Two songs that seemed like they were on the radio every time I tuned into a pop station last summer were Omi’s single, “Cheerleader” (originally released in 2015) and Andy Grammar’s song, “Honey, I’m good” (originally released in 2014). They’re both songs written for mass consumption. Between 2014 and 2015, “Cheerleader” topped the charts in over 20 countries around the world. And, while “Honey, I’m Good” had less mass appeal, it similarly found its way onto top hit lists around the world.
They’re different genres of music. But they both fall under the increasingly meaningless category of “pop.” And, because they both gained popularity around the same time, it was possible to hear them back to back on radio stations across the U.S. Both songs are about the same issue: each are ballads sung by men celebrating themselves for being faithful in their heterosexual relationships. Below is Omi’s “Cheerleader.” Here is the chorus:
“All these other girls are tempting / But I’m empty when you’re gone / And they say / Do you need me? / Do you think I’m pretty? / Do I make you feel like cheating? / And I’m like no, not really cause / Oh I think that I found myself a cheerleader / She is always right there when I need her / Oh I think that I found myself a cheerleader / She is always right there when I need her”
In Omi’s song, he situates himself as uninterested in cheating because he’s found a woman who believes in him more than he does. And this, he suggests, is worth his fidelity. Though, he does admit to being tempted, which also works to situate him as laudable because he “has options.”
Andy Grammar’s song is a different genre. And like Omi’s song, it’s catchy (though, apparently less catchy if pop charts are a good measure). Grammar’s video is dramatically different as well. It’s full of couples lip syncing his song while claiming amounts of time they’ve been faithful to one another. Again, and for comparison, below is the chorus:
“Nah nah, honey I’m good / I could have another but I probably should not / I’ve got somebody at home, and if I stay I might not leave alone / No, honey I’m good, I could have another but I probably should not / I’ve gotta bid you adieu and to another I will stay true”
Unlike Omi’s song, Grammar’s single is a song about a man at a bar without his significant other. He’s turning down drinks from a woman (or women), claiming that he doesn’t trust himself to be faithful if he gives into the drink. Instead, he opts to leave the bar to ensure he doesn’t give in to this temptation.
Both songs are written in the same spirit. They’re songs that appear to be about women, but are actually anthems about what amazing men these guys are because… well, because they don’t cheat, but could.
I was struck by the common message, a message at least partially to blame for why we all heard them so much. And the message is that, for men in heterosexual relationships, resisting the temptation to be unfaithful is hard work. And this message helps to highlight key ingredients of contemporary hegemonic masculinities: heterosexuality and promiscuity. Both men are identifying as heterosexual throughout each song. But, you might think, they’re not identifying as promiscuous. So, how are they supporting this cultural ideal if they appear to be challenging it? The answer to that is all in the delivery.
Amy C. Wilkins studied the ways that a group of college Christian men navigated what she terms the “masculinity dilemma” of demonstrating themselves to be heterosexual and heterosexually active when they were in a group committed to abstinence. Wilkins discovered that they navigated this dilemma by enacting what she refers to as “collective processes of temptation” whereby they crafted a discourse about just how masculine they were by resisting the temptation to be heterosexually active. They ritualistically discussed the problem of heterosexual temptation. And, in so doing, Wilkins argues that the men she studied, “perform their heterosexuality collectively, aligning themselves with conventional assumptions about masculinity through the ritual invocation of temptation” (here: 353). It’s hard to craft an identity based on not doing something. But if you’re going to, Wilkins argues that temptation is key.
Similarly, Sarah Diefendorf found that young evangelical Christian men navigate their gender identities alongside pledges of sexual abstinence until marriage. Men in Diefendorf’s study used one another as “accountability partners” to make sure they didn’t cheat on their pledges if they were in relationships, but even with things like pornography or masturbation. As Diefendorf writes, “These confessions… enable these men to demonstrate a connection with hegemonic masculinity through claims of desire for future heterosexual practices” (here: 658-659). In C.J. Pascoe’s study of high school boys navigating tenuous gender and sexual identities, she refers to this process more generally as “compulsive heterosexuality.”
Both songs are meant to situate the two singers as great men, men to be admired. But, being able to listen to this message and “get it” means that you can take for granted the premise on which the songs are based—in this case, that men are hard-wired to be sexual scoundrels and that heterosexual women should count themselves lucky if they are fortunate enough to have landed a man committed to not living up to his wiring. Without understanding men as having a natural and apparently insatiable sexual wanderlust, these songs don’t make sense.
Both Omi and Grammar need the discourse of temptation to frame themselves as noble. If we want to challenge men to not cheat, we should be challenge the idea that they’re working against biologically deterministic inclinations to do so. I’m not sure it would make a top 20 hit, but neither would it recuperate forms of gendered inequality through the guise of dismantling them.
*Thanks to Sarah Diefendorf for her edits and smart feedback on this post.
Tristan Bridges, PhD is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Inequality, and Change with C.J. Pascoe and studies gender and sexual identity and inequality. You can follow him on Twitter here. Tristan also blogs regularly at Inequality by (Interior) Design.