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Jens Lekman and the New Masculinity

Lekman represents a burgeoning crop of straight, male artists who won't be considered for the True Colors Tour, but who use their music and personalities to create a safe space for all men who fall outside the traditional ideas of masculinity.
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There are many reasons to stare at Jens Lekman's ass. I know that I spent much time at his recent Williamsburg show doing just that. I'd be lying if I said the view wasn't pleasant, but mostly I was just checking for his diaper. Why? Because this man's got both charm and compassion leaking from every pore in his body, and I don't know where it all goes.

An expert lyricist housing an irresistibly AM-Golden voice, the Swedish singer/songwriter also exerts full control over his audience. In high contrast to D.C.'s own 930 Club, the crowd was polite and were all there to see him, not to party. There was no one spilling a drink on me, no ponytail dipping into my beer, no straight girl yelling at me to dance and no straight dude looking like he's going to beat me for wearing tight jeans. And that's before the songs even start.

Lekman's current single "Waiting for Kirsten" is a Dunst-centric crush ballad cleverly disguising a dirge for small-town life, and he is a perennial crush object for women who look sexy in tweed. Yet he represents a burgeoning crop of straight, male artists who won't be considered for the True Colors Tour, but who use their music and personalities to create a safe space for all men who fall outside the traditional ideas of masculinity.

The track "A Promise," off his new An Argument with Myself EP, is a love song written for a man named Immanual. It is neither romantic nor sexual. The man in question is ill. Lekman describes the process of standing by his proverbial bedside waiting for him to get better. The promise in question is to take Immanual to Chile when he gets better so that they may ogle "the most beautiful women in the world." "A Promise" joins a small pantheon -- including Hot Chip's "Brothers" and Ariel Pink's "Menopause Man" -- of songs by straight artists who are unafraid to compromise their dude cred through expression of so-called "womanly" emotion.

Dance music has been a safe haven for men wishing to express their feelings (see half the tracks from LCD Soundsystem's This Is Happening), but it's rare for more low-key tunes to slip in a little non-bro sentiment. Lekman produced a bona fide queer anthem in 2007's "A Postcard to Nina" -- describing his experience posing as the titular woman's boyfriend so her father wouldn't know she was moving to New York with her girlfriend -- but it went largely unheralded by the queer media. A song like "A Promise" also has not been picked up by the lavender news engine. I consider this a plus, as the "no big deal" attitude helps open the door for other artists who want to say something true without answering questions about their sexuality from a scandal-starved blogosphere.

James Blake, the current it-kid of dubstep, similarly flew under the queer radar for a like-minded sentiment he expressed in the Boston Phoenix:

I think the dubstep that has come over to the US, and certain producers ... have definitely hit upon a sort of frat-boy market where there's this macho-ism being reflected in the sounds and the way the music makes you feel.... And I just think that largely that is not going to appeal to women. I find that whole side of things to be pretty frustrating, because that is a direct misrepresentation of the sound as far as I'm concerned.

Blake is only 22 and shows a rare, if inadvertent, knowledge of the links between gender and sexuality. The idea that "men must act like men" has caused damage to countless individuals -- gay, straight, trans, female, whatever -- that don't have any interest in dignifying the accepted standards of masculinity. Exempting "gay bands" like The Gossip and Diamond Rings, today's indie rock can show a clear divide between dude music and chick rock. Ghostland Observatory has two extremely queer-friendly members, but taking my boyfriend to their show was about as comfortable as giving him a BJ at a Focus on the Family rally. No one's going to make me uncomfortable at a Rilo Kiley show, but I wouldn't expect a long line at the urinal.

It takes a lot to create a safe space, and there are few venues that create as much intersocial collision as a rock show. I've seen Lekman three times now and never felt that anyone would be unwelcome. His tour for 2007's Night Falls over Kortedala did contain some trappings of a traditional gay experience -- matching costumes for his band, bursts of choreography -- but even in Williamsburg, when the show was just he, his guitar and a drummer, the crowd dropped all their pretenses and came together to sing along, snap their fingers when prompted and not bat an eye at a song like "A Promise."

Jens Lekman has managed to become a gay favorite without pandering to our audience -- no flamboyant costumes, no winks or entendres -- and produce a great hetero date night without making the guy or the girl feel out of place. Most of all, no one's saddled him with the label of "sensitive guy" (the slightly-less-heterocentric equivalent of "metrosexual") which means that, hopefully, he and his ilk will help create an increasingly larger arena for dudes of all stripes with nothing to prove.

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