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The Dark History of ‘Nice Guys’ in Music

‘When I wrote ‘Nice Guys,’ I was wondering whether or not that adopted persona is purely for your own benefit — and that it’s a flawed mythology to put on yourself’

What do nice guys listen to? 

Ed Sheeran? James Taylor? Coldplay? Soothing sounds of waterfalls and Brazilian rainforests? 

Because we think of nice guys as being timid and nonthreatening, we assume that their playlists are similarly unaggressive. But what about songs about nice guys: Are they equally meek? Or, much like actual nice guys, are they more unpredictable and complicated than we realize, exhibiting different and sometimes contradictory aspects of the stereotype?

Below, you’ll find six songs that express a range of nice-guy experiences, from sensitive acoustic ballads to 1970s rock anthems to moody hip-hop ruminations. I even talked to some of the songs’ creators to discuss their mindset while writing about nice guys — and whether they consider themselves one.

Alice Cooper, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” (1973)

“They’re very few people I don’t get along with,” the man born Vincent Damon Furnier recently said. Of course, you know him better as Alice Cooper, the famed shock-rocker who was notorious for gallivanting with boa constrictors on stage. Nowadays, Cooper, who’s 71, is just as likely to be hitting the greens with everybody from Tiger Woods to Samuel L. Jackson, but in 1973, he showed his malevolent side with “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” in which he declared to the world that he was sick of being pushed around:

I used to be such a sweet, sweet thing
‘Til they got a hold of me
I opened doors for little old ladies
I helped the blind to see
I got no friends ‘cause they read the papers
They can’t be seen with me and I’m gettin’ real shot down
And I’m feeling mean  

With its shouted chorus of “No more Mr. Nice Guy” and arena-rock guitar riffs, the song became a brazen, strutting anthem for mad-as-hell types who wanted to tell the boss man to shove it. But co-writer Michael Bruce, who was a guitarist for the Alice Cooper band, had initially conceived “No More Mr. Nice Guy” as, in his words, a “guy/girl thing” about being pissed at a mean girlfriend. According to Bruce, some of the original lyrics were, “I used to break my back just to kiss your ass and got nothin’ in return / All my friends told me, ‘Man you’re crazy for being such a fool’ / But I guess I was because being in love made me so uncool.” It was Cooper who decided to tweak the song to address his annoyance at the negative press his rising stardom and controversial antics were prompting.

“Everybody at that point didn’t know whether to hate us or love us,” Cooper recalled in 2018. “But I was definitely, with the general public, the worst person ever. I was the Antichrist; I was everything. And I said, ‘Okay, that does it. Gloves are off — no more Mr. Nice Guy. Now we’re gonna get rough.’”

In other words, one of the great fuck-it songs was merely a way for Cooper to psych himself up — to don the mask of a villain, which is how many people saw him anyway. The song was as much a disguise as “Alice Cooper” was for Furnier. After all, the singer is a Christian who refused to incorporate swearing or nudity into his outrageous stage shows, which nonetheless made room for a sequence in which he’s fake-decapitated with a guillotine.

At home, though, he is the nice guy. “I talk about Alice in the third person,” he said in 2007, “because when I play Alice, I play him in the third person. … Alice wouldn’t get up there and go, ‘Gee, I hope you like us tonight, here’s a song we wrote in 1968…’ Alice gets up there and grabs them by the throat and says, ‘Come here. You’re mine.’ He’s almost the dominatrix.”

Rick Springfield, “Jessie’s Girl” (1981)

It was a No. 1 hit in 1981. It was memorably incorporated into the infamous Alfred Molina sequence in 1997’s Boogie Nights where Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler suddenly realizes what rock bottom really feels like. But for lots of men, “Jessie’s Girl” is simply the definitive encapsulation of romantic envy. You probably know the story — how musician Rick Springfield based the song on a real experience from his late 20s, changing the names before recording the tune for posterity. But “Jessie’s Girl” also reflected the singer-songwriter’s unconfident adolescence.

