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“I’m only human”: the rise and rise of male singers who cannot take criticism

Clearly, these songs have resonated with a nation of men who believe they are beyond reproach.

If you’ve entered a shop, or a cab, turned on the TV or passed a radio in the past 6 months, you will almost certainly have heard Rag’N’Bone Man’s “Human”. It’s shifted almost a million units in the UK since becoming Christmas No. 2 of 2016, it’s trailed big cultural releases from SS-GB to Mass Effect, and won Rag’N’Bone Man a phone call from Elton John. In the words of NME, it “exploded out of all proportion”.

The song seems to exist in a context where poor ol’ Rag’N’Bone man is resisting what he sees as unnecessary critiques of himself. The song’s lyrics state, “I’m only human” (16 times) and beg you to not “put the blame on” him (16 times). He reminds us that he is not God, and that he makes mistakes, and throws in one “I’m just a man” for good measure. In case anyone was in any doubt, Rag’N’Bone man is a human male and he is not here to be judged by you, or anyone!!!

“You know, people generally moan quite a lot about stuff that isn’t very important,” he has explained of the lyrics. “And it was like, if you took a little step back from yourself and stopped being selfish, you realise […] your problem is not really a problem.” Urgh, I agree: any and all criticism of me is literally so self-absorbed. I am not alone: clearly, the song has resonated with a nation of Dudes Who Hate Criticism™.

It’s a sentiment that bleeds through his album of the same name – take “Innocent Man” with its lyrics, “I've been a victim of some sorry circumstance […] I ain’t guilty but I’m left fearing the stand”. (What a jip!) But while Rag’N’Bone Man might be an obvious (and repeat) offender, he’s by no means the only one.

Justin Bieber’s 2015 album Purpose opened with five songs that declare I never said I was PERFECT, okay?? In “Sorry”, he famously insists, “I’ll take every single piece of the blame if you want me to / But you know that there is no innocent one in this game for two”. Because that, my friends, is a real apology. But “I’ll Show You” is Bieber’s real masterpiece in rejecting any observations of his flaws.

Sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing
When the pressure’s coming down like lightning
It’s like they want me to be perfect
When they don’t even know that I’m hurting

This life’s not easy
I’m not made out of steel
Don’t forget that I’m human
Don’t forget that I’m real

He isn’t made of steel! He’s not a machine man with a machine mind and a machine heart! Okay?!

The man who dismisses all your concerns with professions of his own humanity is a plague that seems to particularly afflict male singers who try their hardest to project an air of authenticity. “I’m just a man,” sings Jason Mraz, “Are my manners misinterpreted words or only human? / I’m human.” (Me too, we have so much in common!) “Let it Go”, from James Bay’s 2015 album of the same name, plays a similar card in asking his loved one to take whatever disappointment or accusation she has against him and “let it go”. “Why don’t you be you and I’ll be me?” he asks, meaninglessly. “Everything that's broke / Leave it to the breeze”.

On his 2016 album Back From The Edge, James Arthur asks his audience to accept that he’s only human by hyperbolically professing to be a series of more ridiculous superhuman things (“the killer”, “the apocalypse”, “the villain”, “the metaphor”) before concluding “Forevermore I'll be / What you wanna believe / All I know, it’s too late for me to change your mind”. George Ezra’s 2014 hit “Blame It On Me” seems less than sincere in its insistence that Ezra be blamed for much, especially considering the video, which sees Ezra involved in ever more unlikely and elaborate mishaps simply by walking down a street. John Newman, in the Calvin Harris song “Blame”, asks us to blame his cheating on “the night”: “Can’t you see it, I was manipulated by it”. Damn that evil, manipulative arbitrary period from sunset to sunrise.

There are more self-consciously indie examples too, like Bastille’s “Blame” with its pleading refrain “Don’t pin it all on me”. Father John Misty’s “The Ballad of the Dying Man” reminds us that the critiques of privilege or discrimination don’t matter cause we’re all gonna like, die anyway, man. “We leave as clueless as we came / For the rented heavens to the shadows in the cave”, Misty explains, so we might as well forget about “the homophobes, hipsters, and 1%.” After our eventual deaths, “we’ll all be wrong someday,” so let’s just stop nit-picking over equal rights! Or, as he argues on “In Twenty Years Or So”, what can “a ghost in a cheap rental suit clinging to a rock that is hurtling through space” really “regret”? (This is literally what I’m trying to tell my boss every time I show up to work two hours late, John.)

Of course, this kind of songwriting has precedent beyond this genre – perhaps the most egregious example of the last decade is Chris Brown’s 2012 “Don’t Judge Me”, which feels significantly nastier than any other examples here thanks to his 2009 assault on Rihanna. “I don't wanna go there,” he says. “So please don't judge me […] Just let the past be the past.” Many might think that Kanye West would be the original blame-shirker: but he at least has a lot more self-awareness than these artists, giving  a full-blown admission of his refusal to take full responsibility on “Runaway”– “I just blame everything on you ,” he acknowledges, even though he knows, legitimately, “you could blame me for everything”.

It’s a dose of self-critique these Dudes Who Hate Criticism™ could really use in their own song-writing. Until they get there: run away fast as you can.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.