You’d be forgiven for thinking men haven’t changed much in the last ten years. After all, the lump-like, grubby t-shirt-wearing man-child is an easy visual image to conjure up. There he is; shabby of hair and shallow of thought, gouging peanut butter out of the jar, farting his way through yet another viewing of Predator 2. His likeness has been wheeled out for lazy sketch shows, bro-tastic Judd Apatow projects and abysmal Radio 4 comedies for what feels like an eternity. “The funny thing about men,” they’re telling you “is that they’re shit!”
But that’s not you, is it? That stereotype, while still containing elements of truth, is no longer fair. Men, regular men, have changed.
It falls on me, the editor of Britain’s biggest men’s magazine, to inform you that we live in the age of the Good Guys.
In the world of men, Good is great again. Never in our lifetimes have male role-models been so proud to march under the banner of positivity. Self-loathing is out and self-loving is in. This is ‘goodness’ as in the force existing in diametric opposition to ‘evil’. It’s as wholesome as Stormzy screen-shotting text conversations with his mum, as edifying as Antony Joshua, dressed in designer loungewear, looking at peace-with-himself in front of a game of chess, as progressive as Gary Lineker facing down tabloid indignation over the refugee crisis and as powerfully-sensitive as The Rock opening up about his mental health issues.
The aspirational end-game for men in 2017 is to be healthy, grateful and content. It’s no longer about the race for success. We are, instead, on a journey towards fulfilment.
To put it another way, Kasabian’s showy, guitar-powered celebration of Ego has been replaced by the socially conscious soul of Kendrick Lamar. A man who charges (believe me) eye-watering fees for concert appearances but doesn’t go in for garish displays of wealth, doesn’t drink, has stayed faithful to his high-school sweetheart and remains unfailingly humble.
Another name for it might be Generation #Blessed.
The fashion for shining, unalloyed goodness is, on some level, a reaction to the monstrous turd-lords that currently run our world. The nice-guy shtick of Blair, Clinton and Cameron is gone, in its place brazen wickedness. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have utilised their rank unlikability as a means to power and our heroes have adapted accordingly. After a decade of corruption scandals, doping revelations in sport and high-profile paedophile rings is it any wonder our appetite for anti-heroes has waned? The latent success of Jeremy Corbyn (and whatever you make of his politics, he’s certainly no money-hungry megalomaniac), was powered by our hunger for someone principled. A crusader to fight back against The Man’s irredeemable villainy.
Male heads of industry are no longer keen to present themselves as the inhuman-and-proud-of-it ballbuster psychopaths of yesteryear. Don’t forget: during the first few seasons of The Apprentice, the candidates were considered fairly serviceable role-models for aspiring business people. Not anymore. In 2017 we want our power players to be TED-talking dreamer-philanthropists like Elon Musk and that guy who invented Moshi Monsters.
Young footballers, a group with unparalleled influence over mainstream British men, are at the dreamy vanguard of Generation #Blessed. It’s a topless Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain riding a horse in the sea (caption: “ride the wave”), it’s Theo Walcott’s back tattoo in tasteful black-and-white (“Open your heart, shed fear, hate or envy”), it’s Paul Pogba in his swim shorts, laughing while perched on the edge of an infinity pool (“we say it all by saying nothing at all #holidays”). If you were being uncharitable you’d say it was a group of multi-millionaires dressed like the front row of an Astrid Andersen catwalk show, talking like Deepak Chopra. Among the young, high-profile names, only Jack Wilshere remains as a kind of wrathful, tab-smoking Ghost of Football Past.
In fact, hedonism has never been less cool. Imagine a phone video getting leaked in which any member of BBK appeared utterly shit-faced, sleazing on women? Their reputation would take a hit. Which is odd when you consider that, for the longest time, rappers were (lazily) posited as poster-boys for excess. Even those ultra-successful musicians who do include partying as part of their brand image do so in a way that’s reflective of our times. Drake and The Weeknd, two of the biggest stars in the world, present an image of themselves as decent men thwarted by their own carnality. “Hark,” they quietly call to us as the slow-motion party of your dreams rages all around them, “at the shallowness of this.”
