So many songs represent men negatively: as unavailable, distant, absent, cheating, lying, or abusive. And given the history of patriarchy in the U.S. and around the world, such representations of men are not unfounded.
But for this piece, I focus on three songs that center positive representations of unusual men. Their sometimes-heartwarming, sometimes-funny, always heartfelt lyrics are gender-specific and show us all what positive masculinity can mean: the men in these songs are emotionally available; they show up for others, and they are kind.
“He Didn’t Have to Be,” Brad Paisley (1999)
I read about this song in Nadine Hubbs’s brilliant 2014 conversation-shifting book, Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, in which Hubbs calls this song a “potent tearjerker.” Maybe it’s because I’m a masochist, but I looked it up to verify that claim, and I did indeed cry when I heard this moving, autobiographical tale of a father figure showing up for a single mother and her son, a song that became Brad Paisley’s first #1 country hit. Paisley’s understated vocal hits all the right notes emotionally and the story remains front and center. As the singer becomes a father, he sings, “Looking back, all I can say about all the things he did for me/ Is I hope I’m at least half the dad that he didn’t have to be.” Cue all the unironic crying emoji.
“He Heals Me,” India.Arie (2009)
Though not one of India.Arie’s big hits, this testimonial about her lover who makes her feel safe and at ease more than merits mention here. Arie sings, “He heals me/ He knows the real me/ And he accepts me/ He never hurts me,” reminding listeners that positive masculinity entails conscious vulnerability and kindness towards others. Arie’s lyrics about her man’s beautiful spirit never fail to move me, and this would be true regardless of a female friend dedicating this song to me on a mix CD (she said it made her think of me, without “the romantic undertones”). Give this a listen and smile, and possibly play it for a man in your life who heals you.
“Whatta Man,” Salt-N-Pepa (featuring En Vogue) (1993)
A little more on the sassy side, Salt-N-Pepa bring a dose of New York hip hop to this list with their hit, “Whatta Man,” featuring En Vogue. Sampling Linda Lyndell’s 1968 Stax Records hit, “What a Man,” Salt-N-Pepa take this into different territory: where Lyndell praises her man’s dance moves, the rappers extol their men’s internal and external brawn and brains. If you don’t consider this record as a classic, we may be from different universes. And the best part is when Cheryl “Salt” James raps, “Every time I need him, he always got my back/ Never disrespectful . . . ‘cause his mama taught him that.”