The Will to Listen: Masculinity Through Lyrical Performance
Updated: Apr 27
Still from Güeros (2014) directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios.
Image Description: A brown skinned man gazing into the distance listening to music on his headphones.
Two men lean close on both sides of his face trying to listen along.
“...A lot of songs are just poetry with music behind them,
but the lyrics can have such a deeper meaning,
even without the musical conversation behind it.
They can really show you the emotion of who's writing them…
and a lot of the time everyone can agree on a song
and it brings people together. I think that's wonderful.” - Nick
In The Will to Change, bell hooks sheds light on the mechanisms of patriarchy that aim to stifle any attempt that men or women may make to voice how toxic masculinity has negatively impacted their lives. Moving away from the bioessentialist framing of hooks’ work, most individuals of all gender expressions can readily identify ways that toxic masculinity infiltrates their daily interactions. Hooks continuously circles back to the influence of the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy. A phrase which she identified as deeply misunderstood by most people, to the degree of inciting laughter in her audiences throughout her early 2000’s lectures. Hooks writes,“this laughter reminds me that if I dare to challenge patriarchy openly, I risk not being taken seriously.” Despite having the theories and evidence to describe these systems, hooks still struggled to make breakthroughs with her audiences, leaving those who seek to make societal change in similar topics to wonder what power they hold to accomplish this goal.
Fortunately, we have seen a shift in what traditional media outlets can do for both creatives and audiences seeking to build meaning through an accessible medium of expression. Music serves as a catalyst for mass communication of complex ideas, it’s an extension of hope that someone might feel seen by the experiences and emotions described in each song. This is one of the many reasons why we find so much value in pairing our book of the month with a collaborative playlist. Armed with the ability to pull from both personal media connections and the teachings of bell hooks, this article showcases the music selections curated by our fellow Hotties with the intention of highlighting a variety of interpretations of masculinity. Enjoy!
Charles (Royal Hog Guard on Spotify)
ID: Artist Rina Sawayama wearing an eccentric bulbous black dress in front of a red background.
Steven Universe - Here Comes a Thought
“This song is from the show Steven Universe (10/10 recommend); it’s about mindfulness in response to external and internal conflicts. Processing emotions in a healthy way is part of the “change” hooks’ is advocating for. Healthy emotional coping mechanisms aren't really something that men are taught to value.”
Barrie-James - Angry Man
“Hooks describes one aspect of patriarchal culture as promoting the emotion of anger amongst young boys due to its associations with masculinity and domination. This song is about the suffering of a man who has become emotionally numbed due to that anger.”
Rina Sawayama - Send My Love to John
“Written from the POV of a mother apologizing to her queer son for not being able to provide him love growing up due to her religious beliefs. Rina is mother AF for this.”
Beth Malone & Michael Cerveris - Telephone Wire
“This song is from the Broadway show Fun Home, and is about a queer woman who yearns to be seen and loved by her father who is also queer, but due to patriarchal culture he has become numb and unable to express love to his daughter.”
Morgan (moko on Spotify)
ID: Photograph of a masked brown-skinned man standing in rubble looking directly into the camera.
Distorted text reads: DYSTOPIA: THE AFTERMATH.
Daniel Johnston - Joy Without Pleasure
My Mama, she took me aside one day
She said "you better have fun while you play"
Cause someday you'll wake up and you'll be old
And you'll work in a factory and earn your pay
And your fingers will rot and your mind will decay
You'll be happy, so happy, with your family and house
But you'll never, you'll never enjoy yourself
“Patriarchal mappings of the world are instilled in children in their early days of boyhood, an idea which hooks speaks at length to in Chapter 3: Being a Boy. It is too often that child-like feelings of wonder, curiosity, and unbridled joy are confronted with normative cultural teachings – the “shoulds” and “should-nots” of being a good actor of your own gendered character, emphasized through shame, guilt, and fear. Throughout his musical and artistic career, Johnston discussed his own personhood and internal emotional life with incredible care and vulnerability, and “Joy Without Pleasure” is no exception. Quite a few questions, I believe, follow from Johnston’s words: What are the ways in which joy and pleasure are distinct experiential characteristics? How are such experiences gendered and learned?”
