We Loved boygenius Because of How They Loved Each Other

It was inevitable from the start, but like any lesbian breakup, being able to see it coming didn’t make it hurt any less when it did. Last weekend, during a private concert in Los Angeles, boygenius informally announced an indefinite hiatus. For most bands, this’d be the least likely time to take a break: with three Grammy wins (and four additional nominations) and the ability to sell out venues as iconic and huge as MSG, most bands would find it unfathomable to walk away now.

But this has always been the destiny for boygenius: all three members (Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker) have successful, robust solo careers. I personally was thrumming Baker’s Sprained Ankle through my speakers back in 2016, before boygenius had even released their first EP. (Yes, I am better than you.) While it’s clear they put as much of their hearts into boygenius as they did their solo ventures, it was never intended to be any of their first priorities. Perhaps that’s part of what makes boygenius so special: as with so many lesbian relationships, not being one’s first priority makes you love them that much more.

But more than that — what resonates so viscerally for listeners and what pulls me into the boygenius orbit is the band’s exaltation of queer friendship.

(Photo by Johnny Nunez/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

The thing lesbians and queers most likely love about the members’ individual work is the opposite of what’s present in their band — or if not the opposite, then a complement. While Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker often inhabit the “Sad Sapphic Songs” section of one’s Spotify playlist, boygenius’ music takes a parallel but separate street. Of course, it is not true to say boygenius’ work is inherently happy or optimistic, but the joy from collaboration brightens the light of each track.

The main motif of the record, specifically, is friendship. As Marissa Lorusso writes for NPR, “Friendship is not the backdrop for the record, or merely context for its creation. It’s why and how this album was made.” the record doesn’t set out to be an Album About Friendship, but like any TV show with two very close friends whose chemistry surpasses all the show’s heterosexual canon couples, it’s the subtleties of the subtext that capture its truth.

At first glance, most of the songs seem to echo an obvious romantic angle, with lyrics like “You could absolutely break my heart / That’s how I know that we’re in love,” and “I never thought you’d happen to me.” It’s easy to assume a song is about romantic love — for one, most popular songs seem to be, but also, because we often exalt romantic love as a songwriter’s highest muse. Particularly in queer art, romantic love is not merely a classic choice, but a revolution and a rebellion. However, queer platonic love is something of an untread beauty in more popular queer artists’ work. To me this is what makes boygenius so evocative. Some of their catalog, of course, deals with romantic love, whether beautiful and kind and pedestaled, or rough and toxic and ultimately breaking. But it’s their songs rooted in their own friendships that lay the foundation for the rest of their work.

For example, it’s easy to make assumptions about the song “We’re In Love” from its title, but a deeper understanding of the lyrics and boygenius’ history reveals the song to be an ode to the deep friendship shared between the three. Its tone is decidedly melancholic; sung wholly by Dacus until the end, the song takes on a defeated desperation, repeating the addressee’s reasons for possibly leaving the speaker. “If you rewrite your life, may I still play a part? / In the next one, will you find me?” evokes this distress at the thought of being abandoned. The same NPR article above references Baker needing a long walk after hearing the song played for her, believing it too vulnerable for sharing outside of their trio.

“Leonard Cohen” strikes a similar chord (not so secret anymore, David): the song, sung again by Dacus, begins with a story about Bridgers being so excited to share a song with her friends that nobody wanted to dampen her excitement by telling her she’d started driving “the wrong way on the interstate,” which ended up adding an hour to the drive. This is love in one of its purest forms: sacrificing your own comfort for another’s pervasive, effulgent joy. It’s not a toxic sacrifice, it’s as certain an act of devotion as I have ever seen: letting someone you love speak freely when they’re getting overworked with passion for a song or a book or some other such topic, unspooling into a breathy ramble. Maybe I see it this way in part because I’m often the one doing the long ramblings, and the people who respond to my apologies with “don’t, I like to hear you talk, or “don’t, I like to see you happy” are the dearest people in my life.

boygenius creates a space for (queer) friendship in a way I feel most bands, queer or not, don’t. This space feels decidedly more poignant considering the members’ tendency to be lumped into the Sad Sapphic Song Starter Pack playlists. Which of course I understand— I mean, I’ve heard “Moon Song”— but even in their individual catalog, the “crack in everything” where “the light gets in” can be seen. boygenius knows this, because they each play one solo song at their concerts, all of which are borne from collaboration and the deep love they have for one another: Baker’s “Favor,” Bridgers’ “Graceland, Too,” and Dacus’ “Please Stay.”

All three of these specifically address Baker’s history with suicidal ideation. “Favor” comes from a place of thankful confusion— “Who put me / in your way to find? / And what right had you / not to let me die?” This song follows Baker’s discography of deep self-loathing and how she goes on despite its looming shadow. The song, in Baker’s way, thanks her friends for keeping her alive, despite not quite understanding why. For Baker, there is a lack of understanding as to why anyone would try so hard to keep her around—in the post-chorus she laments, “How long do I have until / I’ve spent up everyone’s goodwill?” How many chances does she have until the inevitable renunciation, the self-fulfilled prophecy of abandonment? In “Favor,” Baker can’t imagine a world where another person’s love for her is stronger than the forces holding Baker in “the gurney.”

