International Men’s Day: How IDLES Frontman Joe Talbot Explores the Toxic Expectations of Masculinity with “Samaritans”

todayNovember 19, 2021 1726 5 5

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By Jared Dudley
Music Journalist

As KTSW airs its day-long Brocast in celebration of International Men’s Day, and with British rock band IDLES hot off the heels of their fourth record Crawler, now is a great time to look back at their song “Samaritans,” a track that dives into society’s interpretation of masculinity and the harm it can cause to people of all genders.

IDLES lead singer Joe Talbot has never shied away from the subject, commenting on sexual violence against women in the band’s first record, the decidedly feminist Brutalism. With “Samaritans,” a track off Joy as an Act of Resistance, Talbot focuses on how our patriarchal society indoctrinates boys into a rigid definition of masculinity, which leads to disastrous consequences.

Since the early 2010s, toxic masculinity has been a loaded term. Due to intentional obfuscation by media and politicians, the expression has joined an extensive list of useful academic concepts which have lost their intended meaning in the eyes of the public. Ask ten people on the street to define toxic masculinity and you will get ten different answers.

In classic IDLES fashion, “Samaritans” cuts through the noise with a straightforward approach. The song opens with a list of commands commonly told to boys when they act “too emotional:” “Man up, sit down/chin up, pipe down/socks up, don’t cry/drink up, don’t whine.” A key trait of the traditional idea of masculinity is to not show emotion. Through authority figures and media, society pushes this rule onto people assigned male at birth from an early age. In an interview with Louder, Talbot explained how forcing masculinity onto young children can be harmful to their sense of self-worth. “Simple things such as ‘Don’t cry’ – one comment to a three- or four-year-old – can turn into so many things; so many bad decisions, so much shame that you carry because of things you feel.” These lyrics also express how a strict definition of masculinity is perpetuated through generations, as fathers try to teach their children to be manly in a way that is expected of all men.

In the lead-up to the chorus, Talbot describes the mask of masculinity as “a mask that’s wearing me.” Like gender, masculinity is a performance. “Samaritans” compares it to a mask one would wear to hide their true self. As a man, Talbot felt forced to put forward a masculine persona that always acted tough and never showed emotion, regardless of how he truly felt.

As the chorus begins, Talbot proclaims “I’m a real boy, boy, and I cry/I love myself and I want to try.” He states he does not conform to the inflexible definition of masculinity and feels comfortable being emotional. In a contrasting reference to “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die” by Nirvana, he declares a feeling of self-love and a desire to be better to himself and those around him. The line also reaffirms a common motif of IDLES’ discography, the desire to be a force of progress on both a social and personal level.

“This is why you never see your father cry, ” Talbot says as the chorus continues. Having been pressured to live under the uncompromising definition of masculinity their entire lives, fathers will go to great lengths to never seem weak in front of their sons. The rules are deeply ingrained in the minds of men and tied to their sense of self by the time they reach parenthood. Because the appearance of masculinity insists on hiding one’s emotions, emotional bonds between men are often seen as taboo, which can lead to fractures in the relationships between family members.

After repeating the chorus, “Samaritans” reaches its emotional climax as Talbot screams “I kissed a boy and I liked it.” The lyric marks the song’s greatest defiance of toxic masculinity yet, by including a statement of sexual expression with another man. As a bisexual man, Joe Talbot has been comfortable with his sexuality for a long time, something he explains in the Louder interview. “From a young age, I was encouraged that sexuality is not a linear thing … but as I grew up, I realized how many of my friends weren’t comfortable with it. It’s something that I’m now exploring, appreciating, and celebrating.” The lyrics also directly contrast the homophobia laced within certain aspects of masculinity, against the Katy Perry song “I Kissed a Girl,” in which a fetishized use of homosexuality between women is primarily seen by men as nothing but sex appeal. In this way, the song brings attention to how toxic masculinity represses gay expressions of love between men, while hypocritically exploiting queer experiences of women, which is seen as valuable only because it arouses straight men.

The message of “Samaritans” is clear: The traditional definition of masculinity, a symptom of living in a male-dominated society, is dangerous and leads to the emotional repression of men who in turn can harm people of all genders. The song presents a desire to change our understanding of masculinity into one that celebrates expressions of love and care, encourages kindness towards others, and is overall more inclusive. During the Louder interview, Joe Talbot brings up The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry. The core idea of “Samaritans” derives from the book. When it comes to how we perceive masculinity, Perry states, “the very idea that there is a strict set of rules needs to be chucked away. The future of masculinity is a plethora of masculinities.”

Featured Image by Dilston Grove

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