Described as ‘indie’s Pete Davidson’, Donoghue has become one of the most sought-after men in music. But are his fans confusing image for reality?
As hundreds of TikTok fancams and thirsty tweets will attest, Jack Donoghue has become one of the most lusted-after men in music. His brief relationship with Lana del Rey last year – as well as rumoured flings with a coterie of starlets, including Courtney Love, Julia Fox and Ethel Cain (none of which we can substantiate) – has earned him the moniker of “indie’s Pete Davidson”.
If you were familiar with his name from social media alone, you might get the impression that Donoghue is just a serial fuckboy, but he is an acclaimed artist in his own right: his band Salem has been hugely influential for over a decade, spearheading a whole genre (witch-house, a murky blend of Southern hip-hop, shoe-gaze and electronica) and soundtracking multiple shows at Paris Fashion Week. Since the band’s first album King Knight, which came out in 2010, Donoghue has landed a producer credit on Kanye’s Yeezy and has worked with Charli XCX, among others. Salem’s most recent LP, Fires in Heaven, released in 2020, received widespread acclaim (and is really good).
Donoghue’s newfound status as a sex symbol doesn’t require an elaborate sociological explanation: he is a straightforwardly handsome guy. But part of the appeal lies in his presentation as rugged, hyper-masculine and all-American: posing with shotguns and scowling in red baseball caps, he is the high-school quarterback who once shoved you into a locker or asked to borrow a pencil (a memory you cherished for years), before sliding into alcoholic dissolution as the manager of his father’s used-car showroom. This image allows people the frisson of desiring someone who looks like he might vote for Donald Trump, call them a slur or send them a YouTube link to a “highly shocking” exposé about paedophile rings in Hollywood, but it’s coupled with the reassurance that he is, deep down, the kind of person who wears t-shirts in favour of ‘dismantling white feminism’.
While Donoghue has been accused of ‘LARPING’ as a regular Joe, this is not entirely accurate: in a fallow period prior to the release of Fires in Heaven, he did spend a few years working in blue-collar jobs, including a stint installing windows in a small town. And while it’s true that he didn’t always style himself as he does now, there are greater crimes than “dressing like a working-class person”. Whether or not it’s performative, Donoghue’s aesthetic does lend him the air of a classic Lana del Rey bad boy: a Bible-Belt trucker, an Oklahoma bartender, the kind of man you’d meet in the winter of your life who would become your only summer.
One tweet that was posted and subsequently dragged to high heaven this week encapsulated the fetishisation of Donoghue as a symbol of unvarnished masculinity: “Jack Donoghue is the rise of the working-class lowbie tier male that exudes the masculinity that women want. He has low social status but pulls high-value ‘cool’ women because he embodies what the men in their social spheres lack. Rise of the quirked-up white boy.”
Jack Donoghue is the rise of the working-class lowbie tier male that exudes the masculinity that women want. He has low social status but pulls high-value “cool” women because he embodies what the men in their social spheres lack. Rise of the quirked up white boy ❤️🔥 pic.twitter.com/FQHUqMRd35— chloé (@bronzeageshawty) August 8, 2023
It is obviously ridiculous to describe a man who works in the music industry and, apparently, counts Wolfgang Tillmans as a close personal friend as “low-status”. What’s most striking about this tweet, though, is the way it positions white, muscular, bearded and masculine men as a kind of sexual underdog, finally reasserting their dominance after a period of societal neglect. This is an extremely online take (and arguably, a heterosexual one: no one could believe that Donoghue would struggle on Grindr). Maybe in certain niche corners of the internet, it’s normative to desire waifish, androgynous twinks above all others, but in reality, people have been lusting over Stanley Kowalski-style “trade” for decades: it’s an archetype that has never once stopped being desirable, no matter how popular Timothée Chalamet or Troye Sivan have become. Besides, with his ambiguous sexuality and penchant for kissing men, Donaghue hardly fits into the constraints of trad masculinity.
The celebration of Donaghue as the embodiment of macho Americana points to an understanding of class which is based entirely on aesthetic signifiers rather than a person’s material position in the world. You can chase after a small-town MAGA beefcake or a socialite who is besties with Julia Fox — but not both. There’s nothing wrong with finding those class signifiers hot, but we don’t have to celebrate the resurgence of the straight, white American male in the process. Now if you‘ll excuse me, I need to go cruising for rough trade – a real man’s man! – at the CSM student union, the lobby of Mamma Mia!, and the darling little antique store round the corner from my flat.