The rollers in her hair, the vintage wardrobe, the cerebral wit, the feminism—all are hallmarks of Boyfriend, the Tennessee-raised songwriter, singer and performance artist whose aesthetic realm was built primarily in New Orleans.
Forever in pursuit of answers to questions like “Who do you think you are?” “What does this mean?” and “Why the fuck do we follow society’s prescriptions?” Boyfriend has always used her art as a performative means to an end. It’s nuanced and complex, but often pithy and outrageous. But for all of the in-your-face qualities of the Boyfriend character, there’s an intentional secrecy to the individual behind the retro shellac. “It’s fun,” she says of having successfully hidden her given name from the public for as long as she has.
Years ago, local DJ Rusty Lazer (widely considered instrumental in making Big Freedia a star) took notice of Boyfriend’s DIY videos on YouTube. He put her in touch with glitch-hop production team Sexparty and her first two EPs were born. Love Your Boyfriend, parts one and two, arrived in 2014. For most, song number one on the first EP served as Boyfriend’s formal introduction. It’s called “Attention,” the hook for which is the demanding “Look at me, I need some fuckin’ attention.”
Also in 2014, she released the loosie “Like My Hand Did,” featuring the lyrics “I need a Facebook slut, a Kappa Kappa cunt” and a lamentation on the disappointing lack of sexual prowess in a man. Getting our attention: check.
While establishing her brand of brash electroclash, Boyfriend was also busy making her live performances memorable—to say the least. In fact, the notoriety she’s earned from her stage shows has eclipsed any shock induced by her lyrics. It’s a burlesque-inspired orgy for the senses, usually accompanied by a set designed with retro furniture, a small army of backup dancers and a wardrobe of pointy bras, silk robes and stockings.
All of that—the spitfire lyrics and nostalgic vêtements—Boyfriend coins “rap cabaret.” Boyfriend was initially drawn to rap out of practicality: It allowed her to be verbose without being long-winded. She has a lot to say, and rap is nothing if not storytelling.
“Rap is an incredible art form that is in no way less than any other art form,” she says. But being thought of as a rapper wasn’t really her intention when using “rap cabaret” to define her style. The woman behind “Attention” is self-effacing when explaining her opposition to thinking in terms of pre-packaged music labels.
“I really chafe against terms of genre because I forget to think that way. I just think ‘great song, great art, great writing, great musician.’ And then I don’t think it’s necessarily served me to be categorized as a rapper. I never take sonic cues. I think part of that’s because I’m not a real musician. It’s so hard for me to talk about music. I don’t play an instrument. I’m just drawn to the story. And [rapping] was the way that I could tell the story.”
Her penchant for the lyricism of rap could perhaps be ascribed to her childhood, which she spent in a family of songwriters. But she also grew up in the strict, conservative teachings of the Church of Christ in Nashville. It wasn’t long before religious teachings about the human body and decency began to inform her pubescent identity.
“There was an inherent message: Your body has power, dangerous power. And those who were ‘tempting’ were to blame… It was a woman’s job to cover up and make it easy for men to resist,” she told OffBeat’s Robert Fontenot in 2015, the year she embarked on her first tour.
In 2019, identity is still the crux of Boyfriend’s work. Like millions of us, she’s a woman whose sense of self is wrapped up in a need to help others.
“I’m always questioning myself when my intent is ‘I wanna save the world,’” she tells me. “Because it’s really easy to be, like, ‘I’m going to live my truth unapologetically and loudly’ and then it’s three weeks later and you’re exhausted and you can’t do the thing that you thought you were going to do anymore. And you realize that it’s not your job to save the world but then you can’t live your life not wanting the world to be a better place. And you can’t not serve others and you can’t not stand up for the truth that you believe in. So it’s that constant boundary line between being a warrior and being a monk. And that’s the struggle I have: when to bite my tongue, when to call somebody out, when to make a post, when to sit this one out. Those are the things that have been on my mind lately.”
It’s hard to imagine that Boyfriend would be concerning herself with biting her tongue, were she a man (Girlfriend?). Her womanhood is inseparable from her ideas, no matter how straightforward or concept-driven. And even the superficial runs deep.
“The rollers actually came about because I don’t know how to do hair,” she says when I ask about one of the more visible Boyfriend signatures. “I’d be, like, ‘Oh I have a show at the Hi-Ho and I’ve already got this cool outfit and my makeup looks great but oh shit, what about my hair?’ And so it started out that way. I’m, like, ‘Okay, this would be a cool thing. I’ll go in rollers and then people will take the rollers out throughout the show and that would be like I’m getting ready during the show.’”
