What does joy sound like? Are we drawn to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from his Ninth Symphony, an ever-ascending symphonic poem about universal friendship? When we pose the question in the American landscape of relentless positivity, we might mistake the sound for R.E.M.‘s infectious, hook-laden pop song “Shiny Happy People”. Maybe. But only if we embrace the title’s repurposed Chinese propaganda slogan without Michael Stipe’s irony.
Perhaps joy can embrace the full spectrum of human emotion from a particular posture. In a 2021 Yale Center for Faith & Culture podcast, professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies Willie James Jennings envisioned joy as “…an act of resistance against despair and its forces”. As such, it is a practice of intention that can become a state of mind that could be a way of life. Counterintuitively it can be cultivated in the midst of suffering.
If Jennings is on to something, can we say that the first full-length album by supergroup Boygenius, The Record, is a profound work of joy rendered into an instant classic indie rock statement? I think so.
Boygenius are an indie rock dream collaboration of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus. While touring together as individual acts in 2018, the group was formed in an attempt to record a single promotional single. They took that plan into the studio and emerged with a six-song EP, the first fruits of a blossoming friendship.
The EP garnered critical praise and wowed listeners as their vocals wove in and out of one another with uncanny harmony. Their intimate connection saturates the music and elevates the band’s deep connection with the listener. It was apparent to the three as well. Bridgers told Rolling Stone in a recent interview, “It was not like falling in love. It was falling in love.”
Despite the gravitational pull the EP exerted, fans saw the three members flourish mostly in their solo careers in the ensuing years. In 2020 Phoebe Bridgers released Punisher, a critical and popular smash whose themes of dissolution and disconnect resonated deeply in a world knocked off its axis by the pandemic. Julien Baker deepened the unsparing and unflinching self-examination of her songwriting the following year with an expanding musical sound on Little Oblivions. At the same time, Lucy Dacus mined her adolescent journals for Home Video, a richly literate queer coming-of-age narrative within Southern evangelical culture.
Individually, Baker, Bridges, and Dacus stood out in a crop of profoundly affecting and literate singer-songwriters, artists whose ability to plumb the depth and breadth of human emotion borders on emotional laceration and utilize profound honesty and vulnerability as points of connection with their audience. Most of these artists are females in their 20s, and many identify as queer. They are often reductively grouped in the semi-dismissive “sad girl rock” category. More on that later.
The members of Boygenius are acutely aware of their context and the importance of their embodied presence within it. In an interview with Lexi McMenamin for them magazine (“The Infinite Gay Joy of Boygenius”), the members spoke to their sense of place in a legacy of activism that paved the way for them, an inheritance from pioneers who, as Julien Baker pointed out, suffered so that artists like Boygenius could be joyously gay on and off stage. Baker told McMenamin that the group understood their ongoing role in this movement, “The joy is the living amends you do for your community as a performer.”
It’s important to note that the band advocates for the simple radicality of normality, for the right to be oneself in all one’s humanity without the pressure to be exemplary. As Lucy Dacus stated in the same interview, “I want every gay and trans person to have the opportunity to be inarticulate, stupid, and unexceptional.” Julien Baker indicated to Sound Opinions host Jim DeRogatis that the band understands the political import of their experience, “The lived experience of a person existing in a marginalized demographic is apparently inherently engaging with the political.”
Baker connected these themes and experiences to the radical resistance of joy in a 2021 interview with Slate’s Outward podcast. Recounting her experience of being raised with immense shame around anything attached to the body and self-expression, she found this shame initially intensified and complicated around coming out. “I am so bummed that it took me so long to sit in queer joy,” she recounted. “…[I]t is actually so radical to express joy in the face of a world writ large that does not want you to have it.”
This joy as resistance puts the lie to the “sad girl music” trope. They break free of this framing that reinforces gender stereotypes and reduces the range of expression and how one interprets it. Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” isn’t a lament; it’s in-your-face defiance. As Phoebe Bridgers exclaimed when recalling when Boygenius were asked for their “mission statement”: “Do Gay Crime!” Sad girl music? Hardly. This is punk rock with gorgeous harmony.
