The girl genius of boygenius

The girl genius of boygenius

Written by Wayne Robins

My interest in boygenius had already been piqued when one of my students came to class one morning with a T-shirt from a concert she had seen over the weekend. The lettering was very gothic, font possibly Killuminati or Darkgone, suitable for a dark metal band.

But a close look at the script made it clear this was a clever marketing strategy from the band boygenius, lower case "b," one word. The band name is an excellent branding move in itself, as "boygenius" is the greater-than-the-sum of its parts female trio of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker, three rising solo acts in the alt-singer-songwriter vein, who came together for a self-titled 2018 EP. Songs such as "Ketchum, ID" set a template for both close harmonies and  each of the three singing lead on a verse, and songs about the inner workings of the exhausted touring musician's mind.

boygenius' March full-length debut the record was the one album of 2023 that crashed almost every silo of the fragmented critical regimes of our era, appearing in best-of-the-year lists that otherwise agreed on almost nothing.

They sold out Madison Square Garden two nights, earned near-headline status at Coachella in California, and at European festivals that define careers. They were the biggest pop music story short of Taylor Swift. (Bridgers opened a Taylor Swift show in Nashville in summer 2023.) Their music and group persona may bullseye sexually fluid, lesbian-adjacent (and who isn't these days) women in their 20s. But it also has great appeal, if the comments on YouTube for the insanely catchy "Not Strong Enough," are any indication, for men in their 50s and 60s. boygenius is the greatest new 1990s rock band of 2023; they were nominated for album of the year and six others to be presented on the 2024 Grammy awards. I heart the record.


Many songs are about emotional instability, panic attacks, playing whack-a-doodle with self-worth. Barack Obama placed "Not Strong Enough" on his 2023 summer playlist. According to Billboard, Lucy Dacus responded by tweeting "war criminal" at the former president. Dacus was having a moment. This, perhaps, is boygenius' singular flaw: all born in or around 1995, they grew up in the era of oversharing, of voluntary surrendering their right, and possibly their need for privacy. Now that they are stars, we will see how much they want to share. And it's a problem: Bridgers found herself harassed and enraged by superfans (aka stans) and paparazzi at LAX, where she was on her way to her father's funeral.

But the oversharing is intrinsic to their appeal: the listener feels like a spy in the house of love, where the line between love and hate is evanescent, impermanent, sometimes the same thing.

So much has been written about them, and almost every story uses the word or phrase "supergroup." I hesitate to call them a supergroup, because that honorific is used and abused to the point of absurdity: put together secondary musicians from Weezer, Ween, and the We Three, and Rolling Stone or Pitchfork will holler: "Supergroup!" faster than a healthy knee will jerk when a doctor hits your patella with a small rubber hammer.

In fact, Greil Marcus wrote about the supergroup phenomenon in 1969, after hearing an album, which left him unmoved, known as Supersession, featuring Michael Bloomfield, Al Kooper, and Stephen Stills. It motivated him to write a review for Rolling Stone of a fake supergroup called the Masked Marauders, a fictional creation in which a real supergroup (think Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Bob Dylan) cover songs such as Gene Chandler's "Duke of Earl." (Come to think of it, I'd go happy crazy if boygenius applied their harmonies to "Duke of Earl.") Marcus explains in a 2002 story from Rock

There are no covers on the record, but there are homages. To me the great homage is "Cool About It," in which the melody line is adapted from Paul Simon's "The Boxer." The opening is fascinating enough, the voice of an angel who sets the unlikely scene:

Met you at the dive bar to go shoot some pool
And make fun of the cowboys with the neck tattoos

Later, there is a verse that defines the boygenius aura.

Once, I took your medication to know what it's like
And now I have to act like I can't read your mind

The song is mystical, transcendent, punishingly honest: "I'll pretend being with you doesn't feel like drowning/Tell you it's nice to see how good you're doing/Even though we know it isn't true." It makes me really glad my twenties are so far in the rearview mirror, and that boygenius can invite me to travel to these linchpin moments in their lives.

When Lexi McMenamin wrote a kind of definitive feature last March, "The Infinite Gay Joy of Boygenius" in the online zine Them, Bridgers was 28, Baker and Dacus 27. Baker and Dacus are from rural, conservative backgrounds; Bridgers is from L.A. They produced the album with Catherine Marks, who has worked with P.J. Harvey, the Foals, Interpol, and Depeche Mode, producing, mixing, engineering. Though the vocals rule, it's not three-girls-with-acoustic-guitars that dominate, though they are sometimes enough. Most often there’s electronic ambience that is more like the typical rock orientation of the 2020s. But they can also sound like Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks leading Fleetwood Mac, or prime pop Sheryl Crow, as the intro to “Not Strong Enough.”

"Not Strong Enough," which name drops the Cure's "Boys Don't Cry," and which messes with gender-fluidity, as the vocalist confesses: "I'm not strong enough to be your man." It's about drag-racing, a death wish.

