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Nick Jonas Is Quietly Woke

How a former boy-band star is redefining pop masculinity

CLAUS/clausstudios.com
CLAUS/clausstudios.com

March 31, 2016, was a day like any other until, late that morning, something beautiful happened: Reddit fell in love with a Jonas Brother.

Nick, the youngest survivor of the now-defunct family band, was on hand to participate in an AMA, Reddit’s open-forum Q&A session that’s quickly become an all but mandatory stop on the celebrity press circuit. To many of those assembled that morning, it seemed a safe bet that an ex-Jonas Brother would use the platform to soullessly hawk whatever he happened to be promoting. So, as the formerly mop-topped Disney Channel star introduced himself (“I’m Nick Jonas, and I was in a sibling boy band. Ask me anything”), the trolls sharpened their fangs.

And then, to borrow the local parlance, Nick Jonas pwned them all. The 23-year-old exuded candor, thoughtfulness, and even self-deprecating humor when he answered, say, a cynical question about the purity rings he and his brothers used to wear. To scroll down the page of the AMA’s archive is to watch, in real time, ridicule transform into begrudging respect transform into outright fondness. After Jonas shared his A1C number and some words of encouragement with a fellow diabetic, someone in the peanut gallery noted, “I need this fucking guy in my life to help me make good decisions.” But Jonas really sealed the deal when he took a question from a troll who asked him what it was like being in Hanson. “Almost as good as being in the Bee Gees,” he replied, with a winking emoticon. Quoth the Reddit user dont_post_just_lurk: “GOD DAMN HE’S LIKABLE.”

The AMA made visible the path that plenty of mature, reasonable adults have traveled the past few years as they’ve looked deep within their souls and asked, “Wait, is it … OK to like Nick Jonas?” Maybe you first asked it when you found yourself humming his slick 2014 hit “Jealous.” Maybe you were impressed by his performance on the underrated Audience Network drama Kingdom, on which he plays reticent, not-yet-out-of-the-closet MMA fighter Nate Kulina. Or maybe you just saw this picture. (A few years back, Vulture posed a related question: “When, exactly, did Nick Jonas get hot?” Its research was thorough enough to pinpoint the exact day: April 30, 2012.)

As the year goes on, the Grown-Ass Jonas will continue forcing these questions with his sheer cultural ubiquity. This summer alone, he is releasing a new album (Last Year Was Complicated, out June 10), a new movie (the campy erotic thriller Careful What You Wish For), and returning as the character Nate for the next installment of Kingdom. His face is also a constant presence on newsstands, though over the past few years it’s appeared in some truly unexpected places: In 2014, he graced the cover of UFC 360 magazine (even a blogger who took the magazine to task for promoting celebrities over up-and-coming fighters had to admit that Jonas’s performance on Kingdom was “impressive”). And then this past May, in perhaps his boldest move yet, Jonas — who identifies as straight, but has been dubbed “a gay icon” in part because of his role on Kingdom — was on the cover of Out magazine.

It’s hard to imagine another straight male pop star doing something like this, even in the supposedly enlightened year of 2016. (In the cover story, the Out reporter confronted Jonas about accusations of “gay baiting,” a relatively modern phenomenon in which straight celebrities “play footsie with the LGBT community” in an attempt to gain a gay following. Jonas deftly and vehemently denied these accusations.) But Nick Jonas is certainly setting out to complicate the idea of what modern celebrity masculinity looks like. In, heaven help us, the Age of the #WokeBae, does that make him revolutionary? Or does it all just prove that he’s an expert at branding himself as a new kind of man?

What a time to be a dude. Or, at the very least, a muscular, conventionally attractive male celebrity attempting to navigate a moment in which our cultural attitudes about gender and power are wildly in flux. We seem to be reassessing machismo, realizing en masse that stereotypes about masculinity can be as oppressive and limiting as those we project onto women. Consider that in little over a decade, we moved from the age of Eminem and “no homo” to a time in which so many famous people wanted to be in a movie about male strippers (McConaughey! Donald Glover! GOOD MORNING AMERICA’S MICHAEL STRAHAN!) that they had to go and make two of them.