Performing with the rollers on allows her to comment on the burden she feels to make herself “presentable” as a woman. As a self-described neophyte at hair, Boyfriend’s putting the literal process of getting dolled up on stage for all to see exposed a great, unintentional irony.
“In order to critique that process, I now have a much more involved version of that process which is to get in full rollers before every show. It takes a lot of time and I’m not doing them to curl my hair, I’m doing them to look amazing on stage so they have to be perfect and hairsprayed. It’s become one of the great ironies; I’m trying to talk about how frustrating it is to be a woman in the world and in order to talk about it, I have to engage with this process.”
For Boyfriend, the subconscious nature of incorporating rollers into her image is but one element of her organic adoption of a retro, feminine past. “No matter how fucked up things are for women, and they are, we can all look at the 1950s image of a woman vacuuming in high heels and pearls and say ‘Ugh what an oppressive time that was.’ There’s something about borrowing from that bygone era that helps me get to the critique faster. Because, when you look at it, you think about that time when women were just expected to be housewives.”
She mentions “Mad Men,” the award-winning television series that brought the mores of 1950s and ’60s America into contemporary discourse. Boyfriend’s work does something similar through props and costuming. “Boom, you’re instantly there at the critique and by choosing to interact with those symbols, and own them and make them sexy and use them, it complicates things. That is the critique that I’m interested in, because it’s not so simple as high heels are the tool of the patriarchy, or lipstick is bringing you down, shaving your arms means giving into the man. It’s so much more than that, because you should wear lipstick if you want to. It can be really fun and empowering. And if you feel sexy when you shave your legs, you should shave your legs.”
The intersection of time and gender gives Boyfriend’s work a kind of perennial appeal. “Retro,” by definition, refers to the recent past. But as time marches forward, what was once retro becomes vintage, or antiquated. It’s not so much the era that matters, but how progress and hindsight converge on our conceptions of gender that gets her excited.
“I know that I’m always trying to look backwards. And it might not even be a specific chunk of time,” she says before mentioning her famous Preservation Hall performances set in the late nineteenth century. Last October, Boyfriend produced her 3rd Annual Hag at Preservation Hall. She writes, directs and stars in the immersive three-act musical all while examining the limitations women have when choosing paths in life. In it, she focuses on three roles which history has foisted upon us: the bride, the whore and the hag.
“I’m just looking backwards because hindsight is 20/20, so we’re able to look backwards on society and be, like, ‘This is what we were doing wrong then.’ But I also don’t believe, as a human race, that we’re necessarily trending towards ‘good.’ I don’t think it’s a perfect equation where you can look backwards to see that it was worse.”
Speaking of looking backwards, Boyfriend says her early music was about asking people to listen to music more actively, whereas the newer stuff is about living more actively.
“Shave your legs if you want to, but know why you’re doing it,” she says. “Do it for you. Or do it because your man loves it, but do it because you decided to instead of just the mindless, passive, ‘Ew it’s gross not to shave my legs’ thing. Like, have you ever engaged with that thought and unpacked it?”
Stepping into the “real” person behind Boyfriend for a moment, she admits that the hyper-analytic, obsessive quandaries she plays with on stage keep her up at night. Her performance art is not so much about trying to provide her audience with answers. She just wants to invite us to have fun and play in the questions like she is, every day.
“I’ll change my mind day-to-day about whether or not I should’ve worn makeup to that meeting or should I shave my underarms when I’m going to this Catholic wedding? Where’s the line between living my truth and just avoiding an annoying conflict? And if I keep my mouth shut at the table when something inappropriate is said because I’m just tired and they’re pouring really nice wine for me that I didn’t buy, am I part of the problem? You know this kind of, like, weight that we all have in this Trump era of trying to make the world better and it’s a constant negotiation. I think what I’m trying to put on stage is that constant ‘I’m going to pick up this signifier and put down this signifier.’ You can pick them up and put them down. It doesn’t have to be a constant at-war thing.”
Tasking one’s self with saving the world (or, at least making the world a better place, one audience at a time) comes with an entire set of internal strife. For Boyfriend, there exists always a concern that the audience isn’t getting what she meant from a particular song, or Instagram post, or caption on social media.
“There’s a deification of celebrities that we give to these people because they give us answers and they give us catharsis and they give us insight and life. To be a human being that’s trying to make art, knowing how other people talk about art, knowing how you talk about art and know the deities that you look to, it’s so tempting to fall into this very narcissistic black hole where you’re like ‘This song has to be the thesis statement of who I am and this album has to be the final say of what my time on earth means and my Instagram page has to prove that I deserve love.’”
