All the Sad Young Men, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1926 short story collection, may need its title repurposed for today’s pop landscape. Fifteen years ago, Justin Timberlake bid farewell to boy-banddom using an irrepressible brew of Spanish guitar, beatboxing, and Neptunes party rhythms. Two decades before that, his inspiration, Michael Jackson, transcended pipsqueakdom with one of the most joyful disco sets ever recorded. But today, whether seeking to banish the image of a sweet Degrassi teen (Drake) or of a purple cardigan and bowl cut (Bieber)—or whether simply and sacrilegiously seeking to become the “new Michael” (The Weeknd)—pop’s men prove their maturity with prayer hands, bitten lips, and slow songs about the profound burden of dating supermodels.
Maybe all these grim assertions of adulthood come out of the same malaise fueling 21 Pilots’s hit whine “Stressed Out,” which is to say they’re either a symptom of Millennial economic insecurity or of Gen-X parental coddling or of social-media-induced anxiety. Or maybe we’re just at one end of the pendulum swing for pop aesthetics. In any case, Friday’s release of the debut solo album from the ex-One Direction member Zayn Malik may mark peak sad-cool-dude. Which isn’t a knock—Mind of Mine might be the best chart-pop album this year’s provided. But after these 18 (or 20, depending on the version) decadent airings of sexualized angst hit the marketplace, it’s hard to imagine further efforts like it won’t feel redundant. The pout has gotta be on its way out.