Positive Masculinity—”Something About You” by Elderbrook and Rudimental

Featured Parenting

Recently, my wife turned me on to the music video for “Something About You” by Elderbrook and Rudimental. She just said she thought I’d like it. Neither of us were prepared for the tears that came when I watched it. “It’s just so beautiful and complex.” That’s all I could say. I watched the video another half-dozen times before realizing that the video didn’t affect her the same way it affected me because it is so clearly targeting toxic masculinity, and the struggles men have with being vulnerable in what I call “Western Male Culture.” Below, I have broken the song down. You can watch the video or not, but I describe the relevant aspects of the video throughout, and my interpretations and some reactions as well. This breakdown might be helpful if you don’t understand toxic masculinity, or if you just want a different perspective on an internationally-celebrated music video.

You can find the video embedded several times. Each time, it’s at the time stamp of the moment described just below the video frame. Hopefully, this will help people who want to skip to certain parts, or help you keep the video on screen while you read the analysis.

Open on a scene of anxious solitude. A man standing in a stairwell, obviously distressed. Men who have attended support groups of any kind can recognize the fear of being vulnerable in front of people, even if they are (presumably) going through similar things.

The scene moves to a “session” in a gymnasium, the kind of place grief support groups, AA, NA, and all kinds of other community groups meet. The thing that makes this scene notable, is that it is all male-presenting people of all ages, and various skin colors.

The facilitator asks “Kevin,” the person to his left, if he wants to share. Kevin doesn’t respond. He sits, tapping his foot with his arms crossed. Almost immediately, he jerks his head away, as if unable to face the idea of being vulnerable in front of 9 other people. Those versed in Western Male Culture will recognize the stereotype of a “man” being unwilling or unable to open up in front of other men.

The facilitator doesn’t linger on Kevin. As a group therapy facilitator, I recognize the look on his face. It’s resigned to the fact that sometimes, the best thing for everyone is to just move on to someone else to get the ball rolling until the anxious/unwilling participant is more comfortable. The facilitator calls on the next person to his left. “Michael,” he prompts, “would you like to share with the group?” The anxious man from the hallway appears on-scene, gruff masculine face crumpled with an expression that is difficult to describe accurately because it is so expressive. You can see anxiety, sadness, hesitation, then resignation.

The first lyrics begin to play over the video.

“I miss the touch of morning sun
Making silhouettes of us
Way back when we had our paradise”

You can only wonder if Michael is facing loss. Did someone die, did they leave him? We still don’t know what kind of support group this is meant to be.

You can see Michael thinking about how to share. He clenches his jaw, looks blankly into space, and stands up. For an instant, you think Michael is going to leave. Lord knows, I’ve seen enough people leave support groups. Sometimes people can’t take the vulnerability, or the constant talking, or being perceived as weak, and they just leave. Sometimes they come back, try again. Sometimes they don’t.

But Michael doesn’t leave. Still wearing a haunted expression, he takes a few steps into the middle of the circle while the next round of lyrics play.

“We’re staying up all through the night
Smoking, drinking, getting high
I was wrong and I apologize”

As “I was wrong and I apologize” play, Michael reaches up and flexes both arms in a classic strong-man, he-dude pose. The lyrics continue as Michael begins an awkward line dance sequence, hesitant, not looking at anyone, clearly expecting rejection, rebuke, or a lack of compassion.

“Where did you go? What can I do?
I’m working on my problems
But I need you here to solve them
Where did you go? What should I say?
I hope that I can make a change ’cause”

Between the setting, the expressions on the characters’ faces, and the lyrics, we can assume that Michael is dealing with some sort of loss, and is doing his best to open up and embrace that. The other attendees of the session are looking down, looking away, unwilling to stare at someone’s attempt to be seen. Michael is obviously a bit terrified, which amplifies as the chorus begins to play. He finishes his steps, and looks around, looking ready to run for cover. He takes a deep breath, looking defeated, waiting for the inevitable judgement that comes from male peers in an all-male environment.

