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11 May 2017

“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.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

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.

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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

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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.