How the Rise of the ‘Softboy' Fueled the Culture Wars

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An unlikely decade after he rose to fame as the face of a made-for-TV boy band, the British mega-singer Harry Styles mounted his own kind of campaign for Washington last month. Performing to a capacity Capital One Arena crowd full of “glitter, feather boas, and cowboy hats,” as one newsletter put it, he led the screaming throngs in an unusually enthusiastic recitation of the alphabet, meant to honor the capital’s numbered streets.

How the Rise of the ‘Softboy’ Fueled the Culture Wars
© POLITICO illustration/Photo by Invision/AP softboys illo.jpg

Refreshingly apolitical as it might have seemed, that’s not quite the world we live in. Andrew Breitbart presciently observed that politics lies downstream of culture — and culture is a realm that Styles has ruled for some time now. Arguably D.C.’s biggest show of the fall, his performance was part of a massive tour that’s serving as a capstone of sorts for the rise of a new generation of male icons who have slowly but surely redefined pop stardom in their own image. To view Styles through that lens, his particular, well, style—recurring as it does across film, music, fashion, and the overall media landscape— starts to look something like hegemony.

For cultural observers, Styles embodies — he may, in fact, have perfected — a particularly modern cultural archetype: the softboy. The term first appeared in the mid-2010s to describe a new kind of male star, not just willowy and tousle-haired like previous generations of pop icons, but overtly, almost confrontationally sensitive in his public persona. Writers have debated whether the softboy is a noble gender rebel or a disingenuous male manipulator, but when it comes to his broader role in American culture, and in our political moment, it’s more important what the softboy isn’t — and who gets boxed out as the softboys move in.

Softboy culture hasn’t insinuated itself into the mainstream so much as overwhelmed it. K-Pop act BTS is the biggest band in the world right now; its seven members, with varying hair-dye shades, share Allure-worthy skincare secrets with their fans. In hip-hop, there’s Drake, the zillion-selling rapper who alternates his stock tough-guy persona with an aggressive sensitivity that’s emboldened countless other rappers to get in touch with their emotions. Uber-famous male ingenue Timothée Chalamet stars this weekend in Denis Villenueve’s “Dune,” the biggest “serious” blockbuster of the post-pandemic era to date. (There’s even, perhaps, our first softboy senator in Georgia’s Jon Ossoff, whose boy-next-door charm and general visage itself recall Styles and Chalamet.)

You could call Styles the effective alpha male of this unofficial group, not just for his individual fame, but his mastery of softness: he’s not just immaculately primped, he wears actual dresses.

For decades, to the extent that male icons defined the popular media landscape, it was with a familiar archetype — the tough guy in denim and leather who used drugs and women with equal carelessness, discarding them before moving onto the next town and the next night. In 1990, the year before the grunge revolution, you could have walked out of an afternoon screening of the macho-revisionist blockbuster “Die Hard 2” and into a Sam Goody to pick up your copy of the latest zillion-selling record from Aerosmith. Bruce Springsteen didn’t reach true megastar status until the 1980s, when he traded in his scruffy-troubadour look for jeans and a muscle tee. Even the ostensibly “feminine” look of hair-metal bands like Poison or Motley Crue was just a lip-glossed sheen covering up their towel-snapping meathead ethos.

Today this is not the case. America’s pop culture, much like its politics, is undergoing a hard split, with the music charts largely ruled by R&B acts and softboy-leaning pop artists. The Billboard Hot 100’s Top 10 from the week of October 9 is fairly representative: Amid the standard fare from pop chanteuses like Olivia Rodrigo and Dua Lipa, there was Drake (twice); the gender-bending, haute-couture Lil Nas X; cuddly, Muppet-like balladeer Ed Sheeran; and at number one, a collaboration between BTS and softboy elder statesmen Coldplay.

So what happened to the manly-man pop icons? They still abound in genres like hard rock and country, the latter of which claims a fair amount of real estate on the Hot 100 (if not the massive crossover cultural presence of the 1990s). As with the rest of American culture and politics over the past two decades, the genres and subcultures that once would have worked to hurdle barriers to the mainstream have simply elected to build their own, entirely separate ecosystems.