“There’s something ’bout you
Keeping me sober
I was drowning in the moment
And now I’m holding onto you”

The chorus repeats as a tall macho-looking participant walks up, looking grim. As the tension rises, he raises his muscular fists to either side of his bald head. Michael joins him, and we see our first moment of solidarity, connection, and even a little macho-themed vulnerability. The two repeat the dance sequence, mirrors of each other, as the facilitator nods to himself in that familiar keep-going-I-won’t-interrupt-progress kind of way.

“There’s something ’bout you
That keeps picking me up when I’m low
There’s something ’bout you
That keeps picking me up when I’m low”

The two dancers shift to stand next to each other using subtle but effective choreography. They aren’t prancing, they aren’t spinning, and there are no lifts. This is a simple line dance, modified for the setting. It’s approachable, easy to learn, and infinitely flexible as to the number of participants. In short, it’s a dance that says “I’m doing this, and you don’t have to. But you are welcome.” It’s also fundamentally gender-neutral, and therefore safe for men to do together.

“I miss the company we had
Back when I was still on track
Now I’m making my own paradise”

As the next verse picks up another participant stands. This participant is shorter than the first two, and less fashionably dressed. In short, if there was a “geek” in this video, it’s him. The tension is visible as he works himself up to standing up. He hesitantly raises his arms in the macho-posture the others adopted before dancing, and the scene cuts away.

“But now the drink is tasting strange
And the high isn’t the same
I’m still wrong and I apologize”

As the second part of this verse begins, another person of color stands. He’s wearing a topknot, loose clothing, and is heavy set. He adopts the now-standard pose, and heads into the line, nodding to himself. To my primed eyes, he’s obviously reassuring himself that this is an okay thing to do. He steps into the line, and Michael, our first dancer, looks over his shoulder. They meet glances and immediately look away, obviously uncomfortable with sharing the moment. As a queer person, I’ve seen this look on the faces of many men. Whether it’s a newly-outed gay man coming to grips with being public visibility, or a straight guy learning to be more open about his mental health, a universal facet of Western Male Culture is that near instant eyes-meet-look-away moment which so effortlessly evokes the discomfort men feel when they are at risk of judgement.

“Where did you go? What can I do?
I’m working on my problems
But I need you here to solve them”

Joined by the facilitator, the troupe of 5 dancers form an X before repeating their dance together while the chorus plays. The simple shuffling of feet has turned into a full, albeit simple, routine. Arms, shoulders, and hips, these guys are 100% involved in the dance. This reminds me strongly of the turning point in a lot of groups, especially groups dealing with stigma associated with perceived weakness like male loss, mental health struggles, and self-improvement efforts.

“Where did you go? What should I say?
I hope that I can make a change ’cause”

The screen pans to Kevin, the first participant, who looked away. He is clearly not convinced that this is a safe bet. He looks uncomfortable and jerks his head away, as if ashamed. Is he ashamed of the dancers for participating? Is he ashamed that he wants to join them? Or is he ashamed that he wants to join them but can’t bring himself to do it?

“There’s something ’bout you
Keeping me sober”

Pan to the young black man, clearly echoing the sentiments of Kevin. Bouncing foot, looking down and away, and that look of practiced relaxation that means someone is actually incredibly tense.

“I was drowning in the moment
And now I’m holding onto you”

Now we see the oldest person in the group, white-haired and looking resigned. After a moment, he stands, too.

“There’s something ’bout you
Keeping me sober
I was drowning in the moment
And now I’m holding onto you”

We cut to Kevin, seeing the white-haired man joining, and his look of anxiety is replaced with a cautious determination. As the chorus repeats, we see the other participants assembling into a 10-person group with three lines. Kevin is finally standing up, but we realize it’s not until the entire group is doing it. Younger, older, thin, heavy, pale, dark, all different kinds of “men” have now joined in the line dance, including all of those who were previously too uncomfortable to put themselves out there in front of others.

“There’s something ’bout you
That keeps picking me up when I’m low
There’s something ’bout you
That keeps picking me up when I’m low”

As this bridge plays, our dancers perform a more elaborate version of the line dance. Now the dance has a feel to it, and an energy, rather than being the pathetic steps Michael first forced himself to perform for the group. There’s real choreography here, but the men are all facing away from each other. Nobody has to make eye contact. It’s almost like they all just happen to be doing the same activity. At the end of this section, though, they pair off.