For male heartthrobs these days, a certain amount of irony and even self-deprecation is de rigueur. “Might” only makes “right” if there are sarcastic scare quotes around at least half of the words in that phrase. No one seems to know this better than Channing Tatum, who has built an entire star persona around objectifying himself, inviting every possible joke anyone can make about him (including, in his delightful turn in Hail Caesar!, the gay ones), and thereby, in his coy knowingness, suggesting that there is more to him than meets the eye. But there’s a fine line between genuine stereotype-shattering and on-trend pandering, and some famous dudes walk it more steadily than others. Ryan “Hey Girl” Gosling makes pointed comments about sexism in Hollywood, but sometimes embodies his fan-fictional character so thoroughly that he becomes a human meme. For every Vin Diesel crying in public over his beloved co-star’s death (and wowing the entire internet with his falsetto rendition of Rihanna’s “Stay”), there is a Matt McGorry — the patient zero of #woke — instagramming photos of himself crying as part of Axe’s latest social media campaign (“Who needs bravado when you’ve got vulnerability? Being a ‘real man’ is being true to yourself.”)

A change is underway in the realm of the male pop star, too. Consider that only about a decade ago, Lance Bass (former member of *NSYNC and future grand emperor of the Moon) would have never dreamed of actively stoking rumors about his sexuality (let alone coming out of the closet, as he did after the band broke up). But for the millennial heirs to the boy-band throne, One Direction, gay rumors were the fuel on which their fandom ran. Fans obsessively “shipped” members of the band, and Harry Styles’ winking, bed-headed androgyny only seemed to add to his appeal.

Still, over the past few years (and especially as female pop star powerhouses like Adele, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift have dominated the conversation and the charts), masculinity in pop music doesn’t seem to be evolving as swiftly as it is in the rest of our culture. Its current leaders are a little lost. Justin Bieber is living out an awkward, public transition from boy to man; he’s spent his Purpose album cycle taking two steps forward (a couple infectious singles; a humanizing instagram here and there) and then two steps back (sprouting white-boy dreads; hanging out with Post Malone, the human equivalent of white-boy dreads). Drake once seemed to be a harbinger of a more sensitive hip-hop masculinity, but recently, on his latest album Views, that’s calcified into something more traditionally macho and bitter towards women. And even Zayn, the first solo star to emerge from the premiere boy band of the skinny-jeans era, seems out to prove his machismo through dating supermodels, and then making songs and videos about how they are most definitely fucking, and doing it so loudly that the neighbors are pissed, man.

There is an open lane right now for a more thoughtful, complicated male pop star — say, the Channing Tatum of pop — and Nick Jonas is making a run for it. Which is more than a little strange, given how he got here.

Though the other two members of the Jonas Brothers are older, it all started with Nick. A precocious talent, he was 6 years old when he was “discovered” singing for some salon customers while waiting for his mom to get her hair done. Before he started writing and jamming with his brothers, he released a Christian-pop solo album at the wizened old age of 12. Please stop what you are doing right now and listen to this child prodigy’s cover of “Higher Love.” Says one YouTube commenter, not incorrectly, “steve winwoods way better everyone check it out.”

When the album didn’t really go anywhere, 12-year-old Nick put his solo career on hold to form a band with his two older brothers: 15-year-old Joe and 17-year-old Kevin. You are likely familiar with the rest: an appearance on Hannah Montana, starring roles in the hit Disney Channel movie Camp Rock, and eventually their own Disney sitcom, J.O.N.A.S. They sold out stadiums, moved millions of records, and — perhaps the most tried and true measure of success — were lampooned on South Park. The episode (and much of the mainstream media) focused on the purity rings that their pastor father had given them to wear in public. After the Jonas Brothers broke up in 2013, Joe admitted that they’d taken off the rings (and done all that that insinuates) a few years prior. Still, when it came up in that AMA, few were ready for how honestly Nick discussed his purity-ring past. We’re so used to celebrities — and especially former teen idols — answering difficult questions with the vagueness of politicians that his response was stunning in its candor. “Without a full understanding of what we were stepping into,” he said of his brothers’ chastity vows, “we all made this commitment. But as you do, you grow up, you live your life, you gain some world perspective and you develop your own views. … So I started making my own choices, fell in love with somebody, made the choice to have sex with them, and from that point on it was about me being a man and being okay with my choices.”

