IDLES in Today’s Conversation on Toxic Masculinity
Content warning: This article mentions sexual violence
Formed in 2009 in Bristol, England, IDLES is a critically acclaimed punk rock band with Joe Talbot on vocals, Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan on guitar, Adam Devonshire on bass, and Jon Beavis on drums. Like many punk bands, they address social issues such as wealth inequality and racism, but they do so in a unique way that encourages love and unity. Throughout their four-album discography, they tackle ideas of toxic masculinity and gender norms through their bold and sarcastic lyrics.
The first IDLES album, Brutalism, was released in 2017 folowing the death of Talbot’s mother. In an interview with Thomas Frost of Crack Magazine, Talbot explained that because of his mother, each song on the album was inspired by the women in his life. On Brutalism, the band writes the music while Talbot writes his frustration in his lyrics. One of the fan-favorites from the album, “Mother,” sees Talbot reflecting on his upbringing to share a broader message pertaining to toxic masculinity. Talbot critiques the education system on both an individual level and systematic level. He sarcastically says, “I know nothing, I just sit here looking at pretty colors” but then expands this sentiment about his education with a larger social commentary on the institutional cause of rape culture: “Sexual violence doesn't start and end with rape/ It starts in our books and behind our school gates/Men are scared women will laugh in their face/Whereas women are scared it's their lives men will take.”
“Mother” was one of my first encounters with IDLES. I remember listening to it on repeat because I especially enjoyed the sound of the song before I even processed the lyrics. As I listened to the song more, I came to understand the importance of the message. “Mother” and other songs off Brutalism were released around six months before the #MeToo movement, which started a new conversation about assault in the entertainment and work industry. Personally, I think when artists sing about feminism, especially after the #MeToo movement, it is easy to get trapped in a surface level discussion of the issue. However, “Mother” calls for an institutional and cultural change to end rape culture rather than simply acknowlegding the issue.
IDLES released their sophomore album, Joy As An Act of Resistance, in 2018. The album features songs such as “Danny Nedelko,” dedicated to a friend of the band and his experience as an immigrant in England amidst Brexit, and “Television,” a universal call for everyone to love themselves. They continue the theme started in “Mother” on songs “Samaritans” and “Never Fight a Man with a Perm.” Both songs contain lyrics that not only deal with toxic masculinity, but also show a reflection on the band’s own identities as men in a society that encourages hyper-masculinity. “Samaritans” reflects on Talbot’s personal journey with masculinity and mental health. It starts with commands from his father: “Man up, sit down/ Chin up, pipe down/ Socks up, don’t cry/ Drink up, just lie/ ‘Grow some balls,’ he said/‘Grow some balls.’”
These lyrics repeat throughout the song as Talbot sings about the draining nature of toxic masculinity, “The mask of masculinity is a mask that’s wearing me.” He goes on to redefine what it means to be a man, “I’m a real boy, boy and I cry.” While he comes to this self-realization, he acknowledges that his father is also trapped in this mindset when he says, “this is why you never see your father cry.” Instead of criticizing a man’s masculinity, Talbot implies that his father’s attitude is caused by a greater force that he has no control over. The song continues to ramp up to the climax when Talbot screams, “I kissed a boy and I liked it!” At concerts when Talbot used to introduce the song he would say, “This song is about the disease in the brain called masculinity.” In the song “Never Fight a Man with a Perm,” he describes a fight between himself and a hyper-masculine figure. The outro of the song is what makes IDLES unique and distinguishes them from other punk bands: “I’ll shut my mouth, Let’s hug it out.” The song has a certain level of intensity and anger but ultimately ends with a unifying sentiment. Like “Samaritans"' description of Talbot’s father, Talbot and the rest of the band encourage forgiveness and societal growth rather than directing anger towards individuals. They encourage men to let go of hyper masculinity and grow into their own personalities.
On their third record Ultra Mono, songs such as “Ne Touche Pas Moi,” which means “Don’t Touch Me” in French,” make important points about sexual harassment with the aim of unifying men and women against the perpetrators of harassment. Throughout the song, Talbot can be heard yelling, “Consent!” In general, using buzzwords to stir an audience can either draw an audience in or cause them to recoil. This is common in many punk rock songs due to the nature of social commentary but few can pull it off.
IDLES recently released their fourth album, Crawler, on November 13th. Talbot explained that Crawler was created to heal the world after the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, the world experienced a universal sense of suffering that people had to process in isolation. In an interview with the New Zealand magazine Stuff, Talbot said, “The universal nature of the album is that everyone has a trauma… All these things that have happened to me, and they’ve also happened to every f*ck on the planet. And what we’ve done as a band, what we always seek to do, is try and make everyone feel like they’re not alone in the world.” IDLES’ overall discography speaks about gender in a way that has seldom been done before. The band combines the decade long practice of androgynous dressing with lyrics that tackle toxic masculinity. Despite decades of male artists speaking up about gender and toxic masculinity, most IDLES songs explore toxic masculinity on an individual and societal level.
The fluidity of gender and its norms are being discussed more in the media, with people like Harry Styles wearing a dress on the Vogue cover, or Billy Porter wearing a gown on the red carpet during the 2019 Oscars. While such strides are made, bands like IDLES are essential in the conversation. They practice habits that encourage a liberal view of gender but also write lyrics that reflect their opinions on the issue. Their music holds the intensity that punches a listener in the face but emotionally helps them find and reflect on their own identity.
Carolina Permuy is a Freshman in the SFS and is undecided.