“I was busy thinking ’bout boys,” is the very first line of Charli XCX’s new single, “Boys,” but do not be misled — this song and its accompanying video are much more than a simple melodic musing on dashing young gentlemen. Released on July 26th, the new single from the British singer and songwriter mocks gender stereotypes common in pop music while demonstrating how in-control Charli is of her own artistry and success.
Throughout the song, Charli describes how distracted she is by all sorts of different boys. She apologizes, “I’m sorry that I missed your party/I wish I had a better excuse like/I had to trash the hotel lobby/But I was busy thinkin’ ’bout boys.” Parties? Trashing hotel rooms? Obsession with boys? At first listen, this sounds like a stereotypical mindless pop song. It’s catchy, and your cliche themes of partying and boy-craziness are here in fully-fledged forms. However, Charli XCX has a number of tongue-in-cheek songs — she is not a pop princess trope, lip-synching to uninspiring beats manufactured by the mainstream pop machine. Two minutes and thirty seconds into the song, you can hear a bunch of bubbles popping, as if implying that your preconceived notions of bubblegum pop music are indeed being popped and shattered. This is not nonsensical Top 40 music, but rather pop with a purpose. Aside from the bursting bubbles in the song, the video blatantly turns all stereotypes on their head.
This music video features over sixty different male celebrities, most of them being musicians, but some being athletes and YouTubers. These men make up the entirety of the video, with the exception of two quick shots and the credits, where Charli is shown directing. In one of the two quick shots, Charli is show with a line of women, and they all have tiny mustaches drawn on their faces. This serves as a form of juxtaposition, indicating that the roles have been reversed, and when the men are pictured in this video, they are taking on the stereotypical parts of women being overly-sexualized and objectified in pop music videos. Even though this is Charli’s song, she is not the focus in the video — the sexualized men are. When you watch the video, take note of what the men are doing: they’re having pillow fights, holding puppies, washing cars, licking guitars, sitting in inflatable swans, dramatically chewing bubble gum, and sometimes simply brooding and serving the purpose of being an attractive person to look at. Now compare this to Robin Thicke’s controversial epitome of the stereotypically degrading pop video; the bubble gum and animal scenes are the same. It is not a coincidence that the exact same silver letter mylar balloons from the “Blurred Lines” video are used in the “Boys” video — that seems like it could be a direct stab at Thicke.
— BBC Radio 1 (@BBCR1) July 26, 2017
I also think it is important to note that this song never says the words “man” or “men” — males are strictly referred to as “boys.” This video features fully-grown men acting in mischievous but sexual manners, yet they are explicitly deemed “boys,” and many commenters on the video have highlighted this, writing along the lines that, “These are MEN, not boys.” While this is being done in more of a comedic light, there is truth to this statement, and calling a man a “boy” can indeed be demeaning. Yet when women are presented in similar manners, they are often referred to as “girls” when they are fully-grown women, and pop music has desensitized many to the connotations of these words that often lead to objectification. Calling a woman a “girl” can take away some of her credibility and capability, and this song and video highlight this discrepancy by applying it to men, where it feels more out of place.
Now Charli is not the first one to satirize stereotypes in pop music and videos. In their video for “Girls,” The 1975 mocked their own aesthetic and snobbishness critics believed they had, while also poking fun at the common notions of a pop video, such as girls chewing bubblegum, eating, and brooding at the camera (just like in Charli’s video). Marina and the Diamonds created a video very similar to “Boys” back in 2012 with “How to Be a Heartbreaker,” where men were presented nearly naked, wearing tacky costumes and behaving coyly, highlighting how cheesy, insulting, and off-putting objectification can be. However, Charli puts her own spin on this concept, as she asserts her own power and uses the celebrity of the men in her video to draw more attention to her new single.
As Eve Barlow points out in her Pitchfork review, “Charli isn’t merely making a scrapbook of her favorite hotties—she’s directing them from behind a camera, actualizing her fantasies.” She is in control here; this is HER video. You may think that the song is mindless and cliche, but that is what she wants you to think. Every move she makes, she does with reason. She may barely be featured in this video, but she is present the entire time, because this is her fantasy and artistic endeavor. Usually women are in front of the camera and men are behind it, but that is not the case here. Furthermore, she has picked the featured men in her video very purposefully. It is a diverse set of men, from a wide variety of backgrounds, which means that a wide variety of viewers will be drawn to the video. The musicians are of every genre imaginable. You have mainstream pop cuties like Charlie Puth, but then you have indie rock darlings like Mac DeMarco, and rapper hunks like G-Eazy. As of today (August 9th), this video has achieved over 21 million views on YouTube, and these diverse cameos definitely led to this. As soon as this video was released, I saw a Billboard article on my Facebook feed raving about Joe Jonas’s cameo, while Alternative Press drooled over Brendon Urie’s appearance. Charli XCX is extremely clever, as she knew that fans of all these different celebrities would come for the goofy cameos, but they would stay for the killer song (I sure did). At the 1:56 mark in the video, there is a super quick shot of a hundred dollar bill [see above, Atlantic Records (c) 2017] with Charli’s face on it, and this shows that she knows she is in control of the success that is coming her way.
While this video and song is very calculated, and sheds light on the differences between the representation of men and women in music videos, there is still something that feels wholesome about it. This is because these men are friends of Charli’s, and were aware of the message they were promoting and decided to have a bunch of fun with it. Yet, there’s more to it than even that: this is arguably one of the most diverse and representative videos I have ever seen in my life. These are men of greatly varying races, nationalities, ages, sexual orientations, and body types — and they are all presented as attractive, even though that means something entirely different for each man. This video indicates that there is no singular definition of attractive, or of masculinity. Throughout this video, we see all these “boys” that we grow to love, and they help to turn the stereotypical notion of what it means to be a man on its head.
There is so much irony in this video; when you see the shot of the piece of meat being stabbed, know that, like most of these shots are, it is a biting metaphor. But Charli is in charge, and the details she has put into this video greatly complement the song, and have brought immediate attention to what she’s doing. She is definitely a pop princess, but one with a knowing glint in her eye and a plan for music-world domination. Compare her work to what you see around you, and listen carefully for her underlying messages. Enjoy “Boys,” and be on the lookout for more new music coming from her soon.