Case in point: in 2019, researchers from Florida State University combined elections data with information on concert ticket sales from VividSeats. Some of their findings were unsurprising, like country dominating the South, or Latin music reigning supreme in the southwest and Florida. But some were more revealing. The researchers discovered that Obama-to-Trump swing voters — the former President Trump’s “forgotten men” (and yes, mostly men) who remade the electoral landscape — were not exactly shelling out for premium seats to see BTS or Drake. They overwhelmingly preferred the kind of rock and alternative music that went out of fashion in mainstream culture around the time George W. Bush began his second term.

Which makes that mainstream, dominated as it is by the Styles-ian pushing of gender boundaries, more overtly progressive-coded almost by default. While Styles and his fellow softboys earn the magazine covers and sponsorship deals, the space for traditional masculinity in mainstream culture narrows. Music’s post-grunge holdovers and metal acts still do a brisk business—but it’s mostly adjacent the limelight, at the exurban, FM-sponsored parking-lot SummerFests of the world.

As the softboy cadre has made pop more explicitly progressive than it’s been since the 1960s, lopping off the Carhartt-and-Oakleys contingent from pop’s body politic has given that version of rock a decidedly reactionary edge. Some of those stars have even re-invented themselves as outright MAGA troubadours, embracing their exile from coastal-directed, mass pop culture in a way that mirrors the Trump phenomenon itself.

America’s cultural landscape can’t be fully depicted through a few neat archetypes, but to understand how and why it’s changed so drastically over the past two decades, and why the reaction has been so strong — and to some, unexpected — one could do much worse than to consider the rise of the softboy, and what, and who, he stepped over to reach the cultural summit.

***

The rise of the softboy might have been easier for some American men to digest if it were contained to one corner of pop culture, but they’ve mounted a stunningly complete takeover. Two decades ago, Styles’ boy-band predecessors sat comfortably, if not somewhat jarringly, on the Billboard Hot 100 next to testosterone-fueled, post-grunge superstars like Puddle of Mudd or Staind. Sometimes that led to surreal collisions, like the feud between California nu-metalers Korn and MTV’s “Total Request Live,” or the tawdry gossip-bait of Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst’s alleged tryst with Britney Spears. But mostly, pop culture just sort of embraced them all as icons: At the end of the day Durst and the Backstreet Boys were both on the cover of Rolling Stone; now, the former part of that equation has largely disappeared.

That more aggressive side of pop culture has always been an outlet for a certain kind of male disaffection, and its icons at the turn of the millennium offered a way to channel it into nonpolitical catharsis, available for just $19.99 in the music aisle at your local Borders. When you could vent your pent-up frustrations about your relationships, your job, your general lot in life, by banging your head — and, crucially, by seeing those frustrations validated in mass culture — it might not seem so urgent to do it at the ballot box.

Those outlets haven’t completely gone away, but their centrality to American culture has undeniably diminished. That’s made it harder for non-diehards to embrace, at least not without a layer of irony or nostalgia. Some of the entirely valid reasons for that are on display in another recent cultural tentpole: “Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage,” the grueling-but-captivating HBO documentary about what happens when the softboy’s diametrically opposite spirit runs rampant.

The Woodstock ’99 festival was intended as a kind of synthesis of the 1990s “alternative” moment in music with its eponymous hippie roots, with more than 400,000 people showing up at a former Air Force base (and, poetically, a Superfund site) in Rome, New York. It turned into a nightmare of male aggression: Despite calming words from performers as disparate as the folk-pop star Jewel and SoCal punk icon Dexter Holland of the Offspring, by day three, the festival devolved into a riot of arson, vandalism and looting that promoters were comically ill-equipped to control. And most troublingly, complaints of sexual assault were endemic, something the documentarians recount in unflinching detail.

