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The New Sad Boys of Pop

“It’s alright to cry, even my dad does it sometimes,” Ed Sheeran urges towards the end of X, an album that’s so shrouded in Nice Guy Syndrome that Sheeran deserves his own tackily named subgenre. In the larger context of mainstream music trends, the acoustic strummer falls under the heading of Sad-Boy Pop. He may be alone emotionally, but Sheeran and a few similar chart-topping artists — like Sam Smith and Bleachers — are together in redefining what it means to be a solo male star in pop circa 2014. Sonically, they couldn’t be more different, but they’re united by their embrace of the melancholy amidst a genre marked by its blissful frivolity. Even Robin Thicke is sad these days, going from “I know you want it” to “I’ll wait for forever for you to love me again.”

Adult Contemporary, the light-touch radio format where pop hits go to retire, historically deals in Nice Guys, from James Taylor to Jason Mraz. But while nice guys, sensitive dudes, and tender declarations of love are part of the Sad-Boy Pop equation, they’re not quite the same thing. There needs to be tears — stated or implied — but the artist can’t just throw out a mournful piano ballad here and there like Elton John or Lionel Richie. Sadness needs to be a recurring theme in the lyrics and/or feeling in the music. Coldplay are a good example of this. For as uplifting their love songs can be, some of their biggest hits — “Fix You” and “The Scientist” — are depressing as hell, and their new (breakup-inspired) album, Ghost Stories, only cements their place as OG Sad-Boy Pop.

Look to AC’s top male artist, Justin Timberlake, for a prototype of the modern male star and you’ll see romantic bliss and, well, sex. Still, while his solo songs are mostly devoid of the Sensitive Guy Vibes that abounded in *NSYNC (and most boy-band) ballads, Timberlake can be as mushy as John Legend (see: “Mirrors”). But he’s not exactly what we’re looking for as far as Sad-Boy Pop goes.

Despite its vengeful bitterness, “Cry Me a River” is perhaps the only true Sad-Boy Pop hit Timberlake has offered up. It’s an oddly empowering lover’s quarrel put to song, with a chorus that’s built on the notion that Timberlake has cried enough — now it’s Britney’s turn. Although Timberlake tossed in a few more proto-Sad-Boy piano ballads (“Still On My Mind,” “Never Again”) on his debut solo album, 2002’s Justified, they faded into the background as Timberlake rebounded sexually all over the record (see: “Rock Your Body”). Still, it was progress: the biggest male pop star on the planet built a chorus around crying.

The most obvious heir to Timberlake’s throne, Justin Bieber, may be sad — given his acting out against the law in recent times — but that’s not reflected in his songs. He moved from baby-faced acoustic strummer playing to the fragile emotions of tween girls (see: “One Less Lonely Girl”), to a sexualized pop-R&B star with a fetish for leather sweatpants and rap assists (not unlike his mentor, Usher). One Direction will gladly take Bieber’s old fans and boysplain what makes them beautiful.

Male crying has remained a hot-button topic even as societal gender roles have loosened. But it never really had a poster boy in pop music until Drake started emoting all over the track on 2011’s “Marvins Room.” He’s transitioned more towards Sad-Boy Pop with each confessional album (2013’s Nothing Was the Same is the greatest emo-hip-hop album since Kanye West’s Sad-Boy phase, 808s & Heartbreak). In that way, he’s the male Lana Del Rey, the ultimate Sad-Girl Pop Star: millennials relate because they identify with the edgy “emotional mess” brand, on and off social media. Which brings us to the less edgy space occupied by Sheeran, Smith, and Jack Antonoff (who performs solo as Bleachers and plays guitar in Fun.), young men who don’t need to be drunk sexting with exes to admit their depression. To steal a phrase from Drake himself, they “own that shit” — Antonoff, 30, perhaps to the most extreme heights.

His debut single as Bleachers, “I Wanna Get Better,” is a synth-powered jolt of perfect power-pop with lines like, “Put bullet where I should have put a helmet” and “I didn’t know I was broken ’til I wanted to change.” The song’s video hammers home the self-help and mental illness themes: Antonoff plays a therapist dealing with others’ depression while navigating his own.

Strange Desire, Bleachers’ debut album (out next week, July 15), loosely adheres to a juxtaposition that made The Cure and The Smiths beloved among bummed-out teens long after they matured into maudlin adults: happy music, sad lyrics. Antonoff’s music is so over-the-top in its embrace of peppy ’80s pop and new wave, it’s easy to get lost in the romance of a line like, “I’d rather be sad with you than anywhere away from you” (“Wake Me”), without seeing how emotionally desperate it is.

“God, just shoot me the day I start making music you can just put on in the car and have a conversation over it,” Antonoff told BuzzFeed. “That’s not what I want to listen to. I want to listen to the stuff that makes me want to cry or have some kind of huge emotion.”

Where Antonoff hides his emotions behind his big sound, 22-year-old soul-pop crooner Sam Smith uses every corner of his big sound to express his emotions. Smith’s sadness stems from relationships, not necessarily clinical depression, but the way he sings it, you don’t doubt its long-lasting effects for a second. In his biggest single to date, “Stay With Me,” Smith employs a choir to help examine the instant gratification of a one-night stand that leaves him wrecked. “Why am I so emotional?/ No, it’s not a good look, gain some self-control/ And deep down I know this never works/ But you can lay with me so it doesn’t hurt,” he concedes, seeking salve for his tortured soul.

Beyond a stunning voice, there’s clearly something about Smith that resonates with listeners, who were first introduced to him via Disclosure’s “Latch.” “Stay With Me” sits at No. 5 on the Hot 100 chart, and his debut LP, In the Lonely Hour, debuted last month at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with respectable sales of 166,000 copies in its first week. Smith is often compared to Adele in that he’s British, has one of the best voices to emerge in pop this decade, and has channeled relationship woes into his songs. The difference with him, however, is that he lets his heart break over and over again, whereas Adele channeled it into vengeful bitterness (see: “Rolling in the Deep”). “These tears, they tell their own story,” a defeated Smith sings on “Lay Me Down.”

In the Lonely Hour is about a guy that I fell in love with last year, and he didn’t love me back,” Smith told the Fader. “I think I’m over it now, but I was in a very dark place. I kept feeling lonely in the fact that I hadn’t felt love before. I’ve felt the bad things. And what’s a more powerful emotion: pain or happiness?”

Where Smith’s pain sees only cracks of light on In the Lonely Hour, fellow Brit Ed Sheeran seems at peace with his Sad-Boy status on X, which debuted at No. 1 last month. You’d have to be pretty comfortable with yourself to casually toss off, “Oh I’m a mess right now” and “searching for a sweet surrender” before asserting that this is not the end. The limits of his own sadness are old hat at the age of 23.

Even when Sheeran writes a song about a celebrity fling (thought to be Ellie Goulding) gone wrong, he spins “Don’t” into a narrative in which he’s the victim, left gutted by a woman whose “heart is so cold.” Standard fare for the guy who, when he isn’t forlorn, comes across as a teen girl’s dream boyfriend (or best friend — interchangeable roles in Sheeran’s world, as NPR points out).

Boy bands have tried similar strategies for peddling non-threatening sexuality to a virginal crowd, but the casualness of Sheeran’s emotions and empathy make his act believable. This is just how he is: a true romantic, and an easily damaged one at that. It’s fine, he’ll carry on after a good cry… possibly even with his dad.

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