Alex G - Proud
“Proud” is Alex G’s exercise in the pressures of love and fatherhood. He muses painful longings: “Wish I could be strong like you / Wish I had something to prove” in conjunction with its chorus “If I sink / I don’t wanna be the one to leave my baby out without no bottle to drink.” It is through the teachings of patriarchal masculinity that hooks dedicates her time and energy to undoing that the sentiments of “Proud” arise and persist.”
Bjork - It’s Not Up to You
I can decide what I give
But it's not up to me
What I get given
“Bjork’s messaging is quite literal here. To me, a huge part of hooks’ practice in “The Will to Change” is guided by the belief that (though both of these things can be true independently at the same time) patriarchy is the problem and it is through this that such perceived “problems of men” arise. In light of this month’s reading, Bjork’s “It’s Not Up to You” is a meditation on the dual consciousness of a person plagued: willing to grow in the spaces she can and releasing that which she cannot.”
Dystopia - Diary of a Battered Child
A role model for me in this world
"do as i say and not as i do"
Someday there’s gonna be hell to pay
For treating your son this way
You can't take my dignity
Without destroying your love for me
“Violence and love do not and cannot coexist. Fatherhood, and more importantly childhood, is safe only under these conditions.”
Stephanie (stephanie.stephhh on Spotify)
ID: Still from the Ramito De Violetas visualizer. Artist Rebe looks into the camera with dreamy artwork framing her face.
Yolanda Del Rio - La Hija De Nadie
“In the preface to The Will to Change, hooks grounds the reader in the common experience of interacting with the toxic effects of patriarchy through parental figures. She describes how, “the most painful truth of male domination, that men wield patriarchal power in daily life in ways that are awesomely life-threatening, that women and children cower in fear and various states of powerlessness, believing that the only way out of their suffering, their only hope for men to die, for the the patriarchal father not to come home.” In La Hija De Nadie (The Daughter of No One), Yolanda Del Rio holds the same intensity, carried out through the grito (exclamation) in the song’s opening. Yolanda describes how painful not having a father has been, causing her to channel her anger towards all men who mistreat women - to the extent of wishing them death. It’s a chilling song that is full of pain and raw emotion, but it does an excellent job of demanding the listener to do it all and more to avoid a situation like hers.”
The Strokes - Ode To The Mets
“When I first listened to “Ode To The Mets” by The Strokes it gave me a strange and ominous feeling, one I couldn’t turn away from. I was interested in the song’s meaning, but I found little information besides that the song’s writer and lead vocalist, Julian Casablancas, named the song after the New York baseball team because they represent putting all your hopes into something, only for it to let you down. This closely describes how I felt reading The Will to Change, knowing I was investing time and effort towards learning and loving men while understanding deep down that it wasn’t something I was guaranteed to get back from them. Of course, I do it anyway for the labor of love that hooks most desperately fought her, but it doesn’t lessen the unsettling feeling that poor encounters with men leave me with. On a lighter note, the song’s lyrics say “hope that you read it, think that you should” which is what I want everyone to do with The Will to Change and all of bell hook’s life work.”
Easy to say, easy to do
But it's not easy, well, maybe for you
Hope that you find it, hope that it's good
Hope that you read it, think that you should
Cuts you some slack as he sits back
Sizes you up, plans his attack
Mana - El Reloj Cucu
“I added the song “El Reloj Cucu” (The Cuckoo Clock) by the Mexican rock group Mana which pairs a story from a perspective of a young boy suffering the effects of being abandoned by his father with a gentle musical composition, similar to a lullaby. I added this song because the lyrics are full of fear, uncertainty, and innocence - all emotions that young boys are constantly surrounded by growing up (even more so if their primary caretaker leaves them as described in this song.)
This cry of love
Este grito de amor
I give it to heaven
Se lo doy al cielo
I ask him so, so, so much
Le pregunto tanto, tanto, tanto
Does not answer anything
No contesta nada
Hooks writes that young boys “come into the world wanting to be seen and heard”, something that patriarchy makes no room for. When I listen to this song, my heart aches and all I want to do is hold space for this boy and let him know he’ll be okay.”
