This week, Blake Shelton was named People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” for 2017. The annual honor reflects the cultural standards and general mood of the country. Past winners include stereotypical Hollywood heartthrobs like Brad Pitt and George Clooney (who’s received the honor not once, but twice) that showcase the values of virility at the particular moment. In light of Shelton’s newly acquired “sexiest man” status, well…welcome to Trump’s America.
Shelton is not the stereotypical movie hunk one would expect, nor is he American royalty like John F. Kennedy Jr. was when he received the title in 1988. Shelton is a wildly successful country music star and coach of The Voice known for his chest-bumping banter and one-upping of fellow coach Adam Levine (Sexiest Man Alive 2013). Shelton is endearing and much beloved on the Today Show, and he’s safe, a sort of suburban boy-next-door figure. But is he sexy in the way we’re used to — and could he possibly be the sexiest?
The answer, of course, is no; Shelton isn’t the sexiest, but he offers something else that we, as a country, are craving. Until now, sexiness in a man has connoted quiet strength, and a charm that makes women and men alike pause to take notice. Paradigms of tall, dark, and handsome, Adonis-like features, or Sean Connery-esque mystery come to mind. In Barack Obama’s eight years in office, People’s sexiest men alive were Hugh Jackman, Johnny Depp, Ryan Reynolds, Bradley Cooper, Channing Tatum, Adam Levine, Chris Hemsworth, David Beckham, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. These men collectively represent a kind of “new masculinity,” one in which it’s okay to be tough and into musical theater, to be both muscular and a doting father. Perhaps most simply, these men present as both strong and sensitive, symbols of machismo and champions of women’s empowerment. These men are emblematic of a sort of swagger that was characteristic of the Obama administration: edgy, of-the-moment, charming, and possessing a certain optimism and confidence that the Obama era represented for many Americans. (Johnson, notably, was the the first non-white “sexiest man” — thanks, Obama — since Denzel Washington in 1996. The decision was made during the 2016 election, a last gasp of Obama’s America.)
Jezebel described Shelton as a “human koozie” upon People’s announcement. A koozie — a foam aluminum can insulator that also prevents your hand from getting cold, most often associated with the consumption of cheap beer — is not what we typically associate with sexiness. Sexy is 18-year-old scotch on the rocks served in sturdy glassware, not a squishy foamy accessory to prevent your hand from getting cold on the way from the ice chest to the nachos.
So why have our standards of masculine sex appeal descended from Johnnie Walker to Coors? We don’t have the same sense of faith or security in the state of the country that we once had, and that is something that makes Shelton’s honor interesting. I don’t mean to suggest that Shelton is undeserving. He has an “average Joe” appeal that’s attractive in an age of political bombast. He offers a certain charm that appeals to a country run by volatile, spiteful men. He’s the Brawny man who can croon on a guitar when you’re worried about health insurance being taken away. He’s a tolerable doofus that forces a laugh or an eye roll in the face of a rather lugubrious American landscape. He’s approachable in an age when challenges are exhausting because our day-to-days are concerned with whether the president will ignite a world war in 140 — or worse, 280 — characters. His style reflects traditional hard-working American values, his approach is always “no bullshit,” and he seems genuinely concerned with the well-being of his fellow man. Shelton seems more all-American than others in large part because the country has fallen for his personality, whereas previous winners have acquired fans through portraying characters in movies. With Shelton, it seems his goofy persona as a coach on “The Voice” is exactly who he is. The transparency is refreshing.
Shelton as this year’s Sexiest Man Alive reflects the values that many are craving within our current political system — security, comfort, approachability. Shelton is an average Joe. Of course, what we need is something more fearless, more unorthodox, more enigmatic and groundbreaking. But we always want what we can’t have.