Sean “Diddy” Combs is making another band. Last season he made this band, Danity Kane. The show featured dozens of thin (and one chubby) women who danced and strutted and preened their way to stardom. In many ways, Making the Band is a lot more honest than other reality-fame competitions. Diddy knows that it isn’t enough to be the best singer or dancer; to make it big, you need to be good at both, and you need to clean up really nicely. These women all play their parts as sexy, available, dare we say, feral women. And they can sing. Sort of. There’s nothing all that unusual about the brazen sex appeal of this band, and indeed, they’ve gone platinum “worldwide.”
But this season Diddy’s making another kind of band, an all-male band “in the tradition of New Edition, Boyz II Men, and N*SYNC.” This inside glimpse into the world of male artists is something a bit new, and unlike So You Think You Can Dance, Diddy and friends don’t seem at all anxious about the masculinity of the men who are preening for spots. And this is what makes the show so interesting. Representations of Black masculinity in popular media are largely one dimensional, centering a masculinity without fault lines. But that won’t do in the world of boy bands where part of the appeal is indeed a femininity that makes the band approachable by teen girls, a less risky place for girls to center their desire.
On the latest episode of the show, we see Ankh Ra, the resident vocal coach, teaching the young men to get in touch with their emotions, to bring their emotion to their songs and performances. Chris, remembering the death of his grandfather and telling the story to the rest of the contestants, breaks down in tears, and the others follow, a rare representation of male-male bonding, especially among young men. Chris’s problem on the show is that he can dance, but he can’t sing. Or can he? If he accesses the right emotion, the right “soul,” perhaps he can. He is admonished to “believe in himself,” as if that will erase his lack of vocal training and ability. But after his breakdown, we don’t see him sing, see if “being real” automatically translates to vocal success.
The real star of this emotional outpouring, however, is Danny, who sings a song about love. He’s admonished for singing without “soul,” and this is one of the themes of the show–that he lacks soul, which is code for blackness. Danny is one of two white men in the house, and we constantly see his fretting about this. He worries they’re trying to make him something he’s not (read: “African American”) and when he is assigned to his group of four for the contest, he tries to center his needs immediately. He wants to make sure that the outfits they choose will flatter his physique–he’s chubbier than the others–and that he will get to sing the parts he wants. In other words, he’s being white, assuming the centrality of his experience and needs, and the African American members of his group are quick to point this out to him. (“You’ve always been the lead singer…you aren’t the lead singer anymore,” his bandmates tell him.) Danny’s sense of white privilege is on display, and as viewers, we’re struck by his lack of comprehension of this (though others might identify with him…there are, of course, many ways to watch (the same show). And yet Danny’s privilege is supported as he is the central character of the episode.
He gets in touch with his emotions when he sings his song about love. He tells the story of his current love affair, affecting tears as the others watch, seemingly transfixed by Danny’s love. And then he sings again. And it is noticeably better. All because he’s gotten in touch with his emotions, that quintessentially feminine moment. And he got there through love.
The show, then, offers us a rare view of alternative masculinities–and not just the ones inherent in boybandom. This is a space where being in touch with your feminine side is key to success. Of course, we’ll see as the show progresses just where this line is drawn, and what it takes to secure proper masculinity. What seems clear so far, though, is that whiteness will be much harder to decenter than masculinity. We’ll have to tune in next time.