Adraian Belew, David Bowie's guitarist on the Lodger album, told Uncut magazine that Bowie wrote this with him in mind. He recalled: "In New York, David was doing vocals for 'Boys Keep Swinging.' He played me it and said: 'This is written after you, in the spirit of you.' I think he saw me as a naïve person who just enjoyed life. I was thrilled with that."
In July 1979, more than two years before the debut of MTV, Rolling Stone magazine mentioned that "promotional videotapes" were becoming "the newest selling tool in rock," noting Bowie's video for "Boys Keep Swinging" as an example. In said video, Bowie sings the backing vocals in drag.
Bowie put a lot of effort into creating intriguing videos for his songs, some of which the BBC refused to play because of suggestive content ("Heroes" shows a light coming from Bowie's crotch; "DJ" shows men grabbing and kissing Bowie). The clip for "Boys Keep Swinging," however, got by the BBC censors, who apparently watched only the first minute of the clip before approving it. This first minute shows Bowie performing the song in a sharp suit, but it gets progressively nuttier, with Bowie walking a runway in drag, even smearing his lipstick across his mouth. When the BBC aired the clip, they got lots of complaints from horrified viewers.
This has the same chord sequence as "Fantastic Voyage" from the same album.
In order to capture a garage band feel, Bowie got his backing band to swap instruments on this track. Consequently drummer Dennis Davis played bass guitar and guitarist Carlos Alomar thumped the drum kit.
In December 1979, Bowie performed this on Saturday Night Live. A special effect meant that Bowie appeared to have a puppet's body throughout the performance. During the broadcast, NBC muted the line "When you're a boy, other boys check you out."
Blur's 1997 UK Top 20 single "M.O.R" borrowed its melody from this song. Bowie and his collaborator Brian Eno received credits after legal intervention.
In 2000, Bowie spoke to Bust magazine about this song: "I do not feel that there is anything remotely glorious about being either male or female. I was merely playing on the idea of the colonization of gender."