There is something radically novel about the emotionality of The Record, their first full-length album that began to emerge with a song (“Emily I’m Sorry”) that Bridgers wrote after Punisher. Speculation began to abound when a TikTok video of the group recreating a 1993 photoshoot of Nirvana in drag went viral. Anticipation was high for the possibility of new music and possible touring. On 18 January 2023, the group dropped three songs simultaneously, an early glimpse at the potential promise of the coming album. These three were “$20”, “Emily I’m Sorry”, and “True Blue”.
At first blush, the cuts appeared to be individually driven tracks with lead influence from Baker, Bridgers, and then Dacus. But on the eve of the album release, Boygenius announced they would simultaneously premiere “The Film”, directed by actor Kristen Stewart to accompany the album drop. The 14-minute short film knit visual dreamscapes that interweave the three songs as part of one communal tapestry, each emerging from a member’s perspective but meaningful in light of the shared relationship.
A frame-by-frame analysis of the film and the easter eggs within could provide content for a separate essay. In the service of the case for joy as resistance, let’s highlight a few things from “The Film”. First, It is worth noting that Lucy Dacus’ contributions anchor the film. The three segments are introduced and knit together with transitions accompanied by humming bars of the album opener, “Without You Without Them”, an acapella tune with Appalachian vibes carried by Dacus’ warm alto. The song contains lines like “I want to hear your story and be a part of it,” an interpretive key for the film and the album itself.
Visual clues repeat between the vignettes, reminding us to consider these as all of one piece. The three pieces are never solitary stories, as the highlighted member in each song exercises full agency only in communion with the other two. “True Blue” most powerfully foregrounds this group’s joyful and intimate interconnection at the heart of their magic. Under Stewart’s deft direction, “True Blue” enacts arresting visual displays of intimacy, mutual communion, and sensuality that defy reductive categorization. The radical nature of their communal collaboration is something more than friendship or siblinghood without abandoning either. It is transcendent and hard to describe. It is Boygenius.
The Lucy Dacus-led tracks form the heart of the album. “Without You Without Them”, “True Blue”, “Leonard Cohen”, and “We Are in Love” are all love songs of intimate depths that explode the traditional boundaries that mark the genre. These songs speak of longings that are fulfilled and fueled by this friendship. Dacus told Sound Opinions that her writing for the album reached for shared experiences because she didn’t want the others singing “stuff that didn’t resonate.” When Baker and Bridgers harmonize with Dacus in “True Blue” (“And it feels good to be known so well / I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself”), it is pure testimony that sweeps up the listener in their shared assertion in three parts.
It is this openly shared vulnerability and self-reflectiveness that is present in the tracks “Cool About It”, “Not Strong Enough”, and “Satanist”, where they each take turns refracting their communal experience in each individual lens.
Let’s talk about “Not Strong Enough” for a moment. In an exemplary fashion, it offers the magic of what Boygenius is and the honest joy that emanates throughout this album. This joy is not superficial positivity but embraces the full spectrum of life in its different hues. Loosely tethered to the feeling of vertigo that finding one’s place in the world engenders (“I don’t know why I am the way I am”), each member takes turns riffing on the theme with breathtaking vulnerability.
Phoebe Bridgers gestures at the images of a possible panic attack where a “black hole opens in the kitchen.” It’s a recognition of when the mundane gives way to gravitational forces that threaten to overwhelm us. We don’t know why we are the way we are.
Julien Baker follows with images of drag racing, speeding away from or toward something, highlighting how one can easily slip into the other and back. It’s an image of freedom and escape. Windows down. Pouring one’s intensity into the Cure’s emotional ode to the suppression of emotion. “Boys Don’t Cry,” after all. It’s a clever, suggestive wordplay that carries an emotional wallop between the gaps in meaning.