If only he could bring that unique a worldview to his new album. Despite the confessional tease of a title, Last Year Was Complicated displays the most one-dimensional side of Nick Jonas — the former teen star shedding his saccharine past by making, for the most part, mid-tempo, Melba-toast ballads tailor-made for radio. Much of the album apparently concerns his breakup with the former Miss USA Olivia Culpo, though specifics are often shoehorned into lyrics that aim for the universal, but come off as dull. I can picture the mid-tempo ballad “Chainsaw” on the radio, but I can also picture myself half-hearing it in a CVS in a few months and forgetting who sings it. (“Zayn?”) A few highlights do emerge, even if they don’t reach the heights of “Jealous”: There is something hypnotic about “Close,” his current hit duet with Tove Lo. And woefully buried at the end of the album is “Comfortable,” a solid, fleet-footed, JT-doing-MJ track that, at the end, quite inexplicably samples Allen Iverson’s “practice” speech — a wonderful head-scratcher of an artistic decision, briefly pointing in the direction of a quirkier, more personal album that never materializes.

Blame all the innuendo, maybe. Last Year Was Complicated contains metaphors that range from the confusing to the corny to the cringeworthy. (A recent headline on The Verge, with which I agree: “Nick Jonas Released a Song About Bacon, and I Have No Idea if that’s a Sex Thing.”) There’s a song built around the refrain, “I’ll never get over/Not getting under you,” repeated so many times that it’s as though he thinks we need some time to get it. We got it the first time. And then, I am sorry to report, there is a song with the chorus, “I go from touching you with both hands/To touching you with no hands/Oooh/That’s my favorite way of touching you,” which, yeah, I really, really want to believe he’s not talking about touching you with his dick, but I have thought about it a lot and exhausted every other option. Sorry.

I am not ready to definitively say that Nick Jonas is a better actor than musician, but he definitely saves his riskiest artistic choices for his on-screen life (and, for some reason, his promotional outings). Even back when he was acting with his brothers, Nick often assumed the role of wise-beyond-his-years introvert; in Camp Rock, the five-years-older Kevin comes off as the dopey Falstaff to Nick’s tiny, level-headed prince. On Kingdom, he plays Nate with an understated intensity, keeping his head down as he moves through a world he knows and understands, though in which he doesn’t quite belong. Nate suggests that even tough guys aren’t all on the surface; he has depths we can’t quite see. Goat, his indie frat-hazing movie, got rave reviews at Sundance for embodying a similar dynamic and painting a nuanced portrait of bro-on-bro violence that is at once unsparing and nonjudgmental. As an actor, Jonas seems drawn to roles that tackle modern, complicated depictions of masculinity.

Perhaps he’ll fully come into his own when he’s able to translate that into his music. Because, despite what you think of Last Year Was Complicated, Nick Jonas is musically talented. Like, low-key the most talented Jonas Brother-talented, had-writing-credits-on-almost-every-song-on-the-album-he-released-when-he-was-12-except-that-godforsaken-Steve-Winwood-cover talented. Still, his musical persona needs to play catch up with the other aspects of his celebrity. I usually hate when critics say things like, “I’m confident he’ll make more interesting music in the future,” but in this case I believe it.

And maybe that’s what feels new about him — the way he projects a vibe that he doesn’t quite know who he is yet, and he isn’t stressed about it. (As opposed to Justin Bieber, who at press time seems very stressed about it.) Nick Jonas is in no particular hurry. In this sense, Kingdom might be the most characteristic — and interesting — thing he’s done to date. (Seriously, please start watching Kingdom; I need more people to discuss it with.) He probably could have taken a much bigger role on a different kind of show, but here he’s not the star. He is billed fifth in the credits of a DirecTV-only program, and he is quietly killing it. His character, Nate, is an up-and-coming fighter (and, what do you know, one in a family of two other dynamic superstars), lurking around the edges of the show’s world, trying to figure out where he fits in, which parts of his old identity to shed and which to keep — what kind of man he wants to be in this weird, wide world. These things take time, and Nick Jonas, subtly, seems to possess the knowledge that maturity and manhood are not quick, finite contests that you either win or lose. Life is not the big game. It’s practice.