ENTERTAINMENT
08/03/2017 09:19 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2017

The Many Ways Pop Music Has Approached 'Boys'

Charli XCX's hit isn't the first of its kind, but it is a welcome (and subversive) addition.

Let’s consider, for a moment, boys.

Meant to refer to two or more younger individuals of the male gender, the word might be bopping around in your head unbeckoned after listening to Charli XCX’s latest hit.

The video for “Boys,” featuring the blessed visages of Joe Jonas, Riz Ahmed, Mac DeMarco, and the like, hammers home the intent of her song: Boys are cute. And they are even cuter against candy-pink backdrops, engaging in pillow fights, lying atop a bed of roses or leaning cutely on a sudsy car, existing only to be seen and fawned over.

It’s no wonder Charli missed your party.

In the song, she’s not referring to Webster’s first accepted definition of the word boy — “a male child” — nor do Charli’s “boys” quite qualify as other definitions of the word, which include “an immature male” or “sweetheart, beau.” “Boy,” singular, has a complex history in English that still carries implications today. More recently, a version of the word has become the suffix for “fuckboy,” a negative term for men that originated (publicly) in Cam’ron’s “Boy, Boy” in 2002.

But, like other pop stars before her, Charli is using the word to celebrate the surface-level qualities the objects of her affection possess, “boys” standing in for a group of new-adult men of unknown long-term import whose most songworthy qualities are clear to behold.

The song’s hook is simple, so much so that it’s surprising a pop singer hadn’t yet capitalized on this exact arrangement of words: “I was busy thinkin’ ’bout boys / Boys / Boys.” Each “boys” is accompanied by a Nintendo-esque chime, giving the vibe that each individual is a pixelated golden coin to collect.

For many of us who’ve been through straight female adolescence, it’s easy to recall a time when thinkin’ ’bout boys was a lifestyle, complete with ballpoint hearts drawn around the names of average classmates of our youth: Billy, Alex, Justin, Mike.

It’s not uncommon to associate the supposedly frivolous activity of crushing with young women, with critics dismissing obsessions with boys — famous or not — as an unintellectual, wasted pursuit. Girls, and women, are often asked to walk a tightrope in their lives that suggests one should be interested in romantic love without running into the pitiable territory of “boy crazy.” Lose your virginity before you get too old, don’t fawn over untouchable pop stars, bring a date to the dance — by the way, answer this quiz to find out what your crush really thinks!

Female artists have tackled the impossibility of walking this line before; Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” in which she plays with the media’s perception of her as a boyfriend-recycling drama queen, comes to mind. In it, she expertly wields her crazy face, throwing it back in our faces, transforming it from a crutch to a weapon.

Still, it’s not something we frequently see so overtly tackled, which might be why Charli XCX’s “Boys” video feels revelatory. She’s not so much subverting tropes as simply being. Charli’s not pretending to want anything else from these boys, nor do anything else but gush over them; her confident, no-frills lyrics dare the listener to judge her.

And who would want to, when it looks so pleasant? Crushing on someone, though it can feel one-sided, often involves the blissful deception that another flawed human being might be perfect. It’s the heady rush we feel when gazing upon a preternaturally beautiful face. It’s fun, the cotton candy stand on the upper deck of the stadium, far from the playing field down below.

The lightness of the word “boys,” along with its nice rhyming opportunities (“noise,” “toys,” “ploys”), means it’s also safer territory for female artists to publicly tread when celebrating the people they dig. More than “men,” than “guys,” than “dudes,” “boys” carries the lightness and evokes a childlike innocence that aligns perfectly with the lightness of pop.

One only need to do a cursory Spotify search to understand its ubiquity as a hook. In 2013, there was Sky Ferreira’s “Boys” off of 2013′s “Night Time, My Time,” in which she praises her object of affection, the singular boy to rise above the “dime a dozen,” “doin’ nothing” rest. If the relationship isn’t quite ready for a declaration of “I love you, man,” perhaps an “I love you, boy,” will feel more right in the meantime.

Lady Gaga’s 2008 “Boys Boys Boys” feels almost cheerleader-y in its enthusiasm: “Boys, boys, boys! / We like boys in cars / Boys, boys, boys! / Buy us drinks in bars,” with the chorus finishing out with an ecstatic “We love them! We love them!” 

Britney Spears’ entry into the “Boys” canon is a sultry, low-key tune in which Britney the pop singer assures us she’s in the driver’s seat, coming out on 2001′s “Britney” alongside her I’m-an-adult-now singles “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Overprotected.” “Boys / Sometimes a girl just needs one,” she begins the chorus, concluding a few lines later “when a girl is with one / Boys / She is in control.”

And no child of the ’90s could forget “The Boy Is Mine,” the 1998 duet by Brandy and Monica, where the singers trade vocals about who can truly claim the anonymous person for whom they’re fighting. Listening back to the lyrics, I hope their use of “boy” indicates that the tussle over this guy is merely a superficial one. Clearly, this two-timing guy isn’t worth their time in the long run, but there are still thrills to be had while fighting over him.

What makes Charli’s “Boys” video such a standout is that the boys in question have agency in their situation. Through their increasingly adorable actions, they seem to acknowledge their purpose in this specific situation as swoonworthy humans. They’re enjoying themselves, even acting out for the narrator typically female-coded personas, hard edges of traditional masculinity smoothed into piles of soft pancakes, cuddly multicolored puppies, a pink scarf tossed around the neck. 

The seemingly unrealistic, cotton-candy-colored world the pop star creates seems like a dream vision, but it feels realer — we’ve seen boys like this, boys that shrug and blush and play with tiny dogs. Sure, the styling is amped up a bit from real life, but the genuine playfulness and happiness the subjects of the video seem to be feeling feels more relatable than most high-gloss songs about love out there.  

In her world, being boy crazy is not something to hide.

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You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Read more here.

CORRECTION: A former version of this article incorrectly listed the debut year of Britney Spears’ “Britney.” It was released in 2001, not 2003.

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