“As a child I was insecure,” Springfield once said. “I had a problem with too much wanking. At school I was always girl-obsessed but unbelievably shy. I didn’t get a whole lot of satisfaction, so to speak.” 

For a song about wanting to steal your buddy’s girlfriend, “Jessie’s Girl” has never sounded especially malicious or creepy. Between its bright pop hooks and Springfield’s woe-is-me demeanor, the song paints a seemingly unthreatening scenario in which our narrator has little-to-no-chance of landing his secret crush.

But dig a little deeper and notice how insidious the tune really is. For one thing, the “girl” is never identified by name. “Jessie’s Girl” focuses more on Springfield’s self-pity and self-absorption than in expressing any actual curiosity about who this woman is. “I’m looking in the mirror all the time / Wondering what she don’t see in me,” he moans. And in the chorus, he laments, “Where can I find a woman like that?” — although it’s just as easy to mishear it as “Why can’t I find a woman like that?” Springfield doesn’t really want “Jessie’s girl” — he just wants to find one as good-looking as her. Or, at the very least, he doesn’t want his buddy to be able to land someone so beautiful when he himself can’t. 

“It’s a bubbly and vivacious song, but it’s dark,” Springfield has said. “It’s also covetous, which a lot of my music is.” Boogie Nights cleverly tapped into the song’s inherent darkness, but the thwarted nice guy at its center was always there, viewing this woman as a trophy he must possess.

Skee-Lo, “I Wish” (1995)

“The song means a lot to me, yo,” Skee-Lo once said of his biggest hit. “I wrote ‘I Wish’ because, at a time in my life when I felt most down, it was something that made me happy, personally.” 

The mid-1990s were a period in which hip-hop had begun to cement its cultural stranglehold, with gritty New York lyricists like the Notorious B.I.G. and Nas crafting scary, seductive portraits of urban life. Meanwhile, in L.A., Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were celebrating a more laidback brand of gangster rap. And down the street, Skee-Lo (born Antoine Roundtree) was working with a horn sample from Bernard Wright’s 1981 track “Spinnin’,” fashioning a playful lament about how uncool he was. 

I wish I was a little bit taller
I wish I was a baller
I wish I had a girl who looked good
I would call her
I wish I had a rabbit in a hat with a bat
And a 6-4 Impala 

Where so much of 1990s rap was built around machismo and bravado, “I Wish” dared to present its singer as a lovable nerd — as the nice guy who couldn’t get the girl, wasn’t good at sports and whose car was the opposite of a chick magnet (“I got this hatchback / And everywhere I go / Yo, I gets laughed at”). Put it this way: If you’re trying to shore up your cool credentials, you definitely don’t cast yourself as a hip-hop Forrest Gump in your breakthrough video. But that’s exactly what Skee-Lo did, allowing himself to be the clip’s laughingstock.

He got the last laugh, of course: “I Wish” was a Top 20 smash in both the U.S. and the U.K. The song tapped into something universal, our collective desire to escape our circumstances and somehow become more successful, popular or revered. Nice guys can feel trapped, but Skee-Lo let listeners transcend their limitations for four minutes. He may be short and unlucky with the ladies, but nobody could take away his sunny optimism — or his big hit’s killer catchiness.

Cannibal Ox, “The F-Word” (2001)

Everybody gets put into the friend zone — even harder-than-hard rhymespitters like New York’s own Vast Aire. On the 2001 underground-rap classic The Cold Vein, which he recorded as Cannibal Ox alongside fellow rapper Vordul Mega, Vast gave the world “The F-Word,” which dealt with his confusion and anger over being rejected by a romantic interest. Almost two decades later, the 41-year-old musician tells me the story of the women who inspired “The F-Word” and what he learned by getting friend-zoned.

“It’s heavy, it’s heavy,” he explains. “I had two separate girls that did this to me — they were girls I dated and went through various things with. In my mind, I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going somewhere,’ but in their mind, it was like, ‘No, we’re just friends.’” 

