In this series, we take a deep dive into a significant song from the past and get to the heart of what makes it so great. Today, we revisit the Cure’s second single, a song that exposes the myth of male invulnerability but didn’t become a hit until almost a decade after its initial release.
In 2019, 40 years after the original release of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, the Cure performed the popular single on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. When frontman Robert Smith took a look at the audience, the timeless nature of the song suddenly struck him: “I realized that it has a very contemporary resonance with all the rainbow stripes and stuff flying in the crowd,” Smith said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “When I was growing up, there was peer pressure on you to conform to be a certain way.”
That statement was apparently revelatory enough to make a few headlines, even if it’s not entirely clear what the connection is between the song’s resonance and the “rainbow stripes and stuff flying in the crowd.” But regardless of whether it’s fair to compare the marginalized experiences of queer people to the social pressures of conforming to a certain type of masculinity, or whether growing LGBTQ+ acceptance in the mainstream necessarily entails a loosening of gender norms, it’s hard to argue with the basic idea of what Smith is saying: The song still resonates almost half a century later. The most common interpretation of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ is that it exposes the myth of male invulnerability – about the only thing the song’s protagonist flat-out admits is that he does have tears in his eyes – but I would argue that, with an undercurrent of irony and veiled indignation, the song mainly sheds light on how deeply that particular stereotype has been internalized by men. If only it’d lost its relevance.
Despite later occupying a space adjacent to that of the goth subculture that was largely associated with gender blurring, the Cure weren’t really in the business of subverting or poking fun at the constraints of gender, even if they did seem oblivious to them (“There’s never been a line-up that could run about holding hands and wearing dresses on national television like this group does,” Smith told SPIN, more of an affirmation of how tight-knit the group was than anything else.) But as hinted at by the iconic shot of Smith facing off into the distance that would go on to adorn countless T-shirts and posters, they did develop a penchant for evoking the darkness wrought forth by all kinds of emotional repression, gendered or otherwise.
In ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, the song’s protagonist is unable to escape those internalized societal pressures. The narrative is a simple and familiar one: boy meets girl, boy mistreats girl, boy loses girl. All that has already transpired before Smith even sings the first verse, and the song focuses more on his inability to express regret and take responsibility despite recognizing his faults (“Misjudged your limits/ Pushed you too far/ Took you for granted/ I thought that you needed me more, more, more”). He would do almost anything to get her back, but can’t even muster up the courage to apologize or appear vulnerable – so he ends up deflecting the blame for his own arrogance onto the rest of society.
It’s not just because this is a 2-and-half-minute pop song that it seems frivolous to frame it as a commentary on the perniciousness of gender roles. It’s also because the protagonist spends most of the song moaning about what he would or tried to do to save the relationship. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ isn’t any more about a boy repressing his sadness than it is about a boy who does express his feelings, even at the cost of revealing his ugliest, most pathetic side. In that context, the way Smith talks about on the song in relation to his upbringing takes on new meaning. “As an English boy at the time, you’re encouraged not to show your emotion to any degree,” he said in that Rolling Stone interview. “And I couldn’t help but show my emotions when I was younger. I never found it awkward showing my emotions. I couldn’t really continue without showing my emotions; you’d have to be a pretty boring singer to do that.”
Smith was, indeed, an expressive singer from the very beginning of the Cure’s career. Here, he delivers his lines with a certain dramatic flair that, coupled with the song’s sprightly pop melodies, lends some colour and levity to what could have otherwise come off as gaudy melodrama. It’s not hard to see how the song could’ve sounded insufferable at the hands of a less self-aware and playful vocalist. But there’s an earnestness to it, too, one that very much aligns with Smith’s perception of himself at the time. In a way that the Rolling Stone interview merely touches on, a 1987 SPIN profile comes strikingly close to capturing the kind of attitude he channels on ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and that pervades much of the band’s early material: “I’ve always been horribly overconfident in anything I’ve done, almost to the point of arrogance,” he said. “I’ve always been naturally quiet, but even when I was starting and I was quite shy, I was always very arrogant with regards to what I was doing. But quietly arrogant, not an Ian McCulloch sort of arrogant or a Morrissey arrogant.”
