Nick Jonas’ “Last Year Was Complicated” is subtextually kinky as fuck

I once thought, for a few glittering moments, that Nick Jonas might be a kinkster. I clicked on his album Last Year Was Complicated in Spotify’s “New Releases” section last summer, saw a song called “Good Girls,” and felt my heart clench in my chest. Would this be a love song from a dominant type to his good little princess? I didn’t even give myself time to think through the unlikeliness of this hope. I just double-clicked on the song and started listening.

My dream of a kinky love song was crushed as quickly as it’d burst into my brain. “Good Girls,” like much of Nick’s canon (and much of pop music in general), is a misogynist mess. But my dream of a consensually kinky Nick Jonas has never quite died.

I am a sex writer and also a diehard kinkster, so I see BDSM where probably none exists. It’s why my ears perk up when anyone calls their father “Daddy,” it’s why the smell of leather can stop me in my tracks, and it’s why calling a man “Sir” feels fraught for me even when he is my literal, unsexy superior. My world and my brain are shot through with kink. I view everything through that lens.

But in the almost-year since Last Year Was Complicated came out, I’ve listened to it so many times, and soaked up so much of its nuance and style, that I’ve determined even a less kink-minded person could see the power-exchange undercurrent in this pop masterwork. It’s likelier a byproduct of our patriarchal culture than it is due to any actual D/s influences in Jonas’ mind himself, but a girl can dream. Our boy Nick has indeed publicly admitted to an interest in spanking and voyeurism, so maybe I’m not a delusional perv after all.

With all that said, I still think reader response is just as valid as authorial intent. So here are some of my “reader responses” to Last Year Was Complicated. Spoiler alert: I am a very, very kinky reader.

Champagne Problems

I wonder what women would fantasize about in a world of true equality. I wonder how thoroughly our sociocultural framework is baked into the marrow of our bones. I wonder how much of what gets us wet or hard or hot is just a function of the circumstances we inhabit, the hand we’ve been dealt, the roles we’re allowed to play.

Some theorists have posited that women fantasize so often about rape — which, statistically, we do — as a way of avoiding sexual shame and blame. We’re told it’s dirty and gross for us to want sex and pursue it, this theory goes, so it turns us on to imagine sex we don’t want (at least at first), didn’t ask for, and therefore can’t be blamed for. If it was someone else’s idea, it can’t be our fault.

Surely it’s also sexy to imagine someone would want you that much, that their desire for you would override their basic understanding of right and wrong. And it’s common for the signals of fear and arousal to get crossed in the brain, leading to the eroticization of things which ought to scare you (knives, chains, or clowns, anyone?). The prevalence of rape fantasies makes perfect sense when you view them in this light.

In similar ways and for similar reasons, it also makes sense that even seemingly vanilla media eroticizes explosive relationships. Whether it’s Cher slapping Nic Cage across the face in Moonstruck (“Snap out of it!”), cowboys punching each other in the nose between kisses in Brokeback Mountain (“Ennis, you son of a whoreson bitch…”), or Twilight’s Edward Cullen wanting equally to love Bella Swan and devour her (“And so the lion fell in love with the lamb…”), our culture thinks it’s sexy when couples fight. Even in this age of increasing awareness of abuse, many forms of abuse are still painted as passion.

So if abuse is sexy, and conflict is sexy, and sex with someone who wants you so much they can’t resist you is sexy, then it makes total sense that Nick Jonas’ “Champagne Problems” is sexy. Or is, at least, trying to be.

Like many songs on this album, “Champagne Problems” is a story with sex at its centre. In this case it’s a story of sex after a break-up — or perhaps during one. “How many times have we been here before?” Nick muses off the top. “But I hate to see you cry, so let’s drink before goodbye.” Then he cracks open a bottle of Perignon he was saving for the wedding — “thought that we’d drink it on that day we were the opposite of breaking up” — and they drink, fight, and fuck.

It’s a triple-whammy of what psychological theorists would call “sexual blame avoidance.” Sex while drunk. Sex in the emotionally chaotic wake of a break-up. Sex with someone who wants you so much, despite his better judgment, that he just has to have you. It’s a perfect storm of problematic consent.