“I crafted this song somewhere in 1998, 1999,” he continues. “I remember thinking, ‘This is gonna be dark. It’s gonna show the reality of misinterpreting things that are presented to you.’ I was the nice guy. I’m a bigger guy — I’m the teddy bear. I’m the one that, when the jerk messes up, is taking you to the movies to get him off your mind. But at some point, if you’re not wise, it can be disrespected or taken advantage of. I almost was at that point where, with one girl. I felt like, ‘You’re kind of abusing the situation.’ With the other girl, she was like, ‘Oh, you’re so nice. You’re more of my brother.’ I made this argument that, in a twisted way, you don’t wanna be friends with your lover. But when you get older, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I want someone that I can trust that understands me.’

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be with some amazing women in my life. I’ve never really been afraid — I’m a go-getter — so, if I meet someone that I’m into, I’m already figuring out, ‘How am I going to get back in the same room with her again?’ That said, I get turned down all the time, but that’s what gives me my strength — because you don’t always get turned down. A lot of women are open to giving you a chance if you approach them as a human being. If you approach them like they’re an object, then that’s the energy you’re gonna get. I learned that early on in bars. I wasn’t the 22-year-old asshole — I was the mature 22-year-old who understood how to engage in conversation. Get her a drink and see where things go. And from the beginning, I already know that it’s not a given: No one has to like you. It’s like the reality of when you go to war: You might not come back. But it doesn’t mean you won’t.”

“‘The F-Word,’ he concludes, “was my way to say, ‘Look, we all smash chicks. We all have got the fly girl that everyone wanted. Cool, but we’ve all gotten hurt, too — we’ve all chased a girl and could not get her.’ ‘The F-Word’ was my way to say, ‘You’re not alone — I’ve been through it myself.’ But at the same time, the silver lining is, I was genuine in the end — and I’m gonna find someone that’s just as genuine.”

Death Cab for Cutie, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” (2006)

Ben Gibbard is the poster child for 21st century nice-guy indie-rock. With his mild demeanor and introspective songs, he and his band Death Cab for Cutie helped popularize emo, which emphasized sensitive, sometimes navel-gazing confessional music full of lyrics about unrequited love and earnest romantic sentiments. Where rap-rock and metal brandished aggressive sonic assaults and misogynistic themes, Gibbard sings sweetly and melancholically with his lilting, vulnerable voice.

Ground zero for the Death Cab for Cutie experience may very well be “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” a whispery acoustic number dedicated to a beloved that starts with this somber proclamation: “Love of mine / Someday you will die / But I’ll be close behind / And I’ll follow you into the dark.”

“I was telling myself, ‘I’m going to stop writing depressing songs. This record’s going to be really upbeat,’” Gibbard explained in 2005 while promoting Plans, which featured the modern-rock-radio smash. But Gibbard’s sad-sack personality kept getting in the way: “‘I Will Follow You Into the Dark’ is a love song I wrote for my lady, really sweet and romantic. It’s about someone dying, and the person they love saying, ‘I’m close behind, I’ll follow you into the dark.’ But then I played it for her and she was like, ‘This song is fucking sad!’ Best to run with what comes naturally. I tried.”

Throughout his career, Gibbard has presented a complicated portrait of the contemporary nice guy. On albums like Transatlanticism and Plans, he comes across as a thoughtful, mild individual trying to make sense of himself and the object of his affection. The typical Death Cab for Cutie song is ideal for bedroom listening as you sit there alone, looking up at the ceiling, wondering what you did wrong while trying to mend your broken heart.

But although Gibbard is often gentle and kind on the band’s albums, there can be an ugliness underneath. Transatlanticism’s “Tiny Vessels” opens with these cold-blooded lines: “This is the moment that you know / That you told her that you loved her but you don’t / You touch her skin and then you think / That she is beautiful but she don’t mean a thing to me.”

Then there’s “I Will Possess Your Heart,” an obsessive song from 2008’s Narrow Stairs about a character who won’t take no for an answer. “[It’s] a work of fiction that was inspired by things that happened to some people close to me,” Gibbard once said, later adding, “The song is basically about a stalker. It’s about this nice guy who wants this girl he can’t have, and he believes they’ll be together once she realizes how great he is — he just has to wait it out. That’s the part that makes the song really creepy, the delusion of thinking that they were meant to be together. It’s a really dark song.”

