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Don’t message me
Cause I won’t reply
I wanna make you cry
Ain’t that how it’s s’posed to be? Though it isn’t me
Boys will be bugs, right?

–Boys Will Be Bugs, Cavetown

Luke “Skycraper” James grew up in England, where he was a foot taller than all his peers (6’ 9’ by his high school graduation). A thin, painfully shy boy, he suffered derision, taunts, humiliation and being called Frankenstein and a freak to his face almost daily.

“I especially hated my school nickname: Skyscraper. I don’t know why it hurt so much; it just did,” he said. “By the time I was 16, I had multiple emotional scars from refusing to fight smaller boys for fear of hurting them and facing more taunts from my fellows, or being told “Eff off Frankenstein” by any girl I plucked up the nerve to approach and ask for a date.”

That was decades ago, but his painful teen years help explain why he feels a special kinship with the song “Boys Will Be Bugs” by Cavetown. “I really love that song,” he says. “It highlights what many people don’t seem to know: Teenage boys feel a lot of pain and torment and misery they’re expected to keep inside.”

And if you wanna cry
Make sure they never see it
Or even better yet
Block it out and never feel it

“Boys Will Be Bugs,” in fact, may be the most important song about teen boys that most adults have never heard of. Recorded as a single and on the album “Lemon Boy” (2018), it revolves around a lonely 14-year-old who confides his problems about acting tough to smaller companions (“I have friends who understand me/Their names are spider, beetle, bee/They don’t say much but/They have always listened to me”). He protects himself by assuming a mask of indifference, even if the cost is emotional numbness. Like many boys his age, he pushes his peers and parents away while longing for closeness. The song is a lament, but it’s also a witty, soaring lyrical challenge to toxic masculinity.

The other boys at school
Say it’s cool to hate your parents
But they’re lying all the time

The bugs say I should let them

The musician behind the song is English indie rock musician Robin Daniel Skinner, aka Cavetown, who was 19 when he wrote the sleeper hit. A musician who first recorded at 13 and built his following organically through YouTube and other outlets, he has had many other hits, including “Lemon Boy,” “Talk to Me,” and “Devil Town,” which also explore themes of psychic integration (or disintegration). Cavetown has more than 321 million views on its YouTube channel, and from the many hundreds of comments there, “Boys Will Be Bugs” may be helping shape the conversation about the mental health of teenage boys (and girls). It’s an anthem for bold and sensitive Gen Z teens, who know that even if they belt out the ironic chorus with gusto (“Don’t mess with me/I’m a big boy now/And I’m really scary/ I punch my walls/Stay out at night/And I do karate,” they are just trying to survive adolescence. (See full lyrics here).

Just turned 14
And I think this year I’m gonna be mean

Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical teen psychologist in private practice in Fairfield, Connecticut, sees the song as part of a remarkable shift in teen culture. “Boys Will Be Bugs’ is wonderful,” she says. “I think it really resonates with teens because the singer makes himself very vulnerable – he’s extremely honest, vulnerable and relatable. He’s singing out loud about teen boys’ inner conflicts and the fact that boys would be taunted terribly if they showed their vulnerability. I see it at work because one teen boy after another comes into my office and says, ‘I really didn’t want to have sex with that girl, but I was afraid my friends would make fun of me if I didn’t.’ The song has sparked a conversation among young teens and youth that is really important.”

In the song’s chorus, the 14-year-old narrator plans to be cool and mean, but it’s just a front. As Greenberg says, “The line ‘it isn’t me’ makes beautifully clear that that’s not really what he feels in his heart. It reminds us that it’s awful we don’t really teach boys the language of emotion. We forget that boys have an emotional life, that boys have tender emotions, too. What a burden that teen boys have been carrying for decades, for centuries, even. And I think that’s what Cavetown is playing with in this song. He’s playing against the stereotype.”

