By Marci Cohen, Assistant Head, Music Library, Boston University
This is the first article in our new ATG weekly series Above the Fold which will feature music/album/concert reviews, pop culture, food/restaurant reviews, new initiatives, games, and much more! Topics not necessarily related to librarians, publishers or vendors, but interesting and engaging for everyone! if you’d like to contribute an article for this new online column, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Boygenius, the supergroup of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker, has just released their debut full-length album, the record, following on their 2018 eponymous EP. While “supergroup” may sound like an antiquated 1970s term for a band involving the likes of Eric Clapton, each musician has an established reputation as a solo artist within a certain brand of rock dubbed by some as Sad Girl Indie, and Bridgers has emerged the queen of the genre. The markers are bedroom pop by women wanly strumming their guitars with a greater focus on confessional lyrics than melodies or arrangements. The brash women of Riot Grrrl are decidedly not the ‘90s antecedents, but Eilliott Smith’s hushed delivery is. Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy qualify. Courtney Barnett, with her hooks and grunge-inspired guitar crunch, does not.
What is particularly remarkable is not only that the band has broken out big enough to earn a cover of Rolling Stone (February, 2023, https://www.rollingstone.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/2-Rolling-Stone-Boygenius-Cover-Medres.jpg?w=844), but that they wielded enough power to upend the magazine’s long-standing tradition of sexist cover imagery. The magazine that infamously defined Joni Mitchell in relation to her alleged lovers rather than by her own musical accomplishments in the early 1970s (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/11/the-unknowable-joni-mitchell/540618/) hasn’t necessarily improved much since then. The expectation has long been that women posing on the cover must appear sexually available. For a blunter term not appropriate for a professional publication, see the 2015 viral sketch from Inside Amy Schumer about actresses approaching middle age. I was acutely aware of this in 2000 when working at RollingStone.com, the company licensed to create the magazine’s website, an era when Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera posed in crop tops, Yes, there have been exceptions: Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were permitted to wear the business attire that is customary to their careers in politics rather than entertainment (March, 2019). But just a month earlier than the boygenius cover, Rosalia was upholding the stereotype.
So what did boygenius do instead of stripping to their skivvies and donning “come hither” expressions? They chose to replicate a Nirvana Rolling Stone cover (January 27, 1994, https://www.rollingstone.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/rs-28933-23102_lg.jpg?w=397). This was not the first time the women recreated an image by a male trio; they took the same positions on a sofa on their EP cover that Crosby, Stills & Nash had on their own debut album (Crosby, Still & Nash, Atlantic, 1969). More than just a nod to the three-piece band that brought the underground to the mainstream, boygenius recreated an image portraying Nirvana in decidedly masculine clothing and decidedly in charge, wearing corporate-looking pinstripe suits, button-down shirts, and ties. Although the cover text for boygenius emphasized the musicians’ individual names, the headline on the original Nirvana cover was “Success Doesn’t Suck,” also an apt sentiment in this new setting. The new album marks their first release on a major label, either as solo artists or a band. The band clearly has grown in stature. Their name was used as a signifier of lesbian cool on Mare of Easttown (“Enter Number Two,” 2 May 2021). They chose to use their increased clout to subvert expectations for how female artists must appeal to the male gaze to warrant a Rolling Stone cover.
But what about the album? It is heavier on the quotable lyrics than hummable melodies, and it is centered on mid-tempo tracks. However, it is not musically bereft. The vocal harmonies are impressive, with a naturalistic, folk-like feel. There is no straining to one-up each other with vocal chops. They are not girl group singers vying to launch solo spotlight careers since they have each already established their individual identities as artists, and that artistry isn’t built around showcasing a great set of pipes. Instead, the women take turns on lead with other the voices accenting and complimenting each other, the three singers operating as a unit. The album opens with a pair of tracks sequenced to demonstrate the band’s musical range. “Without You With Them” is delivered a cappella with a timeless arrangement, followed by “$20,” which features a full band and stop-start rhythms that feel very off-the-moment.
Later on the album, “Satanist” uses a loud/soft arrangement similar to “$20” crossed with Everclear’s “Santa Monica.” After they sing “Tryin’ to score off-brand ecstasy/Will you be an anarchist with me?/sleep in cars and kill the bourgeoisie,” maybe the cymbal crashes are providing the force lacking from the vocal delivery, but it feels more like they lack the conviction to follow through on the unexpected come-on. On the same track, “Solomon had a point when he wrote ‘Ecclesiastes’/If nothing can be known, then stupidity is holy” reflects their shared upbringing in and questioning of the Christian community. “Revolution 0” offers a strange juxtaposition: the lines “I just want to know who broke your nose/Figure out where they live/so I can kick their teeth in,” are uttered as if Bridgers were groggy, just awoken from a nap, without any hint of the anger suggested by the lyrics. Dacus chants more than sings “Leonard Cohen,” a rambling narrative with little effort to rhyme but containing an amusing throwaway line about the song’s namesake “at a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry.” “Not Strong Enough” climaxes with an endless repetition of “Always an angel/never a god,” as it builds in sonic intensity.
In a pop music moment where producers with an arsenal of electronic tools rule the charts, a trio of singer/songwriters with an arsenal of fresh turns of phrase, unadorned voices, and gentle harmonies are clear outliers. Lyrics such as “I want you to hear my story and be a part of it” feel destined to be traded among insiders as passwords into secret clubs. Yet boygenius’s position on the cover of Rolling Stone, especially when they appear fully clothed and in minimal makeup, shows that they have more than a cult or niche appeal and that they recognize the leverage that they wield. The record feels positioned to fulfill that promise.
Wonderful article! We look forward to reading more.