A Couple Thousand Words On Charli XCX’s “Boys”

Asylum Records
Asylum Records

I don’t remember much of 2017, but I do remember the day Charli XCX released the “Boys” music video.

July 26, 2017 was a Wednesday. I was at work.

This period of my life was marked by corporate dullness. Every morning, a little after 9, I settled into my desk, one of many strewn across an open-floor office plan, put on my headphones, and stared at my laptop. I sat in the middle of a row, which meant that I—and by some extension, my laptop—was constantly on display. Or, rather, we—my laptop and I—would have been on display, if anyone paid attention to anything outside of their own laptop. Still: I, we—and here I mean myself and my coworkers—existed in a purgatory of being seen but not paid attention to. This life was not special; it was not remarkable. I worked with mostly boys—nice ones, but not kind ones, if that makes sense to you. I tolerated them, by which I mean I shifted my entire personality to fit within a system they had designed for me to fail within. That said, if a male gaze had been set upon me at work, I did not know about it. Really, there was no gaze whatsoever at the workplace. The gaze was the work, the computer, the screen. To them—but to everyone, also—I was desexualized, borderline invisible. I was neither one of them, nor was I fully other. Mostly nothing! I would no doubt rather have this than the opposite, but to not be seen, for an entire third of a day, grows wearisome, exhausting. Every now and then during the day, I’d slip into the bathroom and stare at my own face. Once, I spent most of a workday with eyeliner smeared across my entire eyelid, and none of my coworkers said anything about it at all. So this was my check-in. A look in the mirror, a sigh, a stretching of my puffy under-eyes to see if they could go taut the way they used to. A bearing witness, briefly, of self.

But like I said, July 26, 2017 was different: sometime midday, I was made aware of the new Charli XCX music video—through tweets, maybe, or GChat, or a divine force that whispered in my ear, “there’s a place you can go online and see cute boys”—and sought it out. I was familiar with, though did not avidly follow, the work of Charli XCX: her 2014 album “Sucker” was and still is an all-time favorite, and forgive me…but…the chorus…of “Fancy”…absolutely rules. That Wednesday, however, I made it approximately seven seconds into the music video for “Boys” before I stood up from my desk and carried my laptop over to a section of armchairs by the window. These were unadorned, unclaimed seats, comfier than regular office chairs. Their real benefit, however, was their geographical location: their backs to the window, it was one of few places in the office you could sit and watch something on your laptop you didn’t want anyone else to see. I plopped down, maximized my screen’s brightness, and turned on the “Boys” music video.

It begins and ends with pink. Flushed, flamingo pink. Charli XCX’s bubbly logo is adorned across the top of the frame, and a pink table is set with towering, indulgent stacks of pancakes, and a glass of milk. Joe Jonas—the middle of the three Jonas brothers and arguably1 “the hot one”—comes to the table in a maroon robe tied at the waist, the V of its opening tasteful but not conservative. He eyes the camera briefly, his mouth giving way to a lopsided smirk, as he picks up the knife and fork. From there, flashes of scenes of other boys doing their little tasks—weights lifted, jackets adjusted, bikes ridden. The one that got me—where I said, “oh no,” and walked slowly from my desk to the seats by the window—was a brief shot of Mac DeMarco’s midriff. Mac DeMarco! I did not know who Mac DeMarco was before the video, I still could not tell you what a single Mac DeMarco song sounds like, and I definitely was not capable on July 26, 2017 of identifying him by his midriff alone. But his belly—untoned, untanned—and hips, swaying against his white electric guitar was too much. Too playful, too sweet, too sexy.

The first verse begins: “I need that bad boy to do me right on a Friday / And I need that good one to wake me up on a Sunday.” The lyrics are simple, almost unremarkable. (Perhaps the most compelling musical element of “Boys” is the repeated sampling of the noise when Mario collects a gold coin in Super Mario Bros. As if, in the context of the song, to say, “You’ve unlocked A NEW BOY.”) This is one of XCX’s few tracks that she herself did not write. It makes no difference. She co-directed the video, and it’s difficult not to see the entire weight of “Boys” as an extension of her entire persona. What follows are a series of vignettes—shots, small scenes—of a variety of men—boys—many of them musicians but several of them not—being cute. Being hot. Being silly. Being…boys?

The music video is truly just a series of moving images that follow one after another with no real sense of rhyme or reason. They don’t correspond to the song, not really, it’s all cataloging. Seeing what’s available, what’s on the menu. Like any buffet, there are almost endless options. While I’m unfazed by the swaggering glory of The Fat Jewish or the knowing smirk of Charlie Puth leaning against a car, I melt for the aforementioned, untoned tummy of Mac DeMarco. The ever-so-raised eyebrows of Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig as he brushes his teeth. The lead singer of Bastille (apparently named DAN SMITH?? Fake name, but okay) tearing a piece of saltwater taffy out of his mouth. These images are not strictly speaking sexual, merely suggestive. They give enough of a gesture towards sensuality without going all the way there. Dan Smith dead-eyeing the camera as he gnaws at a piece of taffy appeals to a part of my own sexuality I didn’t know existed; get the man some more candy. Who else? I could do this all day. Tinie Tempah nonchalantly holds the most wrinkly little bulldog you’ll ever see, while Khalid lets himself get kissed on the face by some jewel-toned pups. Riz Ahmed shares secrets with a big stuffed bear. And of course, there’s Flume. Flume. Flume. A DJ, of course, who isn’t, and an Australian, tan with floppy brown hair, merely looking up from a book titled GIRLS in wire-rimmed glasses. This music video prompted me to follow Flume on Instagram. This might not sound revolutionary to you, but it was to me. Flume! My new crush. If this sounds simplistic to you, that’s correct. It is. It’s just boys.