I’m a dumb teen boy
I eat stick and rocks and mud
I don’t care about the government
And I really need a hug
I feel stupid (stupid)
Ugly (ugly)
Pretend it doesn’t bother me…

Now 24, Skinner, aka Cavetown, has recorded more than nine albums, a level of success that hasn’t affected his soft-spoken, welcoming presence onstage. His mother is a flautist and music teacher, and his father, a musicologist, taught him to play guitar when he was 8. Skinner has shared some of his early childhood clashes with bullies and authority on YouTube in stories that are alternately hilarious and poignant (and often end with his younger self crying hysterically). According to Billboard magazine, he exudes enormous empathy for fans who feel sad and anxious, advising a crowd at Webster Hall in New York last year to “be kind to yourself…you are the most important person in your life.”

“Boys Will Be Bugs” has also encouraged an atmosphere online in which teenagers can express their feelings without being judged. Many teens report “crying their eyes out” while listening to “Boys Will Be Bugs” and other Cavetown songs. “Whenever my anxiety hits, i just play some cavetown and i feel at ease like there’s a friend comforting me… i’m very thankful that this person exists,” writes a listener named Charlene on YouTube.

In a typical post, a teen with the moniker “Folklore” reports listening to “Boys Will Be Bugs” nonstop when at age 14, adding “I turned 15 three months ago and am still in love with this song (I would always be).” Teens have posted impassioned responses to “Boys Will Be Bugs,” including artwork, animation, videos and cover songs on YouTube and Reddit and have peppered SoundCloud with their support. As one follower wrote on YouTube, “A moment of silence for those peeps who turned 14 without realizing that this masterpiece exists.”

If ladybugs are girls
How do they make kids together?
What’s it like in a female world
I bet that it’s just so much better

The song may not be well-known beyond Gen-Z, but it can resonate with members of older generations, especially parents. “The song is super-catchy, and I love the pushback to toxic norms that have a stranglehold on boys and men,” says Aaron Gouveia, the author of Raising Boys to Be Good Men and the father of three boys. “I can see why it’s popular among teens who often feel like outcasts because they don’t conform to traditional masculine ideals.”

Another parent, writing on YouTube, says, “I must admit the song resonates with me, even though I’m way beyond my teen years. See, I’m a father of a young boy. It makes me think of the relationship and values I hope to pass to my son. So, thanks for the absolutely amazing reminder.”

To Luke “Skycraper” James, who was bullied throughout his teen years, the song also brings back memories of finding solace in music. “At age 14, I turned to music as a haven and eventually joined a band, where I reclaimed the name Skyscraper as a musician,” he says. James went on to help form the seventies British new wave band Fashion, which toured with U2, The Police, the B52s, and the Ramones. Afterwards, he wrote a memoir called “Stairway to Nowhere” and is currently raising teenagers and leading a new band called “This Twisted Wreckage.”

Cavetown’s song, he says, reminds him of how music, writing and the arts can help troubled teens grow into their authentic selves. “When I moved to the USA from England in 1988, it was as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders,” he wrote MindSite News. “Here people thought my excessive height was cool, and I could finally let down my guard. But I will never forget how wonderful it felt to be that 14-year-old who took refuge in the sanctuary of music. As I now hurtle cackling towards the age of 70, still writing, recording, and throwing music out into the world, I always want to hold on to some of that confused, belligerent, anguished but still joyful 14-year-old boy that I was. To this day I’m still acting like a big kid. I see no reason to ever stop.”

Many other adults, including those without children or whose kids are now growing into their adult lives, also identify with the song.

“As someone who turned 14 at a time of leg warmers and Rubik’s Cubes, teen angst should be a distant memory,” says Chris Woolston, father of two sons and a freelance science writer in Montana. But “Boys Will Be Bugs,” he says, takes him back to a time in which he “was easily the least tough boy in the school,” adding that the present era “is a more sensitive and forgiving time. The singer may talk about being mean and doing karate, but the song is a celebration of fragility and vulnerability. In Cavetown’s concert video, a mostly female audience sings along with every word. It’s a perfect note of acceptance.”

And acceptance is something we can all use more of.

Diana Hembree, MS, is a health and medical journalist and the co-founding editor of MindSite News. Her youngest child is 14.

Type of work:

Diana Hembree, MS, is MindSite News co-founding editor. She is a health and science journalist who served as a senior editor at Time Inc. Health and its physician’s magazine, Hippocrates, for four years,...