In the spirit of this whole write-up, though, I have to believe that this is about kink and not about outright abuse, rape, or coercion. I have to believe that the woman Nick sings about is in on the joke — consenting to it, even. “How did our clothes end up all on the floor?” he asks. “Didn’t we just break each other’s hearts?” I have to believe it’s the question of a broad over-actor in a roleplay scenario: Oh no, our clothes fell off! Whatever shall we DO?!

If it’s not consensual, informed, enthusiastic kink, then I have to assume it’s the sort of narrative people set up as a front before they realize they’re kinky. Like how Jillian Keenan writes about indulging her spanking fetish at a young age by asking friends what they thought, hypothetically, about a fictional neighboring town that had outlawed spanking. Or how many young bondage fetishists play games of make-believe involving villains who like to tie people up. Sometimes you don’t immediately realize something is a kink, you just know it makes you feel good to contemplate it or act it out, so you chase that feeling, confused and half-suppressed though it might be.

I wonder if the canonical Nick of “Champagne Problems” craves that Dom/sub game of overpowering someone with sheer desire, mollifying her with a bottle of bubbly, falling back into sex that was never supposed to happen again. I wonder if he and his lady-love manufacture these explosive arguments as a way of accessing that sexual “violence” they both ache for. I wonder how many people out there think they’re vanilla and fall into these same patterns, blind to the kinks that fuel them. I wonder how many people would be happier, less confused, and less wracked with guilt if they knew their kinks were kinks and that those feelings are okay.

“We got champagne problems,” Nick sings. “Only one way to solve ‘em.” But what if there was another way to solve ’em, and it was self-awareness of the sexual cravings which drive us?

Chainsaw

There is a tendency in Hollywood movies and various other popular media — as we have discussed — for violent and abusive behaviors to be lauded as “romantic.” Edward Cullen appearing in Bella Swan’s bedroom to watch her while she’s asleep, Christian Grey showing up at Ana Steele’s house with wine and condoms after she’s asked him to leave her alone, that one dude in Love Actually who launches a grand gesture involving cue cards and a boombox at the woman who is happily married to his best friend… Our media is full of moments which glorify creepy men’s behaviors as both warranted and admirable.

“Chainsaw” echoes this trope. It’s like if you rolled Edward Cullen, Christian Grey, Cue-Card Guy and a Texas Chainsaw Massacre villain into a pop song. It’s terrifying — but even more terrifying is the fact that it’s romanticized.

It’s moments like this on Last Year Was Complicated that make me think there must be some self-aware kink in it somewhere. How else could Nick singing he’s going to “take a lighter to the mattress,” “break the fuckin’ china,” or “burn everything that binds us” be romantic? In what world are these promises sexy rather than scary? In a world of kink, of course.

“Chainsaw” is just another lovelorn break-up song, non-standard though it might be. Nick threatens to destroy these parts of his home because they remind him of the woman who’s left him. And the sentiment, in turn, evokes dominants I’ve known whose submissives have left them. There is that same sense of emptiness, loss of purpose, and a displaced desire to cause pain. When hurting someone who wants to be hurt is a way you show your love, it’s (ironically, paradoxically) painful to have no one you can hurt, because the one you love to hurt has left you, and that… hurts.

“I’ll take a chainsaw to the sofa where I held your body close for so long,” Nick sings, and it’s an extreme image, but it makes me think of all the times I’ve looked at a paddle or a crop or a flogger and just burst into tears. It’s the kink equivalent of finding a former partner’s old T-shirt, or a record they bought you, or a painting they made for you. The heartbroken dominant Nick in my mind just wants to hurt his lady-love again — not because he’s angry she left, but because he misses the intimacy, connection, and fulfilment they both gleaned from that interaction each time they indulged in it.

Maybe when they were together, he was content to hit her with whips and crops and paddles, but now that she’s gone and he misses her, his mind’s eye conjures a goddamn chainsaw. The bigger the loss, the bigger the craving to reconnect — so the pain he administers to her in his fantasies would have to be bigger, too.

Only through a kink lens could it possibly be romantic to hold a chainsaw over someone. I’m not saying it’s safe, or advisable, or the kind of kink I would personally advocate. But having experienced the deep trust and intimacy that comes from someone consensually having the power to hurt you and choosing not to abuse that power, I can say: yeah, the threat of violence can be romantic. Kink is alchemy that turns terror into joy, sometimes, in the right context. Maybe even something as terrifying as a chainsaw held aloft in front of you, not yet whirring to life but threatening to at any moment.

