Taking the long view on popular music

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The world of music is straddled by female Goliaths. Why?

Young women are achieving every kind of musical success, while the idea of the "male pop star" seems to have ground to a halt with David Bowie. What's going on with the boys?

Nicki Minaj, along with Madonna, Britney, Lady Gaga and Rihanna are blazing a trail through pop music. Photograph: Getty Images

Long Way Down (Columbia); Overgrown (Polydor); Trilogy (Republic)
Tom Odell; James Blake; the Weeknd

When the singer Tom Odell got the Critics’ Choice Award at the Brits this year, he stood out from every previous winner because he was a man. I can’t be the only one who has wondered what’s happened to men in pop – or how funny this period will look in hindsight, the world of music straddled by female Goliaths while the boys sit in the shadows under huge headphones, singing in that peculiar R’n’B voice that sounds like the cry of a mountain goat caught on a distant wind.

Young women continue to realise every aspect of the pop ideal: they’re stadium rock stars, factory-forged divas and rappers, sexy, brutal and self-sufficient. They’re comedians, chameleons and drama queens, every vanity one more proof of their right to stardom. But while anyone can join the dots between Madonna, Britney, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, the story failed to develop into the 21st century as far as men were concerned and the concept of the “ultimate male pop star” stopped at David Bowie, as we have seen, ad nauseam, for weeks now. Ed Sheeran and Marcus Mumford are reviled for being smug and successful; Olly Murs, Bruno Mars and One Direction are considered irrelevant to anyone with a brain. The idea of “cool” has long been diametrically opposed to chart success but, somewhere down the line, this whole thing has got out of hand and young men in music can’t seem to do anything right.

Tom Odell is 22 and from Chichester, West Sussex; he moved to Brighton, formed the band Tom and the Tides and was eventually signed to Lily Allen’s label as a solo artist after a few months of open-mike nights. He differs from the species of songwriters referred to as “guys with guitars” because he has a piano, which he plays flamboyantly with one booted foot slapping the floor. Songs on his debut album, Long Way Down, have the air of indie cabaret. They’re unusual in their neediness: his big hit “Another Love” is a neat twist on the break-up song with an almost country-music sense of wit and resolution – every tentative ritual at the start of a new relationship is marred by the memory of the last girl he did it for.

Odell is a modern proposition in many ways, an emotionally demonstrative male singer mentored by girls – Lily, Emeli Sandé – happily mining his heartbreaks in the service of songs with a little less naming and shaming than Taylor Swift. Predictably, he is receiving message-board hate for being (I paraphrase) bland, cheesy, soft-bellied, posh and (wake me when this is over) from a private school.

We don’t want our male singers to “have it too easy” – a charge never levelled against the girls. Sheeran is loathed by a certain brand of “discerning” music consumer and critic because he gets nominated for urban awards when he’s white and from Suffolk – and because he’s made a ton of money and plays to thousands of girls. Young artists who aspire to real critical respect are under tremendous pressure to speak a bizarre, alternative musical language embodied by the Mercury-winners Alt-J or the xx: cerebral, bands struggling under the weight of their technical knowledge and completely unable to have fun, as their records suggest.

James Blake emerged around the same time as the xx, wore the same kind of hoodies, came from a similar London background and also wrote atmospheric indie infused with dubstep, effortlessly mixing black and white influences in a way that suggested the street (he went to a selective grammar, if we must talk about these things). His music has a distinct folk/pastoral appeal; his voice is as delicate as a butterfly wing flickering over fragile piano accompaniments. On his second album, Overgrown, the production tricks include voices reversed and tweaked to Disney-character squeakiness and “found sounds” that have you checking the electrical equipment in your house for a malfunction while the CD is playing.

Blake’s meticulous arrangements speak intelligence, creative autonomy and a sensitive character cowering from the lights; as a musical soul, he’s a bit like Frank Ocean or the Canadian rapper the Weeknd, whose three-part debut Trilogy features intense poetic reflections, drums replaced by a rec­orded heartbeat, minimalist guitar and an agile voice like a depressed Michael Jackson. In this strange, hybrid world, we are uncovering today’s romantics, the dubstep Arthur Rimbauds exploring the underside of love and excess or sketching the beauty in a grey morning. At the same time, this kind of music ticks so many boxes for the people most snobby and disdainful of mainstream artists that it’s hard not to hear something politically correct – and terribly safe – in all that sad, fashionable geek chic, too.