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The Books Behind Boygenius: A Deep Dive Into The Indie Supergroup’s Album ‘The Record’

The boys are geniuses.

YouTube / @RollingStone

The indie-rock supergroup ‘boygenius’ is formed by Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker. These three American singer-songwriters released their first EP, ‘boygenius’, in 2018. Thankfully for fans across the world, the ‘boygenius’ drought ended on the 31st of March 2023. On this fateful day, their long-awaited album, ‘The Record’, was released.

The Origin Story Of Boygenius

‘Speak to me, speak to me, speak to me
Until your history’s no mystery to me’

Boygenius, The Record, ‘Without You Without Them’

The first song on ‘The Record’ is ‘Without You Without Them’: an acapella number that foreshadows the deep complexity of lyrics to come. When Lucy Dacus was asked about the album’s name, she described it in an interview with Music Connection as a ‘record of our friendship […] a time capsule, reporting from the field, of what it’s like to be with each other.’

This time capsule began in 2016, when Dacus and Baker first met at a show in Washington, D.C. Baker walked into the dressing room to see Dacus reading Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, from which Dacus tore out a page to scribble down her email. The flurry of book recommendations that ensued formed the core of the band’s work. Hence, any one song on The Record is replete with literary allusions.

The Holy Trinity

To call ‘boygenius’ a Holy Trinity wouldn’t be too far off the mark, considering the biblical allusions woven throughout the album. In a 2021 interview with Louder Sound, Julien discussed the intersection between her identity as a Christian and her queerness. Brought up in a world of Christian evangelism, Julien’s relationship with religion is complex. This means that in recent years, she has worked to re-define her perception of the ‘Christian ideal’.

The ninth song on The Record, ‘Satanist’, makes a reference to the Old Testament, musing how:

‘Solomon had a point when he wrote Ecclesiastes

If nothing can be known, then stupidity is holy’

boygenius, The Record, ‘Satanist’

The essential message communicated by the teacher in Ecclesiastes is that all is ”hevel”. This is translated as ‘meaningless,’ and it is rendered this way by the great equalizer: death. The question of nihilism is essential to ‘Satanist’, which relish in the prospect that ‘nothing matters.’

Ultimately, Ecclesiastes highlights how wisdom, or ‘genius’, is not the answer to life’s questions. The band’s name, ‘boygenius’, actively subverts the “male hero” trope: the manner in which men are repeatedly praised as geniuses. In a 2018 interview with Vogue, Bridgers explains how ‘men are taught to be entitled to space and that their ideas should be heard […] women are taught the opposite.’

The Angel In The House

The YouTube channel, ‘Genius’, recently interviewed ‘boygenius’ on the official lyrics and meaning of their single: ‘Not Strong Enough’. We learn from Lucy that the refrain: “Always an Angel, never a God”, is about ‘receiving praise for being subservient’. This means that although you may be powerless, ‘you can excel in your powerlessness.’

Lucy’s “smart friend” (her terminology, not ours) compares this line to Virginia Woolf’s essay, Professions for Women. Here, Woolf writes that it is ‘far harder to kill a phantom than a reality’. Yet, these allusions to angels equally reflect upon Woolf’s 1931 work: The Angel in The House. This essay proposed that a woman must axe the radically reduced and socially acceptable version of herself she has been taught to internalise.

“Had I not killed her she would have killed me. […] Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down…without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against.” 

Woolf, Virgina. The Angel in The House.

Letter To A Young Poet

The final song on The Record is ‘Letter to An Old Poet’, featuring the ethereal vocals of Phoebe Bridgers. The title alone recalls Virginia Woolf’s Letter To A Young Poet, in which Woolf responds to the work of the ‘young poet’ John Lehmann. Opening Lehmann’s book at random, Woolf reads:

“There is a dark room,

A locked and shattered tomb,

Where negative’s made positive”

Woolf, Virginia. Letter To A Young Poet.

In boygenius’ ‘Letter to An Old Poet’, Bridgers remembers how ‘I kissed you hard / In the dark, / In the closet’. These lyrics recall Lehmann’s ‘dark room’, and the idea of a ‘closet’ cultivates those same ideas as a ‘tomb’ which is ‘locked’. Yet, for Lehmann, it is in this space where ‘negative’ becomes ‘positive’.

For boygenius fans across the globe, ‘Letter To An Old Poet’ provided the sequel to ‘Me & My Dog’, the anthem of the 2018 EP, ‘boygenius’. In this earlier track, Bridgers cries ‘I wanna be emaciated’. Whereas, this lyric changes to ‘I wanna be happy’ in ‘Letter To An Old Poet’. There is a striking resemblance here to Woolf’s ‘Letter To A Young Poet’; the negative has been made positive.

A Little Life

In an interview with Southwest Review, Dacus recommends Hanya Yanigihara’s A Little Life. She describes the novel as ‘brutally sad’ but also ‘incredible’. A Little Life follows the lives of four friends living in New York. Alongside stories of childhood trauma, broken relationships, and queer identity, it tracks their quiet yet beautiful friendship.

The novel opens in the eleventh apartment on Lispenard Street, New York:

‘A small balcony from which from which he could see a man sitting across the way, outdoors in a t-shirt and shorts even though it was only October’

Yanigihara, Hanya. A Little Life.

On the tenth track of The Record, ‘We’re In Love’, Dacus looks toward ‘some October, in the future’, just as Yanigihara’s October finds the characters of A Little Life in their mid-20’s, years after the events of their early childhoods.

In Rolling Stone, Angie Martoccio defines ‘We’re In Love’ as a ‘definitive love letter to friendship.’ In the song, Dacus’ soft tones question ‘Isn’t it enough / That we stripped down to our skin,’ as she remembers how ‘I told you of your past lives, every man you’ve ever been.’ Here we find a keen likeness to Yanigihara’s work, which shines a light upon the intimacy of platonic love.

From biblical scripture to contemporary fiction, ‘boygenius’ have put together an album that reaches across the span of the literary canon. Tackling questions that range from existential dread to the blossoming beginnings of a relationship, the boys are indeed geniuses.

Written By

Hi, my name is Mads Brown (they/them). I'm a third-year English Literature student at University College London. I write for the Culture board at Trill Mag, and my favourite topics to cover are literature and the arts. Alongside writing, I really enjoy theatre, playing guitar, and walks in nature.

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