Boygenius Is Not the Girl Group of Your Dreams

Three young white women sitting on a couch
Boygenius EP Album Cover, Matador Records, Photo by Lera Pentelute, 2018

The budding indie rock band Boygenius recently concluded their debut tour for their self titled EP. Boygenius, the aptly named “supergroup,” consists of indie songwriters Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus. Although these independent artists were in communication long before the recording of the album, the five days in which the EP was recorded was one of the only times they had physically been in the same room. The six-song record packs a punch fueled by raw emotion, effortless vocal blend, and candid lyricism. The popular single, “Me & My Dog” has been performed on Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Current, and was even featured on Kendall Jenner’s Instagram story. For me and many others, the band’s climb to stardom has been rewarding to watch, especially considering the artists’ humble beginnings.

Amid praise from a growing fan base and fellow artists, Boygenius faces the challenge of their work constantly being attributed to the gender of its band members. To critics and some fans, Boygenius is only recognized as a “girl group,” situating the band outside of indie music discourse into a genre that is mistakenly defined only by gender. As a fan, I struggle with a tension of identifying with the band because of its politics but also wanting to see the group for its artistry (and not its gender or as a statement about gender/sexuality politics). We can’t ignore the fact that Boygenius consists of women making waves in the music industry, but I think it’s important to also see Baker, Dacus, and Bridgers as more than figureheads and muses.

Women, Music, and Gender Politics

Importantly, I do not want to understate the importance of women making waves in the music industry. For example, as a young girl, watching videos of Paramore’s Hayley Williams, I was mesmerized by her ability to command stages and festivals that were dominated by men. I looked up to Hayley and continue to be inspired by her as I make my own music. I have seen Paramore in concert five times now, and each time I am even more grateful that the band exists and gave me the confidence I needed simply to survive when I was in middle and high school.

When I was 13, I didn’t know women could be in rock bands, let alone have fiery red hair and headbang on stage. I also didn’t know that Hayley was routinely cat-called and heckled as she performed. In a 2013 interview with Nylon Magazine, she mentions, “In the past, when guys heckled me, I would just heckle them back” as if learning to respond to harassment in this way is just another part of the job.

Unfortunately, this kind of assault is commonplace when women participate in a male-dominated industry like music. Indie newcomer Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail also grew up listening to Paramore. Similar to Hayley, she is candid about her experiences with harassment, including being cat-called onstage at her gigs. Even with persistent awareness campaigns, rape culture is a pervasive force that continues to plague the music industry, making it challenging for young artists like Jordan to feel like they belong within it.

For me, Jordan’s perseverance and drive is a testament to her talent and belonging despite the youthful femininity for which skeptics might write her off. Her latest album, Lush, garnered rave reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, praising the nineteen year old’s unique sound and smart lyricism. There is no doubt that Jordan is an “indie-rock prodigy,”  Importantly, though, this pride felt by her young female fans feel has to endure amidst the harassment Jordan experiences when she shares her music with us.

In the history of so-called “girl groups,” Boygenius represents a collective of queer women who  are able to come together to make their own art, uplifting and challenging each other to create a unique sound. They are a refreshing take on the tired trope of women performing for the sake of male enjoyment. It’s inspiring to see women making music together in the face of many female artists constantly being compared to one another. The impact of women making music together should not be underestimated. What would modern music be like today without the likes of the Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child? In the same way that Destiny’s Child is cited as changing the face of R&B and influencing young artists like Ariana Grande, who have since become global pop sensations, Boygenius is reinventing indie rock to cultivate a space for female creatives. In a New York Times article on their supergroup, Boygenius has referenced Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and case/lang/veirs as inspiration for their partnership. Without these female role models, Boygenius may never have never existed.

However, it is reductive to attribute Boygenius’ success to the gender of its members. The group itself derived its name from an inside joke about male entitlement and the license this kind of upbringing gives to male creators when they have constantly been told they are geniuses. The band itself rejects the idea that gender must inform their art. At the same time, Boygenius has served as inspiration for female musicians like myself to feel validated in the work that we do. How do we walk the line between representation and tokenization?