Touch

With its lazy, languorous rhythm that feels like Justin Timberlake meets Marvin Gaye, the sensual “Touch” could easily be mistaken as the only vanilla moment in LYWC’s entire 42-minute run. But though Nick croons this number à la “Sexual Healing,” he also drops in some deeply kinky shit, as he is wont to do.

“Love me or hate me; either way, we’ll go crazy in the bedroom,” he promises in the opening verse. Seems like an odd thing to say to the person you’re planning on gently making love to, unless said lovemaking is an aberration in your usually-dark sex life together.

The prechorus goes on to argue, “Anyone could [fuck] you, babe, but that ain’t all I’m into; I wanna get inside your brain, and every part of you.” Nick refuses to actually utter the word “fuck” on this track, choosing instead to stay silent for that moment each time it comes, as if omitting the word makes the sentiment any less salacious.

Setting aside the strange prudishness of that particular censorship, these lines are pure kink. Ask any dominant what they like about being dominant, and they’ll tell you it’s largely about the power trip of infiltrating not just someone’s body but their very psychology: knowing that you have their attention, their esteem, their trust. “Any old vanilla boy could fuck your holes,” Nick implicitly suggests here; “I want to fuck your mind.”

The chorus sweetly, slyly elucidates: “I go from touching you with both hands to touching you with no hands. That’s my favorite way of touching you.” It’s a sex joke that you can interpret at whatever level thrills you: if he’s touching her with no hands, maybe he’s touching her with only his dick, or maybe with just his words, his voice, his brain. Maybe she’s over his knee and he’s only touching her with his lap and a paddle. Maybe she’s wearing a blindfold and nipple clamps, and he’s gently tugging on the chain. Maybe he’s demanding that she touch herself for him, and watching with cool appraisal as she does so.

There are a million ways to “touch [someone] with no hands.” Kinksters know this better than vanilla folks do. Maybe Nick Jonas knows it, too.

Good Girls

I once pitched an essay on this song to Teen Vogue, and they said, “Okay, but can you write it without talking about kink?” As it turned out, I could. But, as you might expect from someone who has the phrase “good girl” tattooed on her body and has written thousands of words on that phrase’s importance to my personal kinks, I have some thoughts of import about this song.

Nick opens “Good Girls” with an anti-selfie tirade. “Take another photo. Post it for the world to see: people that you don’t know. Who the hell you trying to please?” he muses, echoing his single “Jealous” from two years earlier, wherein he whined at his darling, “I wish you didn’t have to post it all; I wish you’d save a little bit just for me.”

It is this brand of extreme possessiveness that unsettles me when I contemplate being monogamous ever again. I remember the otherwise-sweet boyfriend who expected me — me, a burgeoning sex writer and erstwhile indie porn performer — to keep my naked body off the internet, because my public nudity made him uncomfortable. He felt he owned my body and its likeness, I suppose, and that sense of entitlement enabled him to request that I remain clothed online, so my body would be for him and him alone. (And for me, too, I guess, though my ownership of my own body was never acknowledged in these arguments.)

I was vanilla at that time (or so I thought), and in the intervening years, I have thought many times about “ownership” in relationships and how I feel about it. The deciding factor is consent. With that past possessive boyfriend, I did not consent to have my body and agency controlled in that way. What I wanted was different from what he wanted for me.

But there have been partners since to whom I felt extremely submissive. If they were to say, “I want you to keep your breasts covered except when you’re with me,” or “I want you to wear your hair down only when you’re with me,” or “Other men may fuck your pussy or your ass, but your mouth is just for me,” I would probably have said yes. We may have needed to renegotiate those agreements at a later date, but those requests would have been sexy to me, rather than upsetting, if framed in the right context. And the right context is one of consent, agency, and mutual respect. A Dom’s demands may be phrased as demands, but they are only ever actually requests.

