There's something very satisfying about women singing about boys. Women in pop have always used that specific word, boy, from 60s girl groups singing with the thrill of teenagers to Deneice Williams' delight in "Let's Hear It For The Boy", or Brandy and Monica's cool fight in "The Boy Is Mine". But if we track the boy in this decade, he seems to have taken on a strange new aura: less dangerous, more enjoyable.
Boys in pop have lost their reverence. The boys cropping up in pop songs now are adored, sure, but with a heady mix of fondness and condescension. “Boys, a lot of women love you,” Sky Ferreira sings, without much interest, rolling the word over her tongue like a disdainful promise, “but boys, they just make me mad.” The way women are evoking that once-glorified boy in a pop song shows a new hierarchy: for once, the boy is usually secondary to the woman singing about him, and often even further down the ranks, behind friends and work and common sense.
And they signal a complicated attitude to masculinity, one that is being newly, self-consciously negotiated. We want boys in love songs to have personalities and interior lives, but in a safe, manageable way, rejecting romance where men can overwhelm women and women’s stories. Using "boys" as the main romantic figure means that love songs can not just avoid the power dynamics and toxic masculinity hidden in men, but in fact declaw them, and reclaim power for the woman singing about them.
An obvious example is Charli XCX’s banger of a track – and video – “Boys”, which stole hearts not least for the specificity (and multiplicity) of female fantasies in its music video. Then there’s the shimmering bliss of the song, its sparkling synths and Charli’s delighted, breathed “boys” with the upward tick of the Super Mario Bros. ba-beep! Like the music video, Charli rolls out a host of boys: the bad one, the good one, the one from work. The point of “Boys” is very clearly the plural, the song rolling around in a goofy, delirious dream. Individual boys aren’t important, and Charli is not in love, but she is generous; fascinated and charmed by every guy, and sharing them with the world.
This preoccupation with boys in pop plays with shifting power dynamics. It’s teenage, certainly, but not in the same way that the 60s girl groups were. The viewpoint is no longer the younger girl awed by upperclassmen, but an older woman revelling in the teenage nostalgia and high emotions of a crush. The high stakes are those of immediate infatuation, rather than passion, and there’s no real concern about rejection – the actual relationship is not the point. Neither is sex, which is drawn out in a teasing, sweet way, often presumed but rarely actually discussed. More important is attraction, which doesn’t necessarily suffer from being unrequited.
Problems are dealt with via rolled eyes, as in Astrid S’s recent paean “Such A Boy” to a boy who a can’t make up his mind. It’s a familiar theme, but unlike classics of the genre like Katy Perry’s anxious “Hot N Cold”, you can tell Astrid isn’t actually worried. Where Katy relied on overblown metaphors, Astrid quietly pulls apart cliches. “Say you need more air/ Are you underwater now?/ We’re not even in that deep!” The overall tone is arch, amused, condescending but kind. “Don’t be such a boy,” she says, smiling while her boyfriend paces and frets, waiting for him to grow up and come back to her.
It’s a way to shift focus from boys to the women behind them. Occasionally this can be scornful, as in Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” where her drawled “Boys only want love if it’s torture/ Don’t say I didn’t say I didn’t warn you” is cutting, almost cruel, drawing our attention immediately back to the warner herself. More often, though, dismissal when it comes is fond: nothing against boys, I just don’t have time for this right now. In “Boy Problems” Carly Rae Jepsen is practically laughing at her own prior obsession: “Boy problems, who’s got ’em?/ I’ve got ’em too.
It removes the pressure for a kind of toxic masculinity that in this era of Trump and Weinstein feels so suffocating and ever-present.
The main joy of the genre is that it’s not such a bad thing, to be a boy. It gives men back a quality of playfulness, of youth, of charm that doesn’t have to be polished. It removes the pressure for a kind of toxic masculinity that in this era of Trump and Weinstein feels so suffocating and ever-present. The teenage dynamic restored doesn’t have the insecurity of singers in the 60s; it allows for goofiness, for a dynamic around sex that is teasing and fun. The visual focus and objectification apparent in the way women in pop are using the word isn’t so bad if you don’t spend your whole life in an oppressive system: just sit and be enjoyed. It’s nice. The boys in Charli XCX’s video look like they’re having a pretty good time.
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