Idles: Repurposing the Aesthetics of Masculinity

For a while now, intellectuals far more qualified than myself have been saying that masculinity is in crisis. On the right, they see the fight against toxic masculinity as an attack on all masculinity, and, on the left, there has been a slow realization that we can’t simply dismantle toxic masculinity with no fallout. It needs to be replaced with some new archetype to fill the void or we risk losing legions of men to the alt-right. So far, the only real success anyone has found in filling this void is Jordan Peterson, and while that may not exactly be alt-right, we certainly don’t need a generation of men yelling about the ‘chaos of women’ or lobster hierarchies. While discussing the shortcomings of traditional masculinity and what a new archetype looks like is all well and good, how do you actually communicate it to young people who are trying to figure out what it means to identify as a man?

Enter Idles, a punk rock band from the UK. They are loud, they are angry and at times their lyrics are even violent. In a lot of ways, they embody the aesthetics of toxic masculinity. Yet, their lyrics themselves often actively deconstruct traditional notions of masculinity.

In their song “Mr. Motivator” they encourage self-love and condemn misogyny through lines like “I am I and I intend to go… like Kathleen Hanna [lead singer of riot grrrl bands Bikini Kill and le tigre] with bear claws grabbing Trump by the pussy.” In “Anxiety,” lead singer Joe Talbot destigmatizes men talking about their mental health as he screams “I’ve got anxiety, it has got the best of me.” In “Kill Them With Kindness,” Talbot encourages listeners to deal with people they disagree with through the power of empathy and “kill ‘em with kindness.” Yet, in the same song, he also tells them to have self-respect and pride, and that to be empathetic ‘doesn’t mean you have to bow, or say ‘Your Highness.'” In “Ne touche pas moi,” which is butchered French for ‘don’t touch me,’ Talbot very directly attacks some of the more extreme aspects of toxic masculinity when he says “This is a sawn-off, For the cat-callers,” and, during the chorus, yells “Consent! Consent! Consent!”

In one track, “Samaritans,” Talbot speaks directly on masculinity. In the verses he regurgitates phrases he’s had thrown at him his whole life when he chants “Man up, sit down, chin up, pipe down, socks up, don’t cry, drink up, just lie, grow some balls.” In the chorus, he then calls masculinity “a mask that’s wearing me” and screams that “this is why you never see your father cry.” It’s through a combination of both head-on discussions about masculinity as well as by setting a good example of what it means to be a modern man, all through a traditionally masculine sound and aesthetic, that Idles bring something really important to our society’s quest for a new and better form of masculinity.

That being said, Talbot told NowThis News that “it doesn’t matter what it is to be a man. It matters what it is to be a human.” Talbot sees himself not as reinventing masculinity but being part of its deconstruction – this is precisely what I think makes Idles such a positive force. Much like their punk forefathers, Idles aren’t a group of stuffy academics. They don’t lecture their listeners on the effects of traditional masculinity or theory-craft some new archetype to teach the kids. They make loud angry music that listeners connect to and feel empowered by. It’s in this shared experience between band and listener that a new image of what it means to be a man is born. 

Whether Idles knows it or not, they are repurposing the aggressive aesthetics of masculinity. This is not simply to challenge and criticize it, but also to redefine and show what a modern man can look like. Whether Idles know it or not, they are reaching out to young men who are searching for what it means to be a man and lifting them up. They are helping them to find the identity that society won’t give them.

Written by: Ammar Mooraj