All of these images compounded and described make them seem less impactful than they were to me on that July day two years ago. You had to be there, maybe. The idea of flipping the heterosexual male gaze is neither new nor necessarily interesting. XCX’s “Boys” music video was not the first piece of media (nor was my beloved Magic Mike XXL) to do it; it won’t be the last. But it happens rarely enough that it’s difficult not to feel a little tickled. For the few minutes that I watched the “Boys” video—actually many minutes, as I rewatched it throughout that Wednesday—I felt like the world had shifted to me, for me. That it was endlessly repeatable as a viewing experience, that there were countless Twitter threads asking people who would be in their self-directed “Boys” video, that Karen Han has now made not one but two videos with older male character actors, all of this does not escape me. The object becomes the form. The broad desire to recapture the feeling of seeing the “Boys” video grows immense for some. For me. Let us thirst again, we beg. It’s one of the few things we have left.

When I say I don’t remember much of 2017, what I mostly mean is that I don’t really remember anything good about it. The year began with the rainy, embittered protest of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and it closed with towering, unceasing waves of #MeToo stories. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s never a good time to be in the world, but in 2017, it felt like an especially bad time—to be female, to be queer, to be in the world. And I had—and still have—it better than many. I think so often about watching the “Boys” video months before I would read the Weinstein stories, the CK stories, before I would hear stories about men close to me, men whose behavior I was ignorant to and then could not forget. Sitting off to the side of my workplace, rewatching the same music video over and over again, is like taking Advil before going to the dentist: the thought is nice but ultimately useless. Put as many pancakes as you want in front of a boyband member; it won’t erase the sins.

Though I wrote above that the lyrics to “Boys,” are not remarkable, I have an unyielding love for when XCX croons, “Don’t be mad, don’t be mad at me / Darling, I can’t stop it, even if I wanted.” At the time of its release, the lyric was funny, playful. XCX’s open admission that all of this is overblown, not worth the effort of getting angry over. So why is that the lyric that hits me so hard across the chest now? Perhaps because I too feel the urge to tell people not to be mad at me when I say the “Boys” music video still works on me? That the thirst is real, as they tweet. That I feel myself see (boys) and be seen (by XCX’s desire for me to see the boys she portrays). My sexuality—an essay unto itself—is such a jumbled bag of wants and desires. It could not be a worse time in the world to be attracted to men and yet––don’t be mad, don’t be mad at me, I want to argue. I can’t stop it. Even if I wanted. Even if I’ve tried. To shoulder the weight of the thirst is at once a delight and a curse.

For example: why do I now know that Diplo has freckles on his shoulders? What do I do with this information and how do I live in the world alongside it? I don’t want this. It’s not my burden. Diplo, for all intents and purposes, has historically not been great to women (though in recent years, he does seem to be vaguely working towards reform). To see him in this music video, devoid of a context I know surrounds him, is…confusing? Arousing? Some combination of the two? He eyes the camera, puppies in tow, lifting them up over his shoulders. There is a softness, a delicateness to him. Again: the freckles scattered across his shoulders. Highlighted not as a man would—not oiled, not slick, not any more tanned than he usually is, not bolded—merely there. You can take the information if you want it; if not, feel free to move on. It does get me, whether I want it to or not. The shot of him. It’s ephemeral. The thirst comes for us all, be it the spark of a cigarette lit with a match or tongue tracing the neck of a guitar. And then it passes.

XCX appears just once in the video, the last in a line of women dressed in collared, white button-downs. She dead-eyes the camera, one eyebrow cocked, and a small curly-Q mustache is drawn on her face. The few women in the video are in playful, low-cost drag. She gives the camera a peace sign, as if to both take credit as well as to gesture that her video is well-intentioned. The thirst is for our benefit. Don’t overthink it, and definitely don’t write 2,363 words on it. XCX comes in peace, etc. It’s all a big wink, she’s saying without saying. Don’t be mad at me.

The bridge also ends with a loose acknowledgement of XCX’s control—creative or otherwise. Don’t be mad, don’t be mad, / darling, I had a choice. It’s a choice, she argues. Thirst is not mandatory but opted for. Indulged in. I, too, did not have to remove myself from my desk, burrow away where I could not be seen. I had the option, as I always did, to not look at the boys. But I wanted to, and I did, and then it was over. The final act of XCX’s video is all laughter: Puth is struck in the face with a soap sponge, Panic! At The Disco’s Brendan Urie blows a rose petal out of his eye, Bastille’s Dan Smith (fake name) looks down sheepishly away from the camera. The boys are in on the joke; they consent to being window dressings. Even the video’s caption reads: NO BOYS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS VIDEO.

The rest of July 26 is a lost day. I closed my laptop. I went back to my desk. I carried out the rest of my day. An unremarkable time, an unremarkable week. That I remember the thirst—the joy! the stupidity! the pink!—of XCX’s video remains something of an anomaly, but it has remained a beacon since. I hesitate to want to know exact the number of times I’ve seen the “Boys” music video by now, but it’s become a cure-all like no other piece of pop art for me. In a bad mood at 11:59pm on a Tuesday night? The “Boys” video. Can’t get the creative juices flowing? The “Boys” video. Approximately 100 times writing this essay? The “Boys” video. I love to look at something meant to be looked at. Meant to be seen. I’ve stopped caring what it says about me, my sexuality, my taste, my preferences. The Mario coin noise hits and I’m over the moon. Don’t be mad at me.

  1. The author of the piece is partial to Nick Jonas.