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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.

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

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

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