“Good Girls” — and Drake’s thematically similar “Hotline Bling,” where he decries a woman for daring to go out with friends instead of waiting by the phone for him to summon her — describes a dynamic I find unacceptable if vanilla but absurdly hot if kink-infused. A man chastising me for showing off my body, or dancing on a table at the club, or drinking when I please, is offensive if he really has a problem with those behaviors. But the type of feminist, conscent-conscious, “woke” Dom I prefer to date would never actually object to these behaviors. He might play-act an objection, though. And that could be very, very hot indeed.

All three of the chorus repetitions in this song assert that when a girl dances sluttily at a club, she’s doing so to “get back at her dad.” Viewed through a vanilla lens, this is just a shitty sexist accusation, on par with people who say all strippers become strippers because they have “daddy issues.” So I choose to believe, instead, that it’s a subtle evocation of “Daddy Dom/little girl” kink. Daddy Doms often talk about themselves in the third person (“Are you gonna be a good girl for Daddy?” “Daddy’s gonna rub your spot real fast until you come, little one, okay?”), so it’s not unthinkable that Nick is referring to himself here. I can’t help but picture a bemused Dom sitting by himself at a table in the back of the club, watching his subby babygirl party up front with her friends, and typing a faux-menacing text to her on his phone: You are being such a bad girl tonight. Oh, you’ll pay for this later, princess.

“When did all these good girls decide to be bad?” Nick complains in the song’s chorus. Answer: when they figured out that being bad gets them spankings from their diligent Daddy.

The Difference

A lot of songs on this album make me giggle or make me think; “The Difference” makes me blush and sometimes makes me wet. (Shhh, don’t tell Nick.)

Part of what gets me hot as a submissive is knowing that my dominant knows exactly what he’s doing — both in general, and with my body, specifically. I like the devious grin when someone finds the exact spot that’s going to make me come, the cold confidence of someone getting me off the way they’ve done it several times before, the arousing embarrassment of my body helplessly responding to stimulation in predictable ways. Someone controlling me by knowing precisely how to please me is one of my biggest kinks. You might even say all my kinks are a subset of this larger, overarching one.

In “The Difference,” a coolly self-assured Nick brags about all the ways he’s better than his lover’s past partners. “You’ve never had a love like this, baby, not this kind,” he tells her, voice never wavering. “You ain’t never been touched like this; feel it down your spine.” It’s macho posturing, like R&B crooners who claim they can fuck all night long or rappers who boast about stealing your girl. But in a kink context, suddenly it doesn’t make me roll my eyes… unless they’re rolling back in my head from arousal.

“I’ll love you like a grown-ass man, pushing all your buttons,” Nick sings in the second verse. This is the type of promise that makes me want to drop my (very wet) panties when the right kind of person utters it in real life. But it’s vital that they actually be able to follow through. It holds no appeal when someone swears they’ll make me come, while having no actual knowledge of how to do so. My response is: Prove it. I’ll believe it when I see it.

The thing about kinksters is that they have insight into each other’s sexuality that vanilla folks don’t necessarily have. A vanilla person wanting to get me off in vanilla ways will never be able to do so immediately, boastful though they might be; they have to learn how my body works, which “buttons” do what, before they’ll get me off consistently or at all.

But a kinkster — specifically one who shares my kinks, or has experience with them — will have some kind of intuitive sense of what I find hot about those dynamics. I see it in the Dom suitors who hear I’m into DD/lg and promptly call me “little girl,” or who find out I like being spanked and then talk about smacking my ass rosy-red til I’m wet and mewling. They haven’t made me come, specifically, so they don’t know how to do it yet. But if they know my kinks, then they at least have a road map. An idea of what to do, and how to do it.

“The Difference” is also reminiscent of many pre-sex negotiations I’ve had with Doms. Kinksters and vanillas alike can infuse flirtation into sexual negotiations, making a potentially clinical and serious discussion into something airy and exciting — but dominant types often do so with particular confidence.

Nick’s unshakeable certainty in this song reminds me of Doms who’ve said, for example, “I’ll make you come so hard while spanking you over my lap” — and if I fire back, “Actually, I don’t come that way,” they don’t back off in embarrassment, they just re-route. “You’ll get so wet for me, and then I’ll tease you with my fingers until you’re trembling,” they might respond. There are ways to negotiate what is and is not okay, what will and will not work, without “breaking character.” Skilled kinksters know that. Maybe Nick Jonas knows that, too.

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