The New Orleans emigre adopted a new identity to interrogate love and lust.
Boyfriend is, by her admission, a work in process. She has performed under the name for three years, and prefers not to use her given name.
“Boyfriend is who I am,” she says matter-of-factly, though what that means isn’t clear yet. She is Boyfriend to the extent that her agent, manager, and people significant to her career call her Boyfriend and don’t know her real name. She adopted her stage name to keep her music separate from her work life, but since Boyfriend is now her her full-time job, “there’s no need for that other identity to exist,” she says.
She’s careful about how she reveals her past—upfront in places, evasive in others—and even though she uses the word “identity,” Boyfriend is likely an identity in the way that Ziggy Stardust was a one for David Bowie. Both are masks or personas that help their creators slip quickly and efficiently into their subject matters—for Bowie, rock ’n’ roll’s mythology; for Boyfriend, sex and love.
Boyfriend will play her third annual birthday party bash at One Eyed Jacks Friday night with special guests Trixie Minx and Fleur de Tease, Mulherin, Maggie Koerner, Air Sex and Vinsantos, as well as a cupcake bar, visual installations and a pop-up shop that will sell Boyfriend’s risograph zine of her lyrics. Guests are encouraged to dress for a pajama party if not something more risqué.