The whole sentiment reaches its quasi-ludicrous zenith in the music video for platinum-selling DJ Khaled’s 2017 track Grateful in which the big man – himself a kind of wheeling humility zealot – stands in a rainforest and tells no one and everyone that he’s “so grateful for all you’ve done”. True to type he then turns his attention to those ever-present haters. “I also want to thank all my enemies,” he croons magnanimously, “for turning they backs on me.”
Mocking DJ Khaled is easy, obviously. Working out exactly why he resonates in 2017 is trickier.
In terms of the words people use to express themselves, there’s one influencing factor that can’t be understated, and it relates to a specific aspect of British, black culture.
“This use of language online, the references to humility, gratefulness and being blessed does certainly have its roots in traditional black, British family life,” David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, tells me. “I grew up in a home where we were frequently reminded how blessed we were. My mum had strong Christian values which is common in black Caribbean and African homes.”
It’s been a long minute since Greg Dyke branded the BBC “hideously white” and while our national institutions may or may not be more diverse in 2017, the young men that dictate the pace and course of popular culture certainly are. Lammy, a second-generation immigrant, believes that the fashion for thankfulness and positivity could certainly have developed in the homes of people whose families arrived on British shores in the last 100 years.
“Well, relative to my mother’s start in life, and to her many relatives still in the Caribbean, she did feel very blessed,” he says. “In that sense, many immigrants are genuinely grateful for their family’s health and the opportunity to work and put food on the table.”
Dr Tijion Esho, an award-winning cosmetic doctor and star of E4’s Body Fixers, agrees: “Both my parents came over from Nigeria in their 20s and this took a lot of sacrifice. They had to do whatever they could to provide for me and my sister. I witnessed first-hand how much hard work can accomplish. I was very aware of how fortunate we were and how different life could have been without my parents’ hard graft and sacrifice.”
Goodness is also reflected back at us by the brands we engage with. Forbes reported just this year that marketers have woken up to the fact that “snark” (the kind of knowing sarcasm that saturated advertising a decade ago) resonates extremely badly with today’s consumers. Initially associated solely with West Coast new-media behemoths like Facebook, Apple and Google, “soft”, touchy-feely branding is key for anyone looking to meaningfully connect to a large audience. It’s why KFC’s recent online marketing has focused almost exclusively on the concept of friendship, why Red Bull transitioned from adrenaline sports to empowering life experiences and why Jamie Oliver has the crypto-Maoist mantra ‘creating a healthier, happier world through food’ daubed across the wall of his office.
“The brands that have a positive view of the world, but are also hard-wired into how we live and feel are the brands of the future,” confirms Ben Little, co-founder of consultancy firm Fearlessly Frank. “The ‘wellbeing gene’ has permeated all parts of our culture, from how we eat, to how we work out, even the growth of meditation.”
Ben also believes that the corporate fashion for feelings is more than superficial. “The entrepreneurial spirit is about improving the status-quo,” he says. “And because technology now means that anyone can be entrepreneurial, improving the world has become everyone’s responsibility. This current generation’s entrepreneurial spirit means people are more conscientious in many areas of their life, including corporate accountability.”
I ask Ben what he considers the largest influence on this shift. “The home for our collective conscious. Online social.”
Ah, right. That.
Social media is the biggest thing to happen in the last 10 years.
Has it made men vainer and more self-conscious? Probably. At first, it definitely made us lamer. For a while, we were all perma-grinning, social media keenos. Fomo was king and perfunctory, repetitive Facebook albums of our every night out were his currency. Then, aided by the invention of the selfie a new language began to take shape. A language rooted in honest and open expressions of emotion.
“Now, with people putting so much of their lives out there on social, it feels more natural to talk about how you’re feeling,” says James Hacking, Head of Innovation at The Attention Agency. “People grow up putting everything on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. We didn’t have that 10 years ago. It’s acceptable to be more open now.”
In particular, Instagram has supplied a fresh blueprint for the aesthetics of aspiration. Successful lifestyle bloggers present a version of reality that’s sparse, tasteful and pure. It’s a vision that dovetails perfectly with the rise of Goodness, a snapshot which says ‘I don’t need much in life… just some rustic, white floorboards, one Tom Dixon candle holder and this jug of life-giving kale smoothie.’ We look healthier now, too. It helped that 2007 was the year that cinematic beef-fest 300 set the steroidal template for what men could look like if they just swapped lager for creatine and their Von Dutch t-shirt for a “beast mode” hashtag.