“There’s something ’bout you
Keeping me sober
I was drowning in the moment”

As these lines are played, two couples get a close-up shot, and we can see clear messages of anxiety, fear of rejection, and hesitation. Deep breathing, a bit of staring, but most notably: Nobody looks away. Instead of acting from a place of shame, their shared experience has led them down a path that feels safer despite being even more vulnerable than before.

“And now I’m holding onto you”

As this line plays, the men take each others’ hands in a ballroom dance grip.

“Ooh, oh, holding onto you”

Now we see Michael step in and join his partner in a moment of intimacy that so many men avoid. They are close to each other in a way men are taught they shouldn’t be with anyone except their partner.

“Oh, holding onto you”

Michael leans in, resting his head against his partner’s in a moment of pure platonic vulnerability that just wrecked my heart when I first saw it. How many men have you seen lean in to each other that way, pressed together in a purely platonic moment of support and vulnerability? It’s so achingly rare in my world, that this moment of film changed my entire interpretation of the video. Bonus points that they chose to depict the people of color dancing with white people. I mean, it would have been really gross if they had (as has happened countless time in media) paired off the people of color to have them dancing just with other people of color. It’s not a huge win, but I’ll take it. (Also, toxic masculinity and racism are often tied up together for certain groups, so I’m pleased that that intersection isn’t reinforced here, even by mistake.)

“Oh, holding onto you”

Now we see all five couples, pressed against their partners, embracing this moment together. We see shots of Kevin pressed face-first into his partner’s chest, in a clear acceptance of his need for support, and the fact that he has it, right now. But also? It’s easier for some men to face their vulnerability if they don’t have to look it in the eye. There’s a subtext here that Kevin is both growing, and suffering from the habits and expectations of toxic masculinity.

“There’s something ’bout you
That keeps picking me up when I’m low
(And I’ve been falling)
There’s something ’bout you
That keeps picking me up when I’m low
(And I’ve been falling)
There’s something ’bout you”

As the chorus starts its last playback, we see all ten dancers in the macho-man pose. They quickly dive into a new choreography that is both different and the same. Some participants are smiling, others look confident for the first time. At the very least, this is the first time many of them look comfortable with any of the dance moves, and the first hint that casting might have actually called for people who could move their bodies with any kind of grace. As the verse wraps up, we see Michael, no longer frowning. His fundamentally emotive face, and frankly epic eyebrows, are relaxed, peaceful.

The music fades out, and Michael looks around. Our “geek” character looks around uncomfortably in a sudden did-I-just-do-that moment of introspection. He nods at Michael, before the participants wander away from their poses. All we have in the end is Michael’s now-empty chair. The way they walk away from the center could be interpreted as going back to their chairs or leaving the session for the day. We’ll never know if this was a one-off moment for the group or the kind of transformative moment that is always unexpected but so vital to the success of a support group’s collective growth.

But why talk about it?

Why did I just write so much about a four-minute music video that’s not even new? Why should you care? Simply: This is an example of the kinds of journeys people need to take regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, or religion. Everyone has to learn to be vulnerable, to connect with others, and to see that those risks are rewarding. If the toxic masculinity of Western Male Culture is going to be replaced with Positive Masculinity, we need to recognize that there are people doing this, right now. This is a conversation that’s happening, and we need to participate in it to make sure everyone is represented. If people are going to live their best lives, regardless of their culture, they have to learn to be open, honest, and sometimes critical of the systems they currently live in. That’s why we talk about toxic masculinity and positive masculinity—because we want our sons to grow up to be good men, not men who live their lives dictated by fear of rejection for liking flowers, or dresses, or dancing, or anything else toxic masculinity dictates that they avoid.

We’re going to cover more examples of both toxic masculinity and positive masculinity, so if there’s something you’d like to see us unpack, let us know in the comments. And don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be a music video with 22 million views on YouTube. Whether it’s a comic book villain with a complicated relationship with his masculinity or a trans man facing criticism for not acting “like a man”, we want to help people understand the far-reaching implications of toxic masculinity, and we’re interested in the places you see it.

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