How flexible is the play on words? Drag racing might have multiple referents, and it might not be too far off the highway to think of the 1999 film about transgender teen Brandon Teena starring Hillary Swank that shares the same title as the Cure’s song. Like her bandmates, Baker is a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights. She recently covered Neko Case’s “Man” at the Love Rising concert in Nashville, Tennessee, a celebration of gender fluidity and expression and protest against the state’s increasingly radical legislative attacks on the LGBTQ community. “Do you see us getting scraped up off the ground?”
None of this infers these reflections to the writers’ intentions definitively. It is rather to note the rich suggestiveness of their songwriting.
Lucy Dacus disrupts the pattern, entering not to add another parallel verse at this point. Instead, she ushers in the bridge, intoning the mantra—” Always an angel, never a god”—on repeat. Shortly, Bridgers joins in. The bridge intensifies until Baker comes in with her trademark expressiveness, a vocal potency that borders on yelling but is never out of tune. Those who have seen her live performances can identify the visual markers accompanying these moves. Eyes closed, mouth agape, she pulls her face away from the mic as if the sheer intensity of the emotion exuding from her threatens to overwhelm anything nearby. Right before the rising pressure hits a point of no return, Dacus drops back in with the hook, “I don’t know why I am the way I am,” with a subtle impact that echos her delivery of the gut punch in “Souvenir” from the EP.
Her announcement that “I’ve been having revelations” speaks again to her role in interpreting the album’s experience with, and on behalf of, the others. Dacus has recently become interested in tarot readings. Each band member sports a tattoo of the Three of Cups symbol, the tarot card representing community and groups coming together to focus on an emotional and creative goal. (The album cover photo bears similarities to the tarot card picture). When she pleads later in the album—” If you rewrite your life, may I still play a part?”—she speaks to the intimate bond that ties this group together, better, the bond that is this group. Bridgers responded simply to Jim DeRogatis when asked to explain the group, “Boygenius is about us, hanging out, enjoying our time together, being afraid to lose each other..”
The juxtaposition in the song with its three confessions of being aware within relationships that you occasionally lack what the other needs over against the unrestrained joy of the video’s visuals of the three enjoying a day at a theme park gets at the radical resistance at the heart of The Record. Joy doesn’t emerge from perfection, from everything falling into place. Joy is the radical resistance we find in community.
“Hey, hey. My, my. Rock ‘n’ roll will never die.” True. But, it evolves. The categories of classic rock don’t bind this group. There is plenty of attitude here but in a different key. While “Satanist” explores the stability of relationships amidst radical change, it also sends up overly serious rock tropes (satanism, anarchism, and nihilism). “$20” is a Gen Z “Born to Run” beyond the adolescent male angst and preoccupation with getting laid, reworking freedom from the need to escape to a concept more in line with the Indigo Girls’ proclamation that “the closer I’m bound in love to you / The closer I am to free.” The “Boys” aren’t afraid of taking a playful shot at the assemblage of rock “deities”. “Revolution 0”, the Sgt. Pepper-like locked groove at the end of “Letters to Poet” on the vinyl record and the album’s title (The Record) evoke similarities to the Beatles but with a real difference. Even Leonard Cohen isn’t safe (“And I’m not an old man having an existential crisis at a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry”).
The Record announces that the gendered lanes of rock (“male angst and desire” and “sad girl music”) have been torn up and that new, more expansive roads are possible. Rock is relevant, and it is radical resistance. But that means more than just in-your-face aggressiveness. As Julien Baker acknowledged, “Writing about my friendship with these guys is an inherently political act.”
You hear this in her proclamation in “Anti-Curse”, a song about potentially drowning physically and metaphorically. “I’m swimming back.” It’s a strength in the tumult of life that is only possible in the intimacy of the love the three share and exude on The Record. The same power emerges in Bridgers’ reprise with a difference from “Me & My Dog” in “Letter to an Old Poet”. When they begin the soaring line, “I want to be…” the listener braces for the weight of “emaciated” from the former song. Instead, “happy” is substituted, and while Bridgers claims she is not there yet, her love for her companions provides a path.
The sound of joy as resistance on this album is as radical a statement as London Calling or Nevermind. It is why The Record—aside from arguably being one of the best albums released this year—might be one of the more significant statements of our time.