Today I am celebrating the publication of the eleventh book I have edited gathering together work by my BA and MA students. I refer to Songs of Survival: Men in 21st Century Popular Music, written by the MA students enrolled in this year’s elective subject ‘Gender Studies’. Two years ago I decided to plan companion subjects for the BA and the MA in English Studies, the first dealing with women in popular music and the second with men. I published accordingly in 2022 Songs of Empowerment: Women in 21st century Popular Music, which has now gone past 4500 downloads. In the post I wrote then about that volume, I wondered what the volume about the men might be called, fearing it would be Songs of Entitlement. There are a few songs of that kind, but in the 60 songs we have explored together in class and through the book’s essays men are mainly expressing angst and a generalized inability to face life with confidence, though it is also true that there songs of resistance and of reassurance in our wonderful corpus (enjoy the Spotify list!).

            I have been publishing work by students since 2014, when I taught the course on Harry Potter, as I have narrated here so often. Each of the eleven books has gone through a similar process, except for the first two which were not really planned. As soon as I can, I communicate to students that the purpose of the course is to generate an e-book (published in .pdf and, more recently, also as Epub) on the topic of the course. I usually pre-select a corpus but leave some margin for students to choose either among the texts I have selected or propose their own choices, though on some occasions I have simply allocated the texts at random (I think that personal choice works best). After a few introductory lectures, I turn classes into a shared event in which students’ presentations dominate, followed by debate. I provide a sample for the presentation, which I perform in class.

            Based on their presentations, students draft then their essays for the book, in a number that has varied from 2 to 6, depending on the subject. The essay also follows a sample I provide (this is one of the articles I contribute to the book). I usually return 75% of the essays for a revision, and the revised text is what appears in the book, sometimes with further editorial intervention from me, sometimes with no intervention whatsoever. What really surprises me is how coherent the volumes end up being, given the variety of styles and the diverse command of English of the students, yet it usually works. I have discarded very, very few essays in the eleven volumes so far published; I’d rather ask for a new revision, though this has been rarely needed. When I describe my method, most colleagues look very interested but so far I have not convinced anybody to develop their own projects. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but since students take over most of the teaching, under my guidance, I invest my teaching hours into shaping their texts up for publication. In this way they have something already to include in their CVs.

            This year fifteen students have participated in the book, thirteen of them with four essays each, one with two and another with one. These two students were auditors, the rest were formally registered in the course. I myself have contributed five essays: my sample essay (on Depeche Mode’s ‘Wrong’) and four essays which I added to fill in gaps when the book was ready. My nieces pointed out I should have an essay on The Weeknd (‘Save Your Tears’), on Post Malone (‘Rockstar’) and on a trans singer (Cavetown’s ‘Boys Will Be Bugs’) since the volume did include a variety of cisgender performers, from heterosexual to queer. I added an article on my admired Foo Fighters (‘The Pretender’).

            You’ll have to download the book (please do!!) to check the rest of the songs, which are organized in chronological order, from Eminem’s ‘Without Me’ (2003) to Jimin’s ‘Like Crazy’ (2023). Whereas on the volume dealing with the women singer’s I provided a basic list of 25 indispensable names, to which we added other 35 artists, in this case I decided to let students choose freely, both solo artists and bands in any popular genre. We have ended up with a mix of very well-known names (Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes, Maroon 5, Coldplay….) and alternative performers (Xavier Rudd, Chicano Batman, Noah Kahan) which works beautifully. Inevitably, some names are missing (Justin Bieber anyone…?) but, then, the world of music is very vast and men’s presence immense in it.