The atmosphere of violent male catharsis was the real-life, worst-case manifestation of the impulses that had been latent in rock music for decades. Durst, during his band’s set, encouraged the crowd to “let yourself go right now, ‘cause there are no motherf—ing rules out there”; the Red Hot Chili Peppers tacitly encouraged the weekend’s nascent bonfires. MTV News veteran Kurt Loder later described “waves of hatred bouncing around the place … it was like a concentration camp.”

The disaster of Woodstock ’99 led to a long, slow transition away from the grip that musky guitar rock held on American culture for roughly four decades. First the “garage rock” revolution of the early 2000s saw the ascent of a more stylish, coastal-friendly form of rock music during the genre’s last years of cultural dominance; by the first year of the following decade, only a meager handful of acts that could be reasonably described as rock bands landed on the year-end Billboard Hot 100.

While it might not have been a conscious banishment, the aggro nature of hard rock culture largely vanished from the American mainstream in the wake of its gruesome apotheosis at Woodstock. But energy, of course, cannot be created or destroyed, only converted. In politics, a particularly macho strain of post-Romney reaction to coastal progressivism has found its home in the Trump-ified GOP — and in a moment of cultural transference, that indelible Trump-iness has crossed over into portions of the rock world as well.

That process creates an ineffable cultural atmosphere in, for example, the hard-rock-loving Obama-Trump counties mapped out by those Florida State researchers, but sometimes it’s surprisingly explicit. One of the superstars of the pre-softboy era — the aforementioned Staind frontman Aaron Lewis, made his return to the pop charts with the July single “Am I the Only One.” Its gravelly vocals and minor key recall his earlier work, but Lewis is now preoccupied with something altogether different lyrically:

Are you tellin’ me, that I’m the only one

Willin’ to fight

For my love of the red and white

And the blue, burnin’ on the ground

Another statue comin’ down in a town near you

***

For the relatively few people outside his loyal fanbase who bothered to noticed it, Lewis’ arc from mainstream rockstar to Bard of American Greatness was just an odd curio. But it tracks those Florida State researchers’ findings that the areas most susceptible to Trump’s open culture-war appeal were those that still embrace hard rock. Those kinds of acts might have disappeared from the cultural mainstream in the decades since Woodstock ’99, but it wouldn’t be quite accurate to refer to them as “dinosaurs.” They’re more like endangered species, or maybe wolverines — confined to a small area, but packing a punch disproportionate to their size.

To be sure, there are aggro-rock icons with bleeding hearts, just as there are softboys who are hard and cruel. But as the decidedly male angst of rock’s past has been pushed out of mainstream culture, it’s made itself apparent in other, unexpected arenas, politics in no small part among them. Amid the familiar (and warranted) laments about an endless stream of remakes, revivals, and other assorted forms of retro tomb-raiding, it’s easy to overlook just how drastically our cultural ecosystem has changed in just the past decade.

One key constant in rock culture has been its spirit of youthful rebellion: In a more consolidated monoculture, it was obvious what one might rebel against, whether it be moralizing, hypocritical authority figures, to “Mad Men”-era unreconstructed misogynists to the generalized ennui of a world where pretty much everyone agrees that things are mostly okay. Depending on one’s perspective today, in an infinitely more fractured media landscape, artists can “rebel” against the stubborn persistence of traditional masculinity by wearing dresses, or against America’s Impossible Burger and vaccine-mandate-assisted wussification by climbing onto Mike Huckabee’s soundstage with a MAGA cap and acoustic guitar.

So the next time a forgotten Y2K-era rocker reinvents himself as a conservative warrior, don’t be surprised — he’s simply carrying out the rock tradition of rebellion, in the manner most befitting his own bubble. The softboy does fundamentally the same, his ascendant status reflecting the relative tastemaking power of those who share his own bubble. So if that strikes you as a dissatisfying state of affairs — from whichever direction your own wind happens to be blowing — just wait five minutes. One of the other few constants in pop culture is its inherently cyclical nature. The softboys, too, will be eclipsed, and whoever inevitably rises up to displace them is likely to be a little bit more hard-edged.

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