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Making Out Across America: Boygenius’ The Tour and Radical Queer Friendship, by Eleanor Prytherch

This summer, cities across North America saw the same scene. Crowds clad in variations of what could be called “concert business casual” erupt in cheers as Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” bursts from venue speakers. The stage is empty, but the audience knows the ritual. In minutes, screens will light up with the figures of three women in gray suits leaning together over a microphone. In angelic a capella harmonies they sing:

“Give me everything you’ve got / I’ll take what I can give / I want to hear your story and be a part of it.”

Seconds later, the band storms the stage with a pounding guitar riff. This is how a boygenius concert begins.

The indie rock supergroup is composed of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus. After five years of an uncertain hiatus, this year the band embarked on a tour covering 25 cities in North America, headlined the first ever Re:set concert series, played legendary venues like Red Rocks Amphitheater, and even made their debut appearance at Coachella. It’s a leap, rather than a step-up from their only previous tour, a 19-show triple-headliner where the boys (as they call themselves) played their six song EP as a bonus after their individual sets.

Boygenius announced its debut album in January with three singles, later releasing a fourth, “Not Strong Enough,” along with a video shot by the band members themselves. The video is a montage of a day the band spent together at Santa Monica pier and other moments from their time working on their sophomore album, The Record. It’s an intimate glimpse into the fierce bond they share, and it was the first glimmer audiences got into the new thematic direction the band had taken, focused almost entirely on the members’ devotion to each other.

Friendship tends to be a rare subject for music these days, particularly pertaining to queer friendship. Boygenius found its niche, and The Record brought in legions of new, mostly young and queer fans, who were hungry for that kind of work. This is the type of fan that packed into bigger and bigger concert venues this summer to hear their favorite songs and watch the boys’ onstage dynamic in-person.

The crowds that come to see boygenius are decked out in neckties and tooth motifs, emulating the boys’ onstage attire and the shared tattoo they display on the cover of The Record. Fans cling to their friends and sing along as the boys sing “And it feels good to be known so well” during “True Blue” or “I never thought you’d happen to me” during “Leonard Cohen.” These songs aren’t about dating or sex or breakups — they are about the exact kind of deep friendship that happens in the crowd at a boygenius show.

The band’s songwriting is rife with symbols to be drawn from for outfits, tattoos, art and the newer tradition of the fan project. At several shows, some intrepid fans managed to organize synchronized crowd projects to surprise the boys. The most impressive of these was a rainbow created by holding colored slips of paper over cell phone flashlights during “Cool About It,” coordinated to the different tiers of the venue.

A crowd lights up as fans cover cell phone flashlights with colorful slips of paper. Picture from @boygenius_TOR, the fan account that organized the project.

But the motif that seemed to be the most common inspiration for these kinds of moments was from the line “If you rewrite your life, may I still play a part? / In the next one, will you find me? / I'll be the boy with the pink carnation pinned to my lapel” from “We’re in Love.”

It’s the most vulnerable track on the album and the most direct about the deep love the boys have for each other. So deep that that love spills over into crowds of thousands of people holding faux carnations in the air or forming a galaxy of pink phone flashlights. The pink carnation is a symbol of gratitude and the commitment to never forget someone, themes that permeate The Record and the band’s relationship with fans.

Toward the end of their summer tour, Bridgers started asking fans to put their phones away during her performance of “Letter to an Old Poet,” a stripped-down song that reflects on a traumatic relationship, during which she’ll step down from the stage for personal interactions with fans at the front. She often explains that the song is “intense,” and it’s hard for her to engage with fans in that moment of vulnerability if there’s a phone between them. Although it may not be something fans are used to, it’s a point of pride for the boys to make a request of fans and have them respect it.

“Asking for things from fans is a way to acknowledge the mutual respect,” Dacus said in an interview with Noxx on the European leg of their tour.

Every live show flows from bouncing rock ballads and casual onstage banter to these quiet moments with fans and shared moments of vulnerability. Baker, whose struggles with mental illness are central to her solo music, sometimes prefaces the song “Anti-Curse” with a moment like this. She explains that the song is about a near-death experience, and how she feels differently about the context of the song than when it was written.

At a recent show in Europe, she expressed to fans “I feel like I’m voraciously clinging to life at every opportunity, because I’m really hungry and excited and I get to live it with these boys.” After this, Dacus and Bridgers both walked to center stage to give her gentle kisses on the head.

“You know you can’t get away with saying shit like that without us, like, embracing you?” Dacus joked.

“Yeah, I know. I love you.” Baker said.

We find ourselves on the total opposite end of the platonic intimacy spectrum by the last song on the setlist, the soaring rock ballad “Salt in the Wound” from the group’s original EP. The song finishes with a classic-rock-style guitar solo from Baker, closing out the entire concert with the most powerful moment in the band’s discography. This is where the most distinctive moment of the show happens, known affectionately online as the “Salt in the Wound dogpile.”

It’s a bit that originated on the 2018 tour when Dacus and Bridgers found ways to occupy themselves onstage while Baker shredded her solo. These days, it typically features several members of the band lifting each other up, pulling each other to the ground and kissing each other passionately. The tradition has even escalated to include ripping open shirts or inviting opening act MUNA to join in on the festivities.

These displays of physical affection tend to stump non-fans and even some fans of the band, who insist that certain members (maybe all three) must be in a romantic relationship. Why else would they kiss, write love songs about each other or gush in interviews about how obsessed they are with one another? It may be that not everyone is ready for such a radical revelation as boygenius bares on The Record, a queering of how friendships between women are supposed to work — an unconditional devotion beyond just social amiability and shared experience.

Their connection is what so many new fans were drawn to; it is a humor and tenderness that rings out across the crowds with each lyric. The success of the tour is an exultation of queer joy, a reminder of the creative capacity of friendship for cultural revelation.

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