In the face of a masculinity crisis (not that again!) that is now being led by Adam Carolla with his book "In Fifty Years We'll All Be Chicks" and Morgan Spurlock with his new film "Mansome," several men and women, are unabashedly redefining the masculine, all with a few choice kernels of pop music. If you've tapped your toes to the retro-pop megahit "Call Me Maybe" and have noticed your masculine peers tapping along with you, I'd like to propose to you a historical analysis of how they got there:
Stage 1 AKA The Cyrus Stage: Nationalist Camp
I was confused the first time I saw it. A car full of young men dressed in full bro regalia — usually with baseball caps — singing Miley Cyrus's "Party in the USA" at the top of their lungs as they drive through a busy street. And then it happened a second and third and fourth time. In different cities. The looks on their face noting the irony in their excitement; surely, they are only momentarily taking on this breezy, campy persona. And weeeeee, isn't it fun!? It's been happening, when the weather is right, since the song debuted in 2009.
The Ohio State Buckeyes thought the link between the song and college sports machismo was so appropriate, they placed some of their basketball team in front of a green screen and this "magic" happened:
The phenomenon of guys enacting masculinity by way of camp is certainly not new: we never batted an eye at Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams as they became, in the words of Chris Straayer, "temporary transvestites." The most obvious and widespread examples of masculinity clashing with camp in recent decades have involved crossdressing, and in these cases, there has often been a wink to the absurd. The crossdresser often brings attention to robust beards and chest hair, clomps around in high heels instead of attempting to walk with anything close to grace.
There is camp that comes from within the gay community: we've had a long line of drag queens and the Village People. And there is camp that intends to keep masculinity alive despite a brief transgression. There are plenty of shades of gray in between, but "Party in the U.S.A." is the first trend of this gray area of masculinity transgression in the 21st Century localized around a single formula (Masculinity + "put[ting] your hands up, they're playing [your] song, the butterflies fly away, nodding your head like 'yeah!,' movin' your hips like 'yeah!.').
The unusual pathways "Party in the U.S.A." took are more a product of a desire for carefree pop music on the audience's part than Cyrus's own deft understanding of the cultural moment. In an interview, she speaks almost begrudgingly of the song. She thanks God for the success, sure, but she's not really into pop music. The song, more than the bubble gum country that makes up most of her albums, fit the bill for the promotion of Cyrus's Wal-Mart clothing line. While she's somewhat familiar with Britney Spears ("And a Britney song was on! A Britney song was on!"), she admits that the songwriters wrote the Jay-Z line ("And a Jay-Z song was on! A Jay-Z song was on!") without knowing that Cyrus had never heard a Jay-Z song, at least not that she knew of.
While the song says nothing of Cyrus's own musical proclivities, she's quite comfortable talking about the song as an all-American jam. And the same goes for those that have put the song to unexpected uses — celebrating a party in the U. S. of A. is patriotic! And without much effort a new brand of patriotism — gay and fancy-free — was unleashed unto the world.
Stage 2 AKA The Gaga Stage: Homonationalist Camp
A little over two years ago, in the midst of Lady Gaga's soft campaign for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the Internet was ablaze with remakes of Gaga's neo-classics. A video set in Afghanistan with various soldiers singing the Beyonce duet "Telephone" stands out. In that video, various soldiers, male and female, perceptibly strip their masculinity to sing and dance along.
The link was unavoidable: Lady Gaga loved the (gay) troops, the bubble gum pop allowed the troops to temporarily forget their government-given mandate. It was a win-win situation. The soldiers received support and Gaga gained publicity and diva stardom in an unlikely place.
From what can be seen from the outside, Gaga's endorsement of the DADT repeal has its heart in a defense of dignity to LGBT people. There were not attendant policy declarations, outlining a proposed plan of action for Afghanistan, Iraq or any other place where U.S. forces happened to be. What is important for Gaga, and this is by no means a rare stance, is that people be allowed to live comfortably and out. It is peculiar, though, that the queen of weird would focus her attentions on an institution that silences (if not the gay) the weird.
Peculiar but not surprising. One cannot expect all iconoclasts to be suspicious of the war machine; Gaga is not only artist she is brand and media superstar, who needs support across ideological divisions to remain a viable brand-commodity.
Stage 3 AKA The Jepsen Stage: Camp for Camp's Sake
Which brings us to our current moment. I've named it after former Canadian Idol and current Justin Bieber protege Carly Rae Jepsen, but the current state of the trend takes many forms (my alma mater's athletic department has a less-than-exciting but terribly ambitious take on LMFAO that features some of the same themes as the Jepsen phenomenon).
With the help of Bieber and a posse of his friends, fake moustaches, and iMovie, Jepsen's song was made ripe for gender-play parody:
There is a current trend amongst those that foster community around sites of masculine energy that camp is worth embracing. It's lends guys cool points, credibility amongst groups of people that dole out respect, especially in a world where these instances of camp can be documented and presented so quickly and painlessly, at such a high quality, and spread so rapidly, with mass amounts of validation — Facebook likes, Reddit up's, YouTube thumbs up's.
What can we say about a video of the Harvard baseball team singing a pop song causing a viral video sensation (or better yet, what can we say about the team member who feigns sleep in the back of the van? or about the slew of "Call Me Maybe" videos made by college athletic teams?)?
While these thoughts were stewing in my mind, my roommate brought to my attention this parallel analysis from NPR's Ann Powers. In a truly beautiful examination of the "Call Me Maybe" phenomenon, Powers ends her essay (Which is totally worth the read. Though it overstates the impact of the ending to the official music video for the song, it's riddled with poetic descriptions of the song and its effect on its listeners, various pieces of "Call Me Maybe" trivia, and a slew of links to funny-to-sincere parody videos) with the followig observation:
Like "Call Me Maybe" itself, they immerse us in freshness; and since everyone — from newcomer Jepsen herself to the boys playing at infatuation with her song and each other — is fairly inexperienced, passing judgment would seem so uncool. This aspect of the "Call Me Maybe" phenomenon gives us pause to reflect upon how often bigotry is rooted in personal pain and disappointment. It's worth it, sometimes, to try to reach back and remember what it felt like to not know somebody — or something, like a belief system — might let you down.
Right now, this gentle message feels very important. Public discourse abounds with hate speech and snap judgments as the political cycle heads toward a showdown. In the midst of such a cycle, small gestures like the responses to "Call Me Maybe" are a gift: that gift of a tickle. Wake up, be human, be happy, don't turn your back on love.
And that's all fine and dandy. The song and the YouTube phenomenon indicate promising trends in youthful uses of media and self-representation. But if we are to believe that Cyrus singalongs were the stateside complement to Gaga homages on aircraft carriers, we should be most happy that a red, white & blue backdrop or the destructive forces of war that certain brands of macho so powerfully uphold are totally absent in any of the takeups of Jepsen. It's promising, in other words, that masculinity is at play without relying on natonalism or military brutishness to prop up the boys and girls at (gender) play.
In Carly Rae Jepsen, her synthesized string section, and her laughably absurd pickup line, we've found a pop song that, though it may be just too saccharine to last too long, has opened up the door to a lot of productive play in the active battlefield of masculine self-representation.
Below, a favorite video commentary on the Jepsen craze: