Carly Rae Jepsen's 'Boy Problems' Is a Beautiful Gay Song of Discovery


In the starry-eyed, regressive wonderland that is Carly Rae Jepsen’s new album E • MO • TION, “Boy Problems”—which almost got tossed off the tracklist!—stands out for a couple of reasons. Written by Sia and Greg Kurstin and filtered through Carly Rae’s enthusiastically spellbound pastel vox, the track has a hustle, a playfulness, a goofy aesthetic specificity that triangulates it into some dreamland between Kylie Minogue, Janet Jackson, and Cyndi Lauper; more noticeably, “Boy Problems” is also, in an album infatuated with infatuation, a break from the dominant theme.

Or, at least, it is on first listen. The track opens right into the burbling lite-funk beat, overlaid with synth shimmer and Sia speaking as CRJ’s girlfriend on the phone. Listen, she says, just leave or stay, but I’m done listening to it.

Carly Rae then jumps into the verse, recounting the phone call:

If you’re gonna go then go/ she said to me on the phone/ so tired of hearing bout your/ boy prob-lems

In the pre-chorus, the impending realization ramps up with the sound:

I know she’s right, and I should not be offended/ Yeah, I know what it looks like from the outside

And then, on the chorus, after a first half that’s defensive, an appeal to the crowd (Boy problems, who’s got ‘em/ I got [it] em too), CRJ gets there: I think I broke up with my boyfriend today, and I don’t really care, I got worse problems.

So that’s how the song seems to throw its titular dilemma: Carly Rae’s boy problems aren’t between her and boy, they’re between her and girl. Just as obvious; still a good little break.

Then, I started an E • MO • TION listening streak that has stretched out unbroken over quite some time at this point, and soon into it I developed a degradedly religious, half-serious, painfully serious theory about Carly Rae Jepsen’s artistic center: that the generic blankness that frustrates people is a willed and focused decentering, that this album is her balancing precariously on and thus extending the very first moment of love’s potential—that she’s right on the point of being blown out by emotion’s possibility, and never past it, never more.

“Boy Problems,” in this reading, is even more of an outlier—at first. But then I realized it wasn’t; it was a BEAUTIFULLY GAY ITERATION of Carly Rae’s whole thing. The song started to seem written to facilitate a second reading that became primary: Sia’s phone call is from a girlfriend in love with CRJ, the entire track CRJ building to the lightbulb that she might be in love back.

The pre-chorus, seen this way, takes on a different color:

I know she’s right, and I should not be offended/ Yeah, I know what it looks like from the outside

Offended! Perhaps by your girlfriend saying, “I see the way you look at me,” or maybe “I’m better for you than him,” and you know what it looks like from the outside—LIKE YOU AGREE!

Following from that, the chorus looks much more serious:

I think I broke up with my boyfriend today, and I/ don’t really care/ I got worse problems

Like the fact that you’ve realized your whole life has been a lie, man!

It must be said that my entire Carly Rae theory is divorced from any assumptions about her artistic intention; consider this the Drunk Baby’s New Criticism as expounded in a ninth-tier lit journal devoted entirely to Carly Rae. I’m just saying: the song is much better this way.

Boy problems/ Who’s got em/ I got em too

“Boy problems,” here, being heteronormativity in general, and:

Boy trouble/ We got double/ Don’t know what to do

The “double” here being CRJ linking the personal—her shitty-ass boyfriend that she didn’t even like and who fucked up her relationship with Sia—to the default political as mentioned above.

But the real game comes in the bridge!

What’s worse, losing a lover or losing your best friend?
What’s worse is when you discover/ You’re not good for each other
She’s been giving/ You’ve been taking, taking, taking

Okay, so, in the former (straight) reading—the boy problems having ruined a girl-friendship—these lyrics are bland and literal on their face. The girlfriend and the boyfriend are set against each other, a lover vs. a best friend, yeah yeah. There is a decently interesting use of the word “you” that’s worth mentioning: in the second line, in the straight reading, “you” means “we,” which means CRJ and the boy; in the third line, “you” means the boy alone—the girlfriend’s been giving, he’s been taking, taking, taking.

But in the gay reading, these lines are PERFECT. What’s worse, losing a lover or losing your best friend? Well, fuckers, the lover and the best friend are the same damn person, and not being “good for each other” means sex, purely—and it appears that she’s been giving and you, Carly Rae, have been taking, taking, taking! No shit, you’re in love with her! I would be too! For beautiful, closeted-until-this-song-started shame!

“Boy Problems,” who’s got them? Ti-Grace Atkinson got them too.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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