Kendrick Lamar, Anna Wise - Real
“In my opinion, the entirety of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D City could be on this playlist since the album details Kendrick’s own struggle growing up in a hypermasculine environment where, as a Black man, any misstep could cost him his life. I narrowed down my song choice to “Real” because this song describes the power trip that leads men to cling to patriarchy, but the listener knows that this power or “love” holds little weight when it's entrenched in performance. When listening, I immediately picture the young men of color in my life that are most susceptible to falling into this mindset, or willingly do so just to impress their homies.”
You love fast women, you love keepin' control
Of everything that you love, you love beef
You love streets, you love running, ducking police
You love your hood, might even love it to death
But what love got to do with it when you don't love yourself?
I do what I wanna do
I say what I wanna say, when I feel, and I
Look in the mirror and know I'm there
With my hands in the air, I'm proud to say yeah
I'm real, I'm real, I'm really, really, real
Rebe - Ramito de violetas
“Ramito de violetas (bouquet of violets) is a song that has been covered so many times, but Rebe’s version catches my attention in particular because of the melancholic & haunting tone she adds to it - one that I think is justified given its lyrics. The song tells the story of a woman who yearns for more sensitivity from her husband. After being continuously met with rejection, she instead places all her romantic hopes in the anonymous bouquet of violets and love poems she receives from a stranger which she can only piece together in her imagination. At the end of the song it is revealed that the woman’s secret admirer is her own husband, yet the song ends with her still being oblivious to this and her husband choosing not to comment on the hidden letters/reveal his identity. Ramito de violetas frustrates me because it ends in unanswered longing when the solution is right in their faces. The song mirrors the effects of toxic masculinity as many men feel that they have to present a stern facade, even at the expense of those who love them the most. I would hope that a romantic partnership would breed a safe space of expression for both parties, but this isn’t always the case in a patriarchal society.”
Dee (darch123 on Spotify)
ID: Artist Mitski is pictured shoulders up with her face partially covered by her hair. The entire image is distressed with a shaken effect.
Text reads: LUSH Mitski.
Mitski - Real Men
“Real Men from Mitski’s debut album Lush mirrors the themes present in The Will to Change by bell hooks. Both the song and the book describe patriarchal notions of masculinity and what it takes to be a “real man” under our cissexist heteropatriarchal society. Lyrics like:
“real men don’t need other people,
real men suck it in,
real men don’t flinch or bleed in public…”
echo the hollowness and self denial required of those who chose to align with patriarchy. Both works also highlight the ways that it is not just men who can be tools for patriarchy - the protagonist throughout the song has internalized the thinking of patriarchy.
“real men don’t eat because they’re above that dammit
oh i’m gonna be a real man”
she too participates in the toxic self denial of ‘true manhood’ while simultaneously presenting herself as a sexual object to be rewarded for her obedience by the man.”
Finn (Finnean Malley on Spotify)
ID: An illustration of a red hunched over skeleton with black ink coming out of its mouth.
The text boarding the image reads: THE SPOOK SCHOOL, TRY TO BE HOPEFUL.
The Spook School - Burn Masculinity
“I picked "Burn Masculinity" By Spook School because it provides a perspective that all masculinity is based in patriarchy and it lets the listener think about the ways in which we accept it without giving it a second thought.”
The Cure - Boys Don’t Cry
“Boys Don't Cry” by The Cure shows that this movement has been going on since the 1980s and it challenges that sexist phrase in the context of a man telling it to himself which I think is very accurate.
Hozier - To Be Alone
“I chose "To Be Alone" by Hozier because of a line at the beginning of the song:
"Never feel too good in crowds With folks around
When they're playing
The anthems of rape culture loud"
Which is a very direct line that speaks to a lot of the ways in which misogyny and masculinity manifest: by going along with the crowd.”
Lauren (laurenmmarshall on Spotify)
ID: An abstract black painting with spots of yellow on a cream canvas.
Text at the top of the cover reads: RONALD LANGESTRAAT SEARCHING.
