boygenius Is Having All the Fun

There’s a scene in the movie “Help!” where the Beatles roll up to a row of terraced houses and approach their adjacent front doors — four separate entrances, one for each Beatle. Then the camera cuts inside, and we see that all four doors lead into one immense mid-1960s playhouse, where the Beatles live together. This was and is the fantasy of a rock band: boys, together, reveling in a world of their own making. Beastie Boys. Beach Boys. Backstreet Boys. They are cute. They are straight. They are inseparable and nearly indistinguishable, like sitcom characters. They seem to travel with their own center of gravity. All for one and one for all.

“The boys” is how the three members of the band boygenius refer to themselves. Over the past year, they have emerged as a fresh incarnation of that classic fantasy: the right band with the right synergy at exactly the right moment, with the most exhilarating record and the most emotional shows and the most exultant fans. Each boy even inhabits a classic boy-band archetype. Lucy Dacus, 28, is the thoughtful dreamy poet boy; Julien Baker, 28, the tattooed rocker heartthrob boy; and Phoebe Bridgers, 29, the wry, preternaturally charismatic boy. The music press often calls them a supergroup — which is technically correct, because all three are successful indie solo artists with fan bases of their own. But “supergroup” conjures images of ego-mad 1970s dudes in their cocaine phase, capturing a little magic on record before discovering that they hate one another. And this particular supergroup is made up of women who actually like one another, and who get off on reimagining what a rock band looks like and what it feels like to be in one. “There’s a very specific framework of the history of dudes and rock,” Dacus says. “People just know it, so it’s easy to play with.”

I first met the boys at the conclusion of a stuff-of-dreams tour, the day before a final Halloween concert at the Hollywood Bowl. They had spent nearly a year crisscrossing the United States and Europe, selling out Madison Square Garden, headlining festivals, racking up critical acclaim. It had just been announced that in less than two weeks boygenius would be the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live,” with Timothée Chalamet hosting; they would be in New York, trying on clothes for the show, when they learned that their debut LP, “The Record,” had been nominated for seven Grammy Awards, including album of the year. Over oak-milk lattes and breakfast tacos in Studio City, Baker joked that the end-of-tour energy felt like “the Macy’s one-day sale” — an event that, despite its name, seems to exist in perpetuity.

The boys were discussing Bridgers’s Halloween party, which went down over the weekend. Baker dressed as the pop star Ariana Grande, based on a much-memed paparazzi photo from when Grande was dating Pete Davidson: Disney-princess ponytail, a thigh-skimming sweatshirt worn as a dress, winged eyeliner, signature lollipop. Dacus, who is tall and ethereally elegant, went as Davidson, in a giant flannel hoodie. Just that morning, she had posted pictures on Instagram — she and Baker in their costumes, side by side with the original — driving fans crazy with even a mock suggestion that these two might be dating. (The boys’ potential romantic involvement is something they seem to enjoy neither confirming nor denying.) “This has completely obliterated an entire dimension of my mind,” one comment read.

The band’s fans, a passionate and highly amped population, love it when the boys do stuff together: play guitar, make out onstage, dress up. Then the fans do those things, too. There’s “a lot of gay kissing” at boygenius shows, Dacus noted happily. The band identifies, individually and collectively, as queer, and they’re proud of the freedom fans feel to use boygenius as an avenue for exploring gender and sexual identity. “Safety and sexuality can inhabit the same space,” Bridgers said. “It’s tight that it’s both — it’s tight that there are friends just hooking up for fun and also people who actually [expletive] each other.” She paused and smiled. “It is hot and also safe.” The others laughed. “The hottest safest band of all time!” Dacus joked.

Even when it’s not Halloween, fans like to come to boygenius shows dressed as highly specific iterations of the boys. The three of them in suits on the cover of Rolling Stone (itself a nod to Nirvana in suits on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1994) or Bridgers, in boxers, standing in the middle of a monster-truck arena, in the Kristen Stewart-directed music video for the dreamy, twisted “Emily I’m Sorry.” “When I see the crowd dressing up like boygenius, I think it is so wonderful that these kids have people in rock music to dress ‘like’ instead of people to dress ‘for,’” says Haley Dahl, frontwoman of the avant-pop band Sloppy Jane and a friend of Bridgers’s from high school. One fan recently dressed as a teenage Baker in 1990s skater regalia, based on a photo of the guitarist as a pouty Tennessee high schooler. “The ‘Rocky Horror’ element of it was never — like, we can’t make that happen,” Bridgers said. “Yeah, I didn’t anticipate that,” Baker added. “I thought kids would just come in their normal clothes.”