“Being a positive person is something we all aspire to be especially the times we live in,” says Andrew Garratt, men’s board director of the IMG model agency. “For example, we represent a very confident young man named Brian Whittaker. He’s had problems in the past with mental health and skin issues which he doesn’t hide and often posts about his feelings and thoughts on a daily basis.”
He most certainly does. Whittaker, who at the time of writing was closing in on one million Instagram followers, engages with the wider world in precisely the unguarded, emotionally open, super-contentious way that typifies Generation #Blessed. “You guys can change the world one day,” says one caption next to a shot of Whittaker, clad in Millennial pink, looking pensive in front of Nevada’s Valley of Fire National Park. “Work with each other, respect each other and you’ll be unstoppable.”
This phenomenon is by no means limited to whey-faced Insta-sprogs, either. The Rock, our planet’s most masculine lifeform, specialises in ultra-positive, self-help tirades that reveal his biggest muscle to be not his bicep but (pause for YouTube-friendly effect) his heart.
“Social media has helped make people a bit more insecure so they seek out help and inspiration from those people that influence them,” says Hacking. “And that’s true whether it’s their heroes or just their friends.”
Men’s transformation for the better is also glaringly apparent in their changing values. Data supplied by the National Office of Statistics and YouGov shows an inarguable shift towards a more enlightened, progressive outlook. Men aged 25-35 are, compared to the population as a whole, strongly in favour of gay marriage, motivated by things other than money and keen to surround themselves with new cultures and ideas.
This broadening of horizons has been aided by the stuff we fill our ears and eyes with. Music streaming services offer normal men a zero-risk way to experiment with Actually Good Music. The Discover playlist has become a cultural performance enhancer allowing even the least-worldly male to confidently say things like “tropical house doesn’t begin and end with Diplo, you know”. The same can be said about the Netflixisation of our viewing habits. “I saw this amazing documentary last night” is now up there with “how’s work?” and inane football chat in the male conversational playbook.
Hook-up apps and, to a lesser extent, dating websites have also made us more progressive. A peek behind the kimono for you: men’s magazines have long been run by cringing, fun-phobic beta males, a freakish lineage that stretches back to Hugh Heffner and continues to this day with myself. Is it any wonder that, for five decades, their publications perpetuated the wretched lie that women had to be tricked and cajoled into bed? Masculine development has been aided massively by the fact that women now swipe right. The other gender wants to have sex too (as long as you’re not a sleazy loon). Icons of virility like James Bond and Don Draper, previously regarded as genius lotharios, now look like delusional, lonely sociopaths. Christian Grey might have his bathroom-mirror honed negging technique down pat, but he’s not going to find anyone to watch the new Curb Your Enthusiasm with anytime soon. He’s a bit sad.
Five years ago Frank Ocean (an elite-level Good Guy if ever there was one) sarcastically asked “why see the world, when you got the beach”? The beach is a state of mind – a shallow, blissed-out idyll where everyone looks and feels great. Your social media photostream might consist of bars, road trips, leaving do’s, clubs and Waterloo Bridge skylines but, at the end of the day, it’s all essentially the beach.
I asked legendary writer and world traveller for his opinions on the matter. I appreciate that approaching Paul Theroux might not seem like the most logical way to wrap this feature up. But I’m the editor of this magazine and as such, I create my own reality.
“Go away and leave home,” he says when I ask him what advice he has for young men. “Especially get away from your family, from people who have expectations of you. Try to figure out who you are and what you want. The sanest thought any young man can have is: ‘I am outta here’.”
I like the idea that in the age of seamless, one-click consumerism the one thing we actually want isn’t a bigger TV or a gold-plated sex drone, it’s experience of the wider world.
“I tend not to judge a young man by the way he behaves towards me,” says Theroux. “I judge them by how he treats women, fellow workers, strangers, or people in the countries where he might be travelling. A young man seems truly attractive or good when he reveals himself to be kind.”
Illustration: Sam Bailey
Photos: Instagram, CBS/Warner Bros. Television, Rex Features