Ronald Langestraat - You need to cry
“I added this song to the playlist because of its last lyric, “You need to cry to live before you die.” To me, it’s a pretty succinct and literal bit of advice, a straightforward reminder to honor and process emotion. The beginning of the song reflects the ways in which the patriarchy hampers emotion, and refers to music as the only safe place and outlet for feeling. The singer begins by stating he’s “Just a man with nothing else, but music.”
The Soft Boys - I Wanna Destroy You
“I added this song because it reflects two sides of violence, both ultimately steeped with patriarchy. It’s technically an anti-war song, as the lyrics tell the story of a man at odds with himself in the midst of the violence of war. On one hand, he’s condemning the violence around him, while simultaneously struggling with his own retaliative urges. The loud chorus repeats “I wanna destroy you,” iterating the uncontrollable and all consuming nature of his desires to dominate and ultimately, destroy his opposers.”
Nick (Nick on Spotify)
ID: A Black man is pictured partially submerged in water with a confused expression.
The text at the top of the cover reads: THUNDERCAT PRESENTS: "DRUNK".
Plini - I’ll Tell You Someday
“I added ‘I'll Tell You Someday’ by Plini because I think the title kind of fits the vibe of [the book], but it was more just like it sounds really good while you're reading the book. I also feel like the composition also had a lot of emotion because the chords change a lot throughout the song. There is really just a lot of change within the song itself, not necessarily lyrical, since there are no lyrics, but it’s still a very beautiful piece of art.”
Crumb - Nina
“I added Nina by Crumb - The lyrics are about someone who's going through it and no one really understands what's going on with them. Plus it's also a vibe.”
Thundercat - A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)
“I added A Fan’s Mail by Thundercat - It's a song about being a cat. It sounds silly, but I kind of feel like it's not actually being a cat, but more about being your own person, or having a dream of something you want to be.”
Lil Yachty - WE SAW THE SUN!
“I added WE SAW THE SUN! by Lil Yachty off of the new record, which is pretty crazy. It's about emotions, and it's kind of psychedelic. This one's about dealing with your demons, but with a space over theme. I feel like it's trying to get you to face your inner self that you want to approach differently, but you don't know how to do it in the right way.”
Kennedy (Kennedyaharper on Spotify)
ID: Artist SZA is pictured holding a sword and wearing a fitted black and red leather sports outfit.
The image is framed to cut out the top half of her face.
SZA - Kill Bill
"When I first heard this song the lyrics were really humorous to me but the perspective of an angry woman was illustrated in the song. But as I read the book and understood more about how really our anger is a mask to the real problem, the song just hits different to me. The process of desiring love and chasing it".
Douglas (dougiemensah on Spotify)
ID: The dark blue silhouette of artist James Blunt is pictured against a light blue background.
Text reads: James Blunt Back to Bedlam.
James Blunt – Tears and Rain
“In Chapter 4 of The Will to Change, bell hooks discusses how violent men often strike first, then immediately feel regret after doing so…yet they do not maintain that feeling because it is too painful to bear and men would have to emotionally unpack the difficult feelings and trauma they’ve faced in their childhood. Therefore, I added the song Tears and Rain by James Blunt because I feel as if he expressed his raw emotions, though very dark, it seems to be similar to the feelings that other men feel…yet do not want to recognize.”
Nicole (nicoleorsini0 on Spotify)
ID: A retro illustration of a woman with an electric guitar standing in front of a space ship in the form of red lipstick.
Text reads: CHERRY GLAZER APOCALIPSTICK.
Cherry Glazerr – Told You I’d Be With the Guys
“I added “Told You I’d Be With the Guys” by Cherry Glazerr to the playlist. I love the scream-singing vocals, and I think the riff is super fun. The lyrics talk about leaving the girls behind to “be with the guys.” It made me think about how sometimes girls will deliberately hang out with a lot of guys because “girls have too much drama.” Early in the book, hooks talks about how women, too, can adopt patriarchal behaviors. To me, this song feels like she’s saying, “ugh, you girls are too much drama…let me go hang out with the guys.” Towards the end of the song, she sings, “now I see the beauty…it’s necessary…to give a lady love.” I think that it’s a nice way to end the tune.”