“Graceland, Too” and “Please Stay” can be heard as responses to this song (though Bridgers’ album did come a year before). In the former, Bridgers describes eating saltines on the floor and coming to the realization that she “would do anything” for this friend of hers, who’s lived through so much pain “to get to this moment.” When we love a friend who’s suffering, we’d give so much of ourselves to save them. But saving is not like the movies; the true savior isn’t the one on a white horse, or the one who valiantly teaches you to love yourself with one well-placed phrase or word. The true savior is often the friend who rests their hand on your shoulder in silence and lets you weep. They don’t tell you it will get better if it won’t, but they will prove by their touch and their presence that even if it doesn’t get better, they won’t leave you to suffer it alone.

“Please Stay” has always been one of my favorite Dacus songs; only through research did I learn that it wasn’t about a lover leaving, but about the dread of what would happen if you lost your friend to suicide. Also presumably about Baker, Dacus opens the song by listing all the things her friend would leave for her to discover after their death, and begs “please don’t make me see these things.” The song heightens emotionally as Dacus begins to scheme over how to make this friend stay, and says, “I say I love you too because it’s true / What else am I supposed to do?” with a fraught panic. The bridge sees Dacus surrender her own wellbeing, as she sings, “Call me if you need a friend / or never talk to me again, / but please stay.” She is willing to lose her place in this friend’s life, if it could guarantee that they continue to live, and to love themselves in the process. It is a selfless act, but one with desperation veined through.

Both Bridgers’ and Dacus’ songs show the eviscerating, consuming love of a true friend: they’d do anything for you, even leave your life, if it would make you happy. The purest love is the one where the love you have for someone surpasses your own ego, in which it is more important to care for them than to save face in your vulnerability. Romantic love requires that vulnerability, but for many, we forget how much we should ask of our friendships, too.

While many of boygenius’ songs detailing romantic relationships endure tragedy (the companion pieces of “Me & My Dog” and “Letter to An Old Poet” see Bridgers endure an abusive relationship, and “Afraid of Heights” sees a lover test Dacus’ fears rather than comfort her through them), their songs detailing platonic love are effulgent, radiant, deeply compelled. In “True Blue,” the chorus proudly asserts that, “I remember who I am when I’m with you”; in “Without You Without Them,”  they say they “want to hear your story / and be a part of it”; the entirety of “Satanist” asks to jump into the void together, to functionally abandon the world for whatever is on the other side; and so on.

And even in those more romantic songs, the collaboration behind their production makes even the most tragic among them feel hopeful — it’s the feeling of sending a text standing up for yourself to a shitty partner while your friends cheer you on, a moment made less scary because you know when you jump there will be hands to catch you or, at the very least, to clutch your own and jump alongside you. Queer friendships are especially important because for many of us, friendship is the only family we have. boygenius reminds us that love is possible from all around our community, that community is possible. That even if we don’t have a partner, that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone to hold us in our joy and our sorrow.

At their MSG show with MUNA, Baker changed the lyrics to the penultimate song on their album, “Anti-Curse,” from “Writing the words / to the worst love song you ever heard” to “the best love song.” This ushered in a sentimental cheer from the audience, and exemplifies a beautiful growth and fitting end to boygenius’ run (though like Jesus Christ or a Winchester brother every other Supernatural season, they could be resurrected at any moment). I wrote about this in another Autostraddle essay, in that being witness to this felt like church. Love is a worship, and being let into that love boygenius has for each other makes it feel so much easier to access that love in one’s own life. I wish all queers a friendship like boygenius sings about. I wish that for myself. Because, as they sing on “True Blue”: “it feels good to be known so well. / I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself.” And we shouldn’t have to.

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Gabrielle Grace Hogan

Gabrielle Grace Hogan (she/her) received her MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. Her poetry has been published by TriQuarterly, CutBank, Salt Hill, and others, and has been supported by the James A. Michener Fellowship and the Ragdale Foundation. In the past, she has served as Poetry Editor of Bat City Review, and as Co-Founder/Co-Editor of You Flower / You Feast, an anthology of work inspired by Harry Styles. She lives in Austin, Texas. You can find her on Instagram @gabriellegracehogan, her website www.gabriellegracehogan.com, or wandering a gay bar looking lost.

Gabrielle has written 5 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. I love this reflection and have felt viscerally all the things observations you make, and it’s why I adore them so much.

    I would only disagree with this assertion: “While it’s clear they put as much of their hearts into boygenius as they did their solo ventures, it was never intended to be any of their first priorities.”
    They’ve talked about being committed to boygenius all in, but that the reason the band and music and their rapport works as well as it does is because their explicit collaboration remains in dialogue with their solo songwriting and identities and careers. To me, that dynamic (and their recognition of it – what boundaries! what self awareness!) is part of what makes their music so great and specific. I love each of their solo work so much but there is something about the group that is more than the sun of its parts.

  2. I’m glad you appreciate the reflection, highlighting some of your favorite lines and capturing the overall vibe of their collaborations! If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the musical magic of their work, check out their collaborations on Spotify premium
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