"They're furious while staying open and in love with each other, joy and rage in equal measure, and dissatisfied and bored and tired and desirious and all the other human things," McMenamin writes.

This is the boygenius strategy: lovely music selling rage-fueled lyrics. The songs are credited to all three singer-songwriters, who convey a joy in female friendship that one hopes is sustainable at the top of the ladder of stardom they have climbed so quickly.

Dive bars, karaoke bars, endless highway drives, beaches that are never beautiful but filled with emotional and physical hazards; this is the boygenius storytelling world. In "Anti-Curse," the singer is out of her depth swimming on a "public beach," and begins to think she is drowning, on the verge of "inevitable death," and she's reciting her last thoughts: "I guess I did alright, considering/Tried to be a halfway decent friend/Wound up a bad comedian." But then, the tension is broken by a single line: "I'm swimming back." It's a verbal contrast as powerful as Nirvana's singular guitar rock dynamics.


Nirvana is kind of a lodestar for boygenius. Dave Grohl has played drums with them on stage; They posed for the cover of Rolling Stone's February 2023 issue in a recreation of Nirvana's cover 30 years earlier, in pinstripe suits, white shirts and red ties. The subhead of the boygenius cover, of course: "The Supergroup We Need." The album had not even been released yet, another throwback to the Rolling Stone star puffery that, at least in that mag, hasn't gone out of style in its 58 years.

There is a brief, funny song called "Leonard Cohen," in which an argument about this value of the "horny old man" while the women are in the car leads to missed exits on the freeway. Dacus is the lead voice here:

Leonard Cohen once said
"There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in"
And I am not an old man having an existential crisis
At a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry
But I agree

In case you need to be reminded, Leonard Cohen lived a long creative life, but at the beginning, as a poet and novelist in his 20s, he was a boy genius.


Each had nice solo careers going: Bridgers was at or near stardom, comfortable enough to have the URL on her website be Phoebe F*cking Bridgers dot com. [Editor's Note: the actual website URL doesn't have the asterisk in the name; it's placed here for Copper house style.] She has a feature on the 2022 SZA song "Ghost in the Machine." On her website, you can buy 14-karat gold kissing skull friend charms for $490 or a metal logo black hoodie for $45. I suspect she brings the skeleton/dragon/goth visuals to the party, because that's also the motif for the Punisher album merchandise. At 29, and the oldest of the trio, Bridgers has been nominated for more than a dozen Grammy awards in a relatively short career, and according to People magazine, is in a relationship with actor/comedian Bo Burnham, her latest beau after Irish actor Paul Mescal. Now that she is a star, her sexuality faces scrutiny, and man, have things changed: she may struggle with those who think perhaps she's not queer enough, which may explain her androgynous public appearances.  

Dacus, from Richmond, Va., established herself as a singer-songwriter, and when you go to her website, the first offering is the video to "Night Shift," which features plenty of same-sex kissing, in witches' costumes, or not. "Night Shift" is the opening track on her second album, the 2018 Historian, on which she says on her web page: “It starts out dark and ends hopeful, but it gets darker in between; it goes to the deepest, darkest, place and then breaks,” she explains. “What I’m trying to say throughout the album is that hope survives, even in the face of the worst stuff.” On her website, you can buy an 18" x 24" print of a watercolor by Elizabeth Haidle: "In this painting, Lucy embodies elements of the Tarot Major Arcana Death & the Emperor, symbolizing the ability to forge stability and make worlds in the cycle of death and rebirth."

Baker has a nice thing going as a singer-songwriter on the now-established, once-outsider punkish label Matador Records, not to mention endorsement deals with Fender guitars, Walrus Audio pedals, and Ernie Ball strings. Her latest solo album is Little Oblivions.

boygenius is to its generation what Crosby, Stills and Nash may have been to my generation. The backgrounds of CSN may have been more relevant to the supergroup concept: Crosby (the Byrds), Stills (Buffalo Springfield), and Nash (the Hollies) had already been rock stars, but still did not have the individual success that they attained together. Ditto for Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker.

Strangely, David Crosby was critical of Bridgers for engaging in the ultimate macho rock move of smashing her guitar at the end of an appearance on Saturday Night Live a few years ago. Lexi McMenamin suggests that the cover of the boygenius 2018 EP is a kind of homage to the cover of the first CSN album.

If you hopped into a time machine and boygenius was living in Laurel Canyon circa 1969, two things might have been true: one, CSN and boygenius might have been the same band, but only one of them might have made great music out of excruciating self-awareness. And there would have been three more people obsessed with having sex with Joni Mitchell.

A musical wish for the New Year: boygenius single/encore song: CSN’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” They would own it.


This article originally appeared in Wayne Robins’ Substack and is used here by permission. Wayne’s Words columnist Wayne Robins teaches at St. John’s University in Queens, and writes the Critical Conditions Substack,

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Raph_PH.

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