past, thinks that widespread shirtless is just one sign of male celebrities’ growing embrace of vulnerability, which also manifests itself in things like Travis Scott’s adorable pictures with daughter Stormi. “In 2018, I’ve noticed men are more open with their sexuality, and nothing is sexier than a confident person,” he says. “We live in a very emotional time. I’ve seen more kindness and people caring for others. When we see men speak about love and be passionate about life, it’s so much more attractive these days.”
There’s also a been growing awareness of the different ways male and female artists have marketed or expressed their sexuality. Female pop stars have long had to cater to the male gaze — like when Britney Spears posted for a 1999 Rolling Stone cover in her underwear with a Teletubby — by seeming equally sexy and innocence at once. And while male pop stars have had to do the same to some degree — after all, teenage girls have always been the tastemakers of who’s hot and who isn’t in pop music — as we’ve seen with Charli XCX’s star-studded “Boys” video from last year, there’s a greater willingness among male musicians to participate and flip the script.
“There’s always been a standard [that] a guy doesn’t have to do that,” says Topher Gauk-Roger, an editorial producer for Entertainment Tonight. “It doesn’t conform to the [traditional] male gender role. But also, you have to think, well, all these media publications and the whole music industry are run by men who have hypersexualized women over the years.”
Still, the bigger shift, he argues, is the growing acceptance of and visibility for LGBTQ fans, which allows them be more vocal about their own desires and lust over the abs of Shawn Mendes or G-Eazy just like everyone else. It also allows artists, in turn, to acknowledge them right back.
“We’re now in a place, because of social media, where queer culture is allowed to be so public and be so forward,” Gauk-Roger says. “And you have a community [with social media] where people in the gay community are allowed to be outspoken about their interests and their fandom. As a result of that, we now have artists kind of catering [to that]. I think it was taboo back in the day to try to appeal to the queer community.” (It’s hard to imagine Dragons’ Reynolds — who’s said he got fit for health reasons after battling an auto-immune disease for years — not being aware of that each time he wrapped himself in a pride flag sans shirt in concert this year.)
There are still risks to doing so, however. Try too hard to appeal to the queer community, and you’ll be accused of queerbaiting — trying to attract a queer audience to further your own career, not out of a sincere desire to be an ally. That’s what happened to Nick Jonas following some steamy photoshoots, performances at gay nightclubs and interview comments in which he played coy about whether he’d experimented with men while simultaneously plugging his role as a gay MMA fighter on the TV show Kingdom. Lambert, too, is wary of performances of shirtlessness that don’t seem genuine. If there isn’t an authenticity behind it, whether that’s stripping off clothes onstage or posting on Instagram, it comes across as “desperate.”
As with any trend, there’s bound to be an ebb and flow to all the flesh we’re seeing, but Gauk-Roger doesn’t think the sense of freedom behind is changing anytime soon. “Hopefully this means that the rules and stereotypes and standards have to be torn down and thrown out the window,” he says. “I hope [this] means that an artist can really be as creative as they want to be and doesn’t have to be concerned about fitting into a certain box or a certain role. Because what is masculine? What is feminine anyway? I think it’s helping artists with their creativity and being who they want to be.”
And thankfully for all the thirsty fans out there, that means being someone who bares their abs as well as their soul.