This year’s boygenius shows have felt like art-school prom: sincere, theatrical, joyfully subversive. As decidedly rock as the group’s sound is — full of loud-quiet-loud guitar jams — it’s also welcoming and interior, the songs little pockets of sometimes-soft, sometimes-hard beauty that offer fans a place to land in an often bereft-feeling world. The intimacy boygenius projects tempts fans to imitate them, to try to replicate the aspects of their friendship that seem rare and magical. It’s a sensation the band members can relate to, because they feel the magic, too. As Bridgers once put it, “I like myself better around them.”

This is what sits at the core of what the boys sometimes call the “project” that is boygenius: creating a container for self-expression and exploration, a permission structure for identity, and then watching in wonder as that very private process winds up introducing you to your best friends, as well as to yourself. “In this band I get a license to live into parts of myself I’m curious about,” Baker said, as Dacus and Bridgers nodded in agreement. “We choose our most ideal versions of ourselves. And then the kids are dressing up as the persona that we’ve constructed — because they recognize something of their own in that.”

The band performing at the Hollywood Bowl on Halloween.Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

If the boygenius boys come across like old friends who know deep secrets about one another, that’s because they are. Dacus and Baker first met in 2016, when both were 22. Baker was doing a small club tour in support of her debut album, “Sprained Ankle.” Dacus was an opening act. “I met Lucy in the greenroom of a venue called DC9,” Baker says. “Lucy was reading ‘The Portrait of a Lady,’ maybe? Henry James.” Both were very green, very young musicians raised in religious homes in small Southern towns — Dacus outside Richmond, Va., in a neighborhood she proudly describes as “across from a cornfield and next to a goat farm,” and Baker in Bartlett, Tenn., a suburb of Memphis. They bonded.

Bridgers was another opener on Baker’s tour. They met before a show at the Eagle Rock Recreation Center in Los Angeles. Because Bridgers was from the area, and because the songs she had put out at that point struck Baker as “less amateur” and “more developed” than Baker’s own, Baker was expecting someone sophisticated, someone “more cultured.” But Bridgers “was a little bit of a hesher — in a leather jacket and a NASCAR T-shirt.” Bridgers was savvy and urbane, yes, but what mostly came across was her “sweetness,” Baker says. “I was just like, Do you want to go get some pizza and doughnuts? And so we went and got late-night pizza and doughnuts and stayed up talking about bands. It was very pure.”

There are friends you meet in your early 20s — a fragile, formative stage — who become foundational. They are the people who know you on the edge of adulthood but before you’ve decided on a grown-up persona. They are the people who know who you are before anyone else cares who you are, an especially precious perspective if you later become famous. The boys were with one another at the beginning of careers in a business that is uncertain at best, cutthroat at worst and full of shady, dubious people. “Especially at that time, when everything feels like it’s happening really quickly around you, to have somebody that just had time for you,” Baker says — somebody who gives you her number and says she wants to hang out the next time you’re in the same city, and she means it — that, Baker says, was kind of everything. “I was just like, OK, I really trust these guys.” Before boygenius officially became a band, they were a text group, talking often about what they were reading, inaugurating what still feels like one long book-club meeting from which they occasionally break to play music. (Current selection: Leslie Jamison’s addiction memoir, “The Recovering.”)

In the two years after they first met, all three of their careers took off. Bridgers released her debut solo album, “Stranger in the Alps,” while Baker and Dacus each released their second (“Turn Out the Lights” and “Historian”). All three were touring like crazy, while keeping in touch throughout. In the fall of 2018, the boys found themselves booked on a short tour together and decided that they might as well record some music to promote it. Four days after they began, they had recorded the six songs that became the “boygenius” EP. On tour together, they would do a mix of solo songs and songs they’d written together. They had their share of fans, but nothing like the level of interest or personal fascination that boygenius inspires now.

The arrival of that personal fascination has been predictably disorienting. Over coffee in Studio City, for instance, there was a moment when a scowl washed over Bridgers’s face. “Were we just being filmed?” Dacus asked, following her bandmate’s gaze to a young woman who was sitting stiffly, staring intensely into her coffee, her phone face up on the table. “Don’t like it, don’t like it,” Bridgers fumed. Dacus was recently followed while shopping at Target. Baker discovered someone filming her through a display of Halloween candy at a CVS. “It was like a comedy,” she said, chuckling, “because they were filming through a gap in the candy and then it all fell down and they went like, [expletive] [expletive] [expletive] [expletive].” Bridgers smiled tightly but did not laugh. She leaned into the recorder: “And I just want to say to that person: ‘Die. Die!’”

