boygenius loves a good book. The trio of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus have said repeatedly in interviews that the band’s relationship was strengthened through their shared love of reading. (In fact, Baker herself once gave Vulture a corresponding rundown for each song on her 2021 album Little Oblivion.) So of course they spent some of their debut, the record, providing fan with an unofficial reading list. Hearing them dedicate a literary reference to their fellow members gives the album the feeling of a makeshift book club, where a tossed-off mention becomes more than just a fleeting thought but a callback to a novel they once discussed among themselves over FaceTime late into the night. Below we break down the range of books and authors who make their way into the record’s universe — and how they speak to the larger approach boygenius takes in their music.
The most blatant reference to their shared literary interests comes from the the record’s accompanying artists’ bio, written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Elif Batuman, the author behind The Idiot and Either/Or, as well as The Possessed, a work of personal nonfiction that tells stories of Batuman’s life through the lens of Russian literature. It’s not surprising to see these women connect to Batuman. For one, Dacus is an avowed fan of Russian lit, as she notes in the group’s Rolling Stone profile. More telling, however, is the overlap between the author’s style and the group’s. Batuman writes stories of young women who are either directly herself or close approximations, and tells them from the point of view of the perceived-to-be innocuous observer. In The Idiot, the jokes come often and freely, and are propelled not through punchlines but the incongruities of everyday life.
Boygenius lyrics are regularly funny in the same way. “Will you be a satanist with me? / Mortgage off your soul to buy your dream … vacation home in Florida,” Baker asks on “Satanist.” Baker is being droll here, contrasting larger-than-life ideologies with a dream that is realistic in its slightness. The implicit question is not “Will you be a satanist?” but “What is the value of our potentially consuming goals?” In Baker’s hands, the idea of the dream home seems ridiculous, yet human. Like Batuman, she operates at a slight removal, noticing the inherent ridiculousness of the society around her.
Yes, even the Old Testament makes an appearance. It happens on “Satanist,” where the three members swap ideologies, each longing for what is just out of reach. Baker, who was raised in a devout Baptist family, asks her friends to join her in Satanism in order to satiate the material desires that she has previously decried. Bridgers, who plays by Hollywood rules more than the others, wants anarchism before she descends into self-pitying knowledge that her urge for anarchism is phony and that she will eventually be found out. Meanwhile, Dacus yearns for nihilism even as she reveals herself as someone who cares deeply. “Will you be a nihilist with me? / If nothin’ matters, man, that’s a relief,” she sings. “Solomon had a point when he wrote Ecclesiastes / ‘If nothing can be known, then stupidity is holy’ / If the void becomes a bore, we’ll treat ourselves to some self-belief.”
Ecclesiastes operates here as a kind of ironic guide to Dacus’s self-described “posi-Nihilism,” in which the fact that nothing matters frees her to enjoy herself. Her immediate lack of commitment to the idea in the last line gives the verse a sense that her commitment is more spitballing than anything so determined as an ideology would suggest. Invoking perhaps the most reified of texts in a freewheeling sense allows Dacus into the looseness that defines all three of their brushes with more determined dogmas. On “Satanist,” the three women use their well-read status flippantly, bringing the audience into a group-text sensibility as they half-heartedly dedicate themselves to convictions.
Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem
On “Anti-Curse,” the group references Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, quoting her line “Was anyone ever so young?” The Rolling Stone profile reveals that this line is a favorite of Bridgers’s. Like Didion’s work, Bridgers’s lyrics capture her surroundings and mental state with rigorous precision. Thinking of boygenius through the context of invoking Didion, the connection that comes to mind is Michelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made the Art of Having an Opinion. Dean describes a list of women writers, Didion included, who had to push through a male idea of what women were allowed to write in order to be “sharp,” in order to preserve what critic Lindsay Zoladz referred to as their “combative spirits.”
This idea of preserving an ethos that a patriarchy would rather see diminished is endemic to boygenius — starting with their name. “Boygenius,” a phrase that refers to a young boy who has been told their entire life that they are a wunderkind, is a deftly chosen moniker, funny and annoyed and impossible to ignore. In it, an observation of what makes a genius (and what the three women have had to fight against to even be considered worthwhile), is implicit. There’s a steeliness, a sharpness, to it, that makes sense in the context of the women of Sharp, who also include Nora Ephron, Mary McCarthy, and Dorothy Parker.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet
Lines from literature aren’t always directly quoted on the record, but instead lightly cited as an inspiration. Take “Letters to an Old Poet,” a clear reference to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Dacus has previously pointed to the book as an inspiration, telling Penguin that she loves the line, “The more still, more patient, and more open we are when we’re sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly does the new go into us. So much the better do we make it ours.” Perhaps the most clearly “sad” song on the record, “Old Poet” seems to use that line as a guiding ethos — burrowing directly into sadness in the hope of uncovering something new. Led not by Dacus but by Bridgers, it includes lyrics like “When you fell down the stairs, it looked like it hurt and I wasn’t sorry / I should have left you right there with your hostages: my heart and my car keys.”
The implicit tradeoff between Dacus’s favorite line leading to Bridgers’s sadness changes the song. Instead of being the individual evisceration that Bridgers is best known for, here she has backup. Both in terms of thought, but also literally on the chorus, which the three sing together: “You’re not special, you’re evil, you don’t get to tell me to calm down.” Altogether, it sounds like a woman standing up to her lover with the voices of her friends echoing in her head.