“Quietly arrogant” strikes me as a perfect description of the character – imaginary or not – that we encounter on ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. But the song itself has a curious history, and its meaning slightly varies depending on which version of the song you choose to look at. It was only the band’s second single, released as a stand-alone single in the UK in June 1979 before it was included as the title track in the American equivalent of their debut album, Three Imaginary Boys (the single artwork tackily sets a photograph depicting a line of soldiers against a stark pink/blue backdrop, alluding to the stereotype of masculine strength and integrity in an apparent attempt to disarm it). The Cure are known for effectively reinventing themselves throughout their career – as well as bringing the different sides of their sound together on albums like 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me) – but even before they broke out in the late 1970s, they had already shifted away from the fiery punk of their Easy Cure days to navigating the intersection between moody, spare post-punk and off-kilter pop.
The 2004 reissue of the band’s debut LP includes a bonus disc, the first half of which practically traces that transition. Among a string of demos is an early version of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, dated May 1978. It’s partly because Smith hasn’t quite figured out the right delivery yet, or maybe it’s down the spotty mixing, but he sounds miserably awkward in a way that actually paints a more realistic picture of what the narrator would actually sound like were he to utter those words. As one would expect, it also carries more of the punk energy of the other demos, though that still doesn’t translate its angst into any more of a rebellion than a lament. It’s far from the perfect pop song it would later become, not least because Smith rushes the titular line like it’s barely the focal point of the song – a decision that, again, more accurately reflects what the line seems on paper: a deflection from the narrator’s ego.
But the official single is a different case entirely, its spruced-up presentation fully in line with the pop foundations of the song. “Pop was never a dirty word with the Cure,” drummer Lol Tolhurst told Radio X of the song, but it seems that it took them a moment to actually construct a full sentence with it. The result, strangely for a pop song, is practically inimitable. This time, Smith draws attention to the titular line, stretching it out and turning it into both a proper hook and the song’s emotional center. There’s a liveliness in his delivery this time, a smidge of arrogance belying a hint of sadness, all of which give the song a whole lot of personality and texture that I can’t imagine anyone else pulling off succesfully – any reinterpretation risks veering too far in either direction by leaning into any one of these qualities. Miley Cyrus’ recent cover is all about that punk attitude; Grant Lee Philips’ 2006 rendition is openly melancholic; Scarlett Johansson’s take is… odd. And let’s not even talk about whatever this is.
But the first cover of the song, at least according to this website, didn’t arrive until a decade after its release. (And there are many; here are five good ones.) That’s because ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ wasn’t a hit when it first came out, despite efforts from the band’s manager, Fiction boss Chris Parry, who was confident it would’ve been a success and blamed the label’s parent company, Polydor, for the fact that it didn’t even crack the Top 75. “Boys Don’t Cry was my pick for the Top 10,” he later explained in the Cure’s official biography, Ten Imaginary Years. “It didn’t get there because Polydor stitched us up. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ was a hit song and it should have been a hit. Robert was disappointed and he had a right to be. It was a farce.” The UK press apparently wasn’t too keen on the band either, treating them, as critic Anwen Crawford writes, “as something of an embarrassment – they were not as political as the Clash, too nice to be the Jam, and their moody despondency did not have the same touch of authentic despair as Joy Division.” As for the song itself, the recorded version simply didn’t match what the tune sounded like in a live setting, or so the journalists claimed.
The earliest performance of the track I could find is from 1980, and to me, it doesn’t really sound all that different. But the next performance that’s available online, from a 1984 concert in Japan, does. (That year also saw the release of the Cure’s first live album, Concert: The Cure Live, recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in London and in Oxford, and it didn’t feature ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, except as a rarity on the B-side of the cassette edition.) Here, Smith’s delivery is much more in line with the sombre direction the band was heading towards in the early 1980s, and predates the version that most people are familiar with by just two years. With the track remixed and the vocals re-recorded, the April 1986 ‘New Mix – New Vocals’ version of the song reached Number 22 on the UK charts. Though recorded to promote the greatest hits compilation Standing on a Beach, it was the original version that was included on the album; the updated version didn’t appear on any of the band’s subsequent releases, but it’s the one we hear in the song’s official music video.
It would be a stretch to say that the song’s newfound success was down to anything other than timing. But while pointing out the differences between the two versions is a bit like splitting hairs, I can see why some people credit Smith’s voice, which had undoubtedly matured in the intervening seven years, as one of the reasons it stuck. It still doesn’t sound quite as atmospheric or downcast as it did live around that time, as evidenced by the subsequent tour that was captured in the 1986 concert film The Cure in Orange, but it brings out more of that vulnerability that renders it the definitive version. There’s less of that boyish nonchalance, and you can really tell he’s hiding the tears in his eyes. Instead of repeating “more” three times during the bridge, he sings it just once, letting the ghostly echo of the backing vocal take up more of that space. And it’s not just Smith’s voice; the entire production has more weight to it, as if worn down by the passing of time.
Regardless of which version you think is superior, there’s no denying the impact the song had on generations both old and new. It’s not that it really has anything profound to say about gender, but the contrast between the lyrics and the upbeat instrumental serves as a perfect embodiment of the simple irony that defines the song. It’s this juxtaposition that tends to open up a well of hidden emotions, even today, and even for contemporary artists operating in a space where that kind of expression is not only encouraged but expected. When alt-pop musician Morgwn released his album Vital in 2018, he wrote an essay about finding meaning and closure in ‘Boys Don’t Cry’: “as i pulled up the lyrics.. i was struck with something so new. so vital/ boys don’t cry/ is an admission/ that boys don’t cry…/ boys actually weep/ it is ok to show how much it hurts/ it is ok to feel unmeasurable pain….”
That might sound like a bit of a projection – does the song really embrace that narrative? – but there’s also an element of truth to it. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ might not be an expression of “unmeasurable pain” in the same way that much of the band’s later discography was, but it was an admission that it exists. And that was enough to elicit a reaction from countless young men who felt alienated by the restrictions of their ascribed gender roles, and it was enough for it to become a cultural symbol that transcended the song itself. The title alone has been reappropriated dozens of times in various media, from Kimberly Peirce’s groundbreaking 1991 film Boys Don’t Cry to the magazine Frank Ocean published alongside Blonde in 2016 and Malorie Blackman’s 2010 young adult novel of the same name. (Considering the song has also been featured in numerous other films, including The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Friends with Benefits, I find it especially funny that the original 1980 Rolling Stone review of Boys Don’t Cry ended with the sentence, “If Robert Smith ever decides to quit rock & roll, he’s got a great career ahead of him writing for the movies.”)
Since its release, Kimberly Peirce’s film, which follows the real-life murder of trans teenager Brandon Teena, has taken on a complicated legacy that others have discussed better than I ever could. But when you consider the significance of that film, as well as the song’s ubiquity in various different corners of popular culture, perhaps there’s something to the line Smith implicitly drew between ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and the queer community, even if that wasn’t at all his intention. Nevertheless, the phrase became a template for artists like Frank Ocean, an openly queer artist, to negotiate masculinity in ways that the song simply doesn’t, and in musical spaces where the ‘sad boy’ trope has been historically less prevalent or accepted. On the ninth track of his second mixtape, nostalgia, ULTRA, aptly titled ‘There Will Be Tears’, he sings, “Hide my face, hide my face, can’t let ’em see my crying,” before going on to declare, “You can’t miss what you ain’t had/ Well I can, I’m sad.” As Crawford writes, “If Ocean’s songwriting career has, so far, been proof of any one sentiment, it is that boys do cry.”
The Cure may not have explored that particular sentiment all that much, but the way their music continuously straddled the line between mental extremes – from severe depression to unbridled enthusiasm – had the effect of dismantling the myth of emotional inexpressivity that stereotype is predicated on. Their songs could hardly be described as sentimental, but they displayed a stark sensitivity and rich grandeur that countless acts have gone on to emulate since. “I thought, ‘Well, it’s part of my nature to rail against being told not to do something’,” Smith told Rolling Stone. The Cure were just being themselves when they wrote ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, which is precisely why it works both as a slice of pop perfection, a simple love song, and a cultural artifact. In the years that followed, he and his bandmates did more than prove that boys do, in fact, cry – they channeled the depths of all-consuming emotion in ways that no other band that ever crossed into the mainstream really did.