The reality is, making art doesn’t alleviate any of those woes. At times, it makes things even more complicated. “I thought this song was going to change the way people thought about me—it didn’t,” she says. “The main thing I try to do with my relationship with my own art is just not invest that sort of meaning into it—that, like, this is my calling card at the gates of heaven. To believe that I deserve life and love just because I put on this really good show or because I made this really good song, and not just because… That’s kind of the issue I have with the mythology surrounding artists. Does James Booker deserve more love than your accountant? It’s tricky stuff because it is good to sit around a table and all talk about the song that moved you or the first time that you saw Julie Andrews on Broadway. I do that, of course we all do, but I don’t know how to do it while still engaging with them as humans. And maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should allow them to transcend humanity and become these symbols because it’s so much easier to use symbols than it is to use a human being.”
Mid-sentence, she backs up and mentions “Carpool Karaoke,” the hugely popular segment on James Corden’s late-night television show featuring celebrities driving around with Corden and performing their music from the passenger’s seat. In particular, she’s referencing an episode starring Paul McCartney, who, for the beginning of the segment, is performing classic material of his.
“James Corden is singing his heart out because these songs are columns in the temple of life. We all know them and love them and we can remember the first time we heard them,” she tells me. “And then, they of course pivot to the obligatory promotional segment where they put on one of Paul’s new songs and Paul McCartney’s eyes and face light up and he’s so excited and he’s singing along and he’s ramping up to this part and, ah yeah, he loves that part. You can just see the joy that he has about his newest thing that most of us sitting here are thinking, ‘It’s not his best thing…’ But that’s not how he thinks about it. Because he’s just creating. That’s what he does and the joy of doing that is why he is here. And I want to believe that that is the path, not to sit in a corner and think you peaked already. The gift is the work, not the brilliance.
“I want to believe that, no, you’re never satiated, but that it isn’t this torturous sort of thing but that you’re just joyful to be playing. That you’re picking up things and you’re playing with the meaning of them in order to find new meanings knowing that it will lead you to think of something else.”
She uses a metaphor of the monk to illustrate her point, saying the true zen is having the internal joy whether you write down a note or not. “It’s not like, ‘Oh I got this secret amazing album that would’ve changed the world that I’m keeping secret.’ It’s more of just, like, we’re all just playing with life and some of us choose to do it with a career and then some of us take a vow of silence and sit on a mountain and we just watch the sunset.”
Boyfriend has not taken a vow of silence. She’s kind of just getting started. She’s never released an album, at least not in the traditional sense. With a small handful of EPs and loosies behind her (including “dblspk,” which premiered at OffBeat.com), she’s ambling towards a re-introduction, of sorts. “I am working on a full-length concept album musical. And when I say we’re working on it, we’re just starting it. I haven’t even written anything. I’m going to keep releasing a few singles this year. It probably won’t come out until like 2020. But the new project will be literal because there will be an actual character with a narrative arc instead of this very abstract thing that I’ve been doing.”
Longtime fans will know that Boyfriend’s forthcoming album won’t be her first foray into musical theater. Just last November, her pop-infused adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific song “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” was premiered by Broadway juggernaut outlet Playbill. She was even invited by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to perform her version alongside Tony-nominated leading lady of the stage Laura Osnes.
Elsewhere, Boyfriend’s growing confidence as a songwriter is on full display on works with New Orleans royalty. She appears on Galactic’s latest album, Already Ready Already. Most notably, she’s a featured performer on “Dance At My Funeral,” where she beckons listeners to send horns and tubas when she dies, and to “show up with a drink in hand” and “move that ass while you still can.” It’s a song doused in playful morbidity and exemplary of Boyfriend’s ongoing growth.
Founding member and Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio tells me that working with Boyfriend exposed his bandmates and him to Boyfriend’s brilliance, and the broad range of her songwriting abilities. On another track, “Going Straight Crazy” featuring Princess Shaw, Boyfriend flexed her skills in a more behind-the-scenes role.
“We had gotten the song to a good spot, with Princess Shaw, but there were still a couple lyrical spots that could have used help. It became apparent to us, through working with Boyfriend, that she was really good at coming in and doctoring and being an additional writer on a song. She came in and gave the song a good little twist and tightened up some of the vocals.”
Galactic’s collaborations with Boyfriend blossomed outside of the sessions for Already Ready Already, too.