Collaboration Not Competition

Boygenius’ musical prowess lies in their ability to work together while maintaining individual sound. My favorite track on the album, “Souvenir” opens like any other Julien Baker song. A steady acoustic guitar is paired with frank, poetic narrative as Baker croons, “Dream catcher in the rearview mirror/ Hasn’t caught a thing yet.” Once the second verse comes in, Bridgers’ smooth, airy tone is juxtaposed with Baker’s hypnotizing rasp. Finally, we arrive at the middle of the chorus. Dacus carries the rest of the song, supported by Baker and Bridgers; their collective “ooh” is reminiscent of a prayer. The open ended question, “When you cut a hole into my skull/ Do you hate what you see?” is spearheaded by Dacus, ending with her voice alone. Then, the three artists sing together, and it seems that if only for a moment, a song that has started with the characteristic framework of Baker battling her own demons may find a moment of reprieve. Bridgers, Baker, and Dacus uplift each other, creating an organic sound that is not only beautiful, but restorative.

Boygenius’ hard hitting EP isn’t the only reason they have gotten critical acclaim. As soloists, the members of Boygenius are often compared to one another and even pitted against each other. But as a group, Boygenius challenges the idea that there is limited space for women in music. Instead of fighting each other for a coveted spot at the top, Dacus, Bridgers, and Baker’s resolve to form a powerful musical collective assures their power as women and musicians.

However, much of the band’s press has focused on dismantling the connection between women making music together and the notion of a “girl group.” After all, when men make music together they’re simply referred to as a band. However, there is something to be said for the impact of female artists that have paved the way for Boygenius to even exist. Baker ponders this question in Boygenius’ Vogue interview:

“How much do I resist categorization, categorization based on my identity, intentionally, as a protest of the idea that those things are somehow out of the ordinary or that they should be remarkable or that they’re awful in some way. And the other side of that, which is choosing to draw attention to those very characteristics of my identity because visibility and representation are so crucial to model, that this is a possibility for a younger generation of people.”

As a Christian and lesbian in rock music, Baker has connections in multiple communities. She does not hide who she is; her iconic rainbow guitar strap comes to mind when I conjure up her image in my mind. She strums her guitar and sighs “broken hymns” for everyone to hear. Dacus has previously noted her closeness with Julien given their similar upbringings, stating,

She’s a lesbian, I’m kind of queer and we just have so many of the same backstory situations. Being from Southern cities, having the same kind of interest for humans and ideas about why anyone would ever make art — it’s one of those things where you expect to talk for two hours and then you talk for twelve.”

We can’t belittle the importance of finding people in our corner. In fact, most reviews have failed to mention Boygenius as a collective of queer women, only citing their womanhood as a topic of interest. As not to tokenize the group, I will not belabor this point, however, I do believe that erasure is not the key to solving this problem. Neither is sainthood or tokenism. But is there a way to balance representation and letting Boygenius exist as they are?

Balancing Representation and Tokenism

In avoiding tokenism, I think we must grant power to specificity. Allowing groups with marginalized members like Boygenius to speak for themselves is the first step in this process. Instead of coming across article after article about how the members of Boygenius feel about being women making music, I wish someone had asked them about the art they created on their debut EP. In labeling Boygenius as a “girl group” and asking them to speak on the issue of being women, Boygenius becomes simply a symbol of women in music, and the art they create potentially goes unnoticed. Watching Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus onstage will always be a powerful experience for me because I feel represented by them, but also because of Baker’s incredible solo on “Salt in the Wound,” Bridger’s emboldened belt on “Me & My Dog,” and Dacus’ bittersweet delivery on “Bite the Hand.”

I think Boygenius’ lyrics hit home because they are based in narrative, which is not often acknowledged by reviewers. The concluding track, “Ketchum, ID” tackles the nomadic lifestyle the three bandmates live as they tour around the world. The lyrics draw on tangible experiences as if taken from diary entries and transcribed conversations. Dacus sings, “You say, ‘How are you?’ I say I don’t know/ Let’s dissolve the band, move to Idaho/Everyone’s around and I hear you smiling/ You say ‘I love you’, I say, ‘You too.’” This is followed by the chorus in which the three harmonize, “I am never anywhere/ Anywhere I go/ When I’m home I’m never there/ Long enough to know.” This shared experience is able to relate to the lives of many listeners even if they don’t have the experience of being on tour.

As a student traveling abroad, I took these lyrics personally. When I first heard the song, I felt like Boygenius had captured the unsettled lifestyle I had been living as I lay on my hostel bed struggling to log into non-existent WiFi. Boygenius’ specificity lends itself to touching others without needlessly referencing our own labels. Boygenius should not be seen as a girl group to compare to its forebears, but instead as a collective of artists who through their specific experiences and candor, reflect upon their lives in earnest. We can still hold them as exemplary musicians and understand the significance of their identities, but we must not reduce the members of the band to the labels we have enforced upon them.

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