            The research question this year was ‘what do men sing about in their songs?’ provided these songs had lyrics in English and had been released in the 21st century. Students did not always choose songs focused on masculinity, though most of them were, and, anyway, I decided that if a man sings about a woman this is also part of the expression of their masculinity – perhaps most clearly so in Robin Thicke’s notorious ‘Blurred Lines’, Bruno Mars’s vastly different celebration of sex ‘Locked Out of Heaven’, or Frank Ocean’s ‘Lost’. The love songs that appear are not particularly celebratory and usually tend to show the man’s regret for having failed to meet standards (Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’), perplexity or even a candid acknowledgment of shortcomings still accompanied by a certain sense of entitlement (The Weeknd’s ‘Save Your Tears’). I had to smile at Wallows’s straightforward ‘I Don’t Want to Talk’.

            There are expressions of self-assurance in some of the songs selected, and one might even say of magnificently egocentric masculinity: Arctic Monkeys’s ‘Brianstorm’, Marilyn Manson’s ‘Heart-shaped Glasses’, or Lil Nas X’s daring ‘Montero’. Other are more modest, such as Henry in ‘Just Be Me’ or Harry Styles’s ‘Lights Up’, perhaps even Omar Apollo’s ‘Invincible’, while some are just great fun (Owl City’s ‘Fireflies’). Yet my impression is that the reader will be overwhelmed by how many songs deal with pain, suffering, addiction and even suicide. Sam Fender’s ‘Dead Boys’ addressed this topic head-on, while Linkin Park’s ‘Numb’ calls attention about how spiritual numbness is the first step in the path to destruction. Other songs express the despair of being unable to help others (The Fray’s ‘How to Save a Life’) or help oneself (Mac Miller’s ‘Self Care’).

            I realize going through the table of contents how varied our approaches have been, including a bit of satire (Lindemann’s ‘Cowboy’, The Killers’ ‘The Man’). Perhaps a touch of humour is missing in the songs about the problems of enjoying success (Labrinth’s ‘Mount Everest’, Drake’s ‘God’s Plan’, Anderson .Paak’s ‘The Season/Carry Me’ and others), or perhaps a more critical approach is needed regarding the contradiction implied in wanting to be a musical star and then being unable to put up with celebrity and fame, without anxiety and depression (Panic! at the Disco’s ‘This Is Gospel’). There is also a deep contradiction in the expression of a desire which cannot be controlled and forces men to try to liberate themselves from a gender discourse barely understood (Muse’s ‘Hysteria’).

            I cannot go through the complete list of songs and comment on all of them (this is what the book is for), but we have found pockets of resistance to the established discourses on men and masculinities in songs as diverse as As It Is’s ‘The Stigma (Boys Don’t Cry)’, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s ‘Same Love’ or Mika’s ‘Good Guys’, which calls for more LGTBQI+ persons to take the mantle left by the passing of big idols like Freddie Mercury. Others songs are more reflexive, such as Lukas Graham’s ‘7 Years’ and it’s amazing to see how many young men are concerned by the passage of youth; The Neighbourhood’s ‘R.I.P. 2 My Youth’ or Passenger’s ‘When We Were Young’ are examples of this trend.

            I don’t have an absolute favourite among these 60 songs, but if there is a song of survival, which is also a song of reassurance this is Finneas’s ‘What They Will Say about Us’. I believe that patriarchy is repressing many men by forcing them to wear a mask which some enjoy (Post Malone’s ‘Rockstar’) and others resent (Foo Fighter’s ‘The Pretender’). In this context I find Finneas’s serene and well-balanced masculinity absolutely refreshing. His song is an offer to care for whoever needs care, without pretending he is himself invulnerable, and I believe this is the way to go, for men of any description and indeed for women. The difference is that whereas the obligation to care has been imposed on us, women, and deprived us of our freedom in many ways by subordinating us to husbands and children, men can find in caring a source of pride and a way to build a solid masculinity which does not obey selfish patriarchal rules. The man who offers care does not mind that the patriarchal men think he is feminized, and this exactly what is needed: men who care for the well-being of the others and who do not care for the oppressive opinions of patriarchal men. This is the way not only to survive but for men to live good lives, and for anyone else.