Bridgers is particularly sensitive to being watched because she, more than the other boys, has experienced the grosser side of notoriety. In the years between the “boygenius” EP and “The Record,” Bridgers got pretty famous. There were many reasons for this, including her relationship with the Irish actor Paul Mescal, her association with Taylor Swift — she was one of the Eras Tour’s opening acts and a guest on Swift’s single “Nothing New” — and her general ubiquity as an in-demand collaborator for artists including the National, Lorde and Paul McCartney. But mostly it’s because Bridgers made an astonishing second record, “Punisher,” that came out early in 2020, when people were stuck home feeling anxious and dislocated and thus perfectly primed to receive Bridgers’s distinctive mix of austere beauty and rage. She played “S.N.L.” solo in 2021 and was criticized for smashing her guitar onstage. (David Crosby called the move “pathetic” on Twitter; Bridgers tartly replied, “little bitch.”) When the boys walk the Grammy red carpet in February, Bridgers will have been there before; “Punisher” earned her four nominations.

The boys were with one another at the beginning of careers in a business that is uncertain at best and cutthroat at worst.Credit…Hobbes Ginsberg for The New York Times

So it’s notable that it was Bridgers who sent the text that got the boys back into the studio in 2020, and that she sent that text the same week “Punisher” came out. “Can we be a band again?” she wrote.

As in so many great romances, everybody involved wanted to return to one another, but each was afraid the others might not feel the same way. What Bridgers understood was the difference between carrying success on your own and getting by with a little help from your friends. “The boys are really good at community,” she says. “I’m more insular. I mean, I have community for sure. But the boys have had, like, more roommates in their lives. So I learned a lot from them. Like how to come into the front lounge of the bus and be like, ‘[expletive], I got this really stressful text last night!’ And just talk it out. It’s the best.”

The boys see a band therapist. They have only ever had, as Bridgers puts it, one “for-no-reason bitchy” day on the road. It was in England, while they were touring the Brontës’ house; perhaps, she says, it had to do with the repressed “ghost of Charlotte and Emily Brontë within us, the shared trauma.” Now, whenever the boys are spinning out, they call it Brontitis. Dacus declared, “We could never make music again, and boygenius is just the title of this friendship that we had.”

The thing about catching lightning in a bottle is that the glow lasts only so long. Before the Halloween show at the Hollywood Bowl, the boys were backstage, getting ready to play in front of nearly 18,000 people. The energy in the dressing rooms had the frenzied excitement of an extremely well-funded high school theater production, but also an underlying anticipatory mournfulness: This was the big end-of-year performance before everyone graduates and is sucked into the what-do-we-do-now abyss. “I’m OK — sad!” Dacus said outside the makeup room when her manager asked how she was doing. “Every song is going to be like, Oh, that’s the last time.”

The band had been secretive about what they would wear for this final show of the tour. What could boygenius dress up as that would satisfy their and their fans’ taste for cheeky visual statements? Three rolling racks of clothes, neatly labeled with handmade signs, made plain the plan: They would be the Holy Trinity — Father (Dacus), Son (Baker) and Holy Ghost (Bridgers). A friend asked Baker, who was raised in a deeply Christian family, how her mother was going to feel about her dressing up as Jesus for Halloween. “I told her,” Baker said, amused — though Baker did wonder, “What if I get to heaven and they’re like, ‘We were cool with you being gay and all the lying, but why did you have to come for me so hard at the Hollywood Bowl?’”

Baker’s costume was simple, just a white robe, sandals and a crown of thorns, so she was able to dress quickly and wander the hallways, marveling at the comfort of Jesus’ footwear (“You’ve got to walk far in the desert!”) while her bandmates were still doing makeup (Dacus, in an Elvisesque bejeweled white suit) and hair (Bridgers, whose spectral halo and veil had to be carefully secured in her ice-blond mane).

Then there was the matter of Dave Grohl’s neckwear. “Can you string up this cross?” Lindsey Hartman, the band’s costumer, asked her assistant. Grohl was the night’s special guest. “I’m putting the drummer of Nirvana in a priest costume,” Hartman said, grinning and shaking her head. “This is it.”

Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus backstage before the band performed at the Halloween show where they dressed up as the Holy Trinity.
Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

Phoebe Bridgers backstage before the same performance at the Hollywood Bowl.
Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

The 2017 “Wonder Woman” movie regularly brought female audience members to tears with scenes familiar from dozens of other action films — except that everyone onscreen was a woman. The tableau at the Hollywood Bowl stirred similar emotions in me. Boygenius has an all-female backing band (they were dressed as angels, in white Dickies jumpsuits and halos), and there were a lot of women around. It felt as if there were almost no men. When Bridgers’s boyfriend, the comedian and musician Bo Burnham, showed up with his plus-one — the actor Andrew Garfield, in a Cobra Kai karate uniform he sweetly described as “comfy” — you could feel the energy shift. “You do your thing, don’t worry about me,” Burnham said to Bridgers, ducking out just as Grohl appeared with two of his daughters. “I’ll text you when Mom gets here,” he told them, disappearing into his dressing room to change.

A few minutes later, the band took the stage, to their standard walk-on music: Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.” Like everyone else, Grohl was there to serve the boygenius experience. He wanted to play drums on the propulsive “Satanist,” which meant coming on just a few songs into the show. The group sounded insane with Grohl behind them: big and bold, like a band that understood its power and was relaxed enough to fully enjoy it — but then it sounds that way without him too. “OK,” Bridgers said, shaking her body out and grinning. “I feel like the show is happening now. I feel like I just came online.”

For the rest of the nearly two-hour performance, there was a sense of easy pleasure in the air, both onstage and in the crowd. Kristen Stewart could be seen in her box with her fiancée, Dylan Meyer, and a pack of fellow willowy motorcycle-jacket-clad Angelenos drinking Modelo with their feet up, singing along. “I’ve seen them twice now, and I tell myself every time to be cool, but I lose it,” Stewart says. “I don’t know why it’s so emotional. I think what it is, they are a real [expletive] band. There is something in the way they don’t negotiate. It’s embedded in a bond that feels like if you ‘get it,’ you’re allowed in. And allowed.” A few seats away, a lesbian couple in schoolgirl outfits smiled goofily amid bouts of making out. In between songs, Bridgers brought out Maxine, her famous-to-fans pug, dressed as a tiny sheep, and intoned, “Behold the lamb of God!” Just before the final encore, Dacus grabbed her microphone. “I have found it hard to figure out what to say to you this whole night,” she said, her voice full. “But to sum it up, we love you very much, and the fact that you love us is not lost on us. This is an absurd dream. Thank you.”

Backstage after the show, Grohl and Billie Eilish and other assorted band insiders mingled in the greenroom. Elsewhere on the grounds, at the official after-party, Bridgers’s mother was milling around, beaming: “We have some friends from high school we need to check on, to make sure they’re not freaking out because they can’t get a drink.” (There’s no alcohol backstage on boygenius tours.) Bridgers eventually appeared with Burnham, a black hoodie pulled tight over her head, on guard once again.

The night was still young, with lots of goodbyes to say, and then “S.N.L.” two weeks later, and then the Grammys early in 2024. What would come after that, however, was an open question. It’s unclear whether boygenius will make new music together anytime soon.

The first thing the boys told me, on the first day we met, was that they were looking forward to their own obsolescence — a day, sometime in the future, when people would still be listening to their music, but without knowing or really caring about its makers.

The boys said they were looking forward to their own obsolescence, when people would be listening to their music but not caring about its makers.Credit…Hobbes Ginsberg for The New York Times

“People will be like, Oh, yeah, I liked this song — a couple of years ago,” Baker imagined. “We talk about this all the time, because. …” Here she turned and asked Dacus: “Didn’t Louise Glück just die?”

Dacus nodded, affirming the recent death of the Nobel-laureate poet.

“OK,” Baker said, “but when she died, weren’t we like, Wasn’t she already dead?

Dacus smiled and nodded again.

“That’s the dream,” Baker said.

“That is my goal,” Dacus concurred. “I want, basically, for everyone to be so satisfied with what I could offer that they already think I’m dead.”

Lizzy Goodman is a journalist and the author of “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” an oral history of music in New York City from 2001-2011. Hobbes Ginsberg is a lesbian photographer based in Madrid, making vulnerable, hyper-saturated work exploring queer domesticity and the evolution of self.

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