As Mercurio relayed, “Boyfriend came to Ben [Ellman] and me … because she works on and writes tracks with Big Freedia … anyway, I guess she enjoyed working with Ben and me so she said, ‘Why don’t we work on some tunes with Big Freedia?’ We ended up co-writing and producing a track for Big Freedia, ‘She Tipsy.’ That went really well, and Freedia’s team really loved the track. So we’re meeting again to talk about doing another one.”
He continues by telling me Boyfriend will likely remain a part of Galactic’s songwriting team. “She’s kind of an ideal writing partner for us because we’re prolific in writing music and she’s prolific in writing lyrics and can do it for a lot of different genres. She comes with a very creative, unique perspective in her writing. There’s people that are good writers but there’s people who can tell a story in a way that you’ve never heard it before, and that’s what makes somebody a really really good writer. People sometimes recycle ideas, but with her it’s always new ground broken. Boyfriend’s just one of her many avenues to get songs out there.”
Boyfriend herself is grappling with what exactly those avenues are. Ironically, the ingenuity of her “rap cabaret” moniker is presenting a roadblock. “We’re trying to get a new Instagram handle,” she tells me about her @rapcabaret username. She says her agent is having difficulty explaining to people what exactly it is that Boyfriend does. When they hear “rap,” they assume she’s a fit for a hip-hop showcase. When they hear “cabaret,” she can get pigeonholed into burlesque revues. “Really, what it is, is pop,” says Boyfriend. “That’s really the term we need to be using. I was, and still am, so proud to have come up with ‘rap cabaret.’ The internal rhyme, the way it falls off the tongue. It perfectly describes my show. But R.I.P… or, actually, we’ll see—because I’ve got the blue check [Instagram’s verification badge], which makes everything harder to do. I might be stuck with it.”
“Rap cabaret seems like it’s just a small sliver of the spectrum of what she writes and can deliver,” says Mercurio when I ask him what he sees for Boyfriend’s future. “It’s been a very successful image and it’s definitely very interesting. But I think she’ll be very successful in any road that she goes down.”
Big Freedia agrees, saying Boyfriend has not only been a remarkable collaborator (Boyfriend wrote songs for her Very Big Freedia Christmazz EP), but one who continuously reaches new heights. “When we work together, we connect, and we get each other. Over time, it has gotten better. Each time that we’ve hooked up, things have just grown and grown. She’s super creative. She can sing, she can rap. She can write. She can do different levels of this shit.”
Putting music aside for a moment, I was dying to ask Boyfriend what her ideal Mardi Gras entails. “I’ve got to talk about Krewe of Broth,” she says as her face lights up. “We paraded right before Endymion last year, with a giant vat of chicken noodle soup. We have bedazzled spoons and bowls and we literally give out soup to people and we all dress up as our favorite soup. It’s truly that simple. There’s no commentary, there’s no irony. We just love soup.”
For those who are visiting New Orleans for the high holiday, Boyfriend urges them to be respectful of certain aspects of culture, like Mardi Gras Indians. “When it’s just people trying to get a little nugget of culture for their Instagram story, it becomes a spectacle instead of an event.” She does, however, fully encourage folks to get their hands dirty for Mardi Gras.
“Buy a hot glue gun and make your own costume. When I’m trying to describe New Orleans and Mardi Gras, specifically to people that haven’t been here, the way I explain it is that it’s a city and an event where everyone is in touch with their inner child. That’s the real splendor of Mardi Gras. It’s not ‘Go see this and see what this other person is doing for you,’ but for you to play yourself. Like, what are you going to make? What do you want to dress up as? It’s no shame, everyone’s doing it. We’re allowed to color and create until, like, sixth grade and then it’s serious time until forever. Most people don’t get to live creatively. The rest of the country gets it on Halloween but here it’s like a whole season of multiple looks and things to come up with. That, to me, is what Mardi Gras is about. Pull out your inner eight-year-old; they’re still in there and they’re probably neglected. See what she wants to do.”
Boyfriend’s thoughts on costume-as-storytelling don’t just apply to her performances, or Fat Tuesday. She’s established her very own boutique, XO Boyfriend, which makes vintage pieces vessels for more than bodies by giving them extra life.
Whether it’s encouraging costume play for Carnival, tackling patriarchy in panties, dressing up as yesterday’s forgotten stories, or writing songs in the post–rap cabaret world, Boyfriend has a child’s appetite for discovery. “It’s okay. The water’s warm. We’re all in the sandbox here, and that’s just so beautiful.”