At his best, Gibbard articulates the sincere hope of nice guys to be respected for their attentiveness and compassion, turning what’s often considered to be undesirable feminine qualities in a man into strengths. Listen to “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” and you get a sense of his humanity and depth. But he can also twist the knife, illuminating the unsettling underbelly of the nice guy who has the capacity to be as vile and entitled as his alpha-male counterparts.  

We Are Scientists, “Nice Guys” (2010)

On the catchy power-pop track “Nice Guys,” which was a hit on the U.K. indie charts, We Are Scientists frontman Keith Murray seems to be having a conversation with himself. Dealing with an unspecified disappointment, he declares, “Nice guys finish last anyway / And that’s just the problem” before kicking into a chorus that wrestles with what being a “nice guy” means: “If you’re the nice guy / Act like the nice guy / If you want this / I want it more.” For me, Murray explains what was going on with him when he co-wrote the song — and how he’s dealt with being pegged as a nice guy his whole life.

“Our musical genre tends to be a little more touchy-feely, sensitive and kind of inward-reflecting,” he says. “We do tend to draw legitimately nice people. But I think initially a lot of people thought ‘Nice Guys’ was simply a celebration of one’s own adoption of a nice-guy lifestyle. This is actually maybe the first-ever conversation I’ve had about ‘Nice Guys’ as kind of a dissection of the neuroses behind nice-guy-dom.

“I often think about the self-mythology of nice-guy-dom. I think most people would generally describe me as a nice guy, which I think is neither wholly positive nor wholly negative.

“When I wrote ‘Nice Guys’ in, I guess, 2009. I was thinking about how, in reality, all you’re really doing is telling yourself you’re a nice guy, and hopefully that translates to other people. But I was wondering whether or not that adopted persona is really purely for my own benefit — and that it’s kind of a flawed mythology to put on yourself.”

“Because if you are the person gauging whether or not you’re a nice guy, you’re probably always going to give yourself the benefit of the doubt,” he continues. “You’re always going to have context that allows you to see all of your behavior as benevolent. Even when you know that you’ve behaved poorly, there’s always going to be something that explains that away for you. When you feel like maybe you’ve transgressed to get what you want, you make an apology for yourself by saying, ‘Well, look, if I were simply going to be a nice guy all the time, I’d never get anywhere.’”

“I definitely had an incredibly sluggish dating life through high school,” he laughs. “I took it very slow, pretty much demanding that the woman always kind of… not necessarily make the first move, but deliver an open invitation to make the first move. But framing that as being a ‘nice guy,’ it gives you an ‘out’ to be really passive and succumb to indecision or the notion that you’re put-upon. It absolves you of having to actually be decisive in any way. I’ve definitely had women complain about that very facet of my dating style.”

Murray laughs again, before adding, “I had that ‘Well, he’s a real nice guy’ vibe in high school. It was a thing that I sat around thinking about a lot in that utterly reprehensible teenage-dude way: ‘It’s not fair. All the dicks get the hot girls I have crushes on, and I’m hanging out with my friend shooting videos and writing joke songs instead of going to homecoming.’ But I recognize that there’s a self-imposed aspect to all of that — you make this entire scenario something that you’ve created rather than blaming your tactics in life.

“It’s funny: My wife often tells people that when she met all of my friends she thought, ‘Oh, that’s where all of the nice guys in New York have been.’ Which kind of makes me feel like she was having a lot more fun before she met me.”

“‘Nice’ is the wrong word,” he concludes, “but We Are Scientists operate with so little hubris and so little affect that I think it often undermines us. In a lot of ways, in media and in business, humility is almost never to one’s own benefit. At the very least, it’s not terribly interesting. You almost never want to read a story about a mundane-but-decent person — what’s even really the point? Unless that mundane-but-decent person eventually has a meltdown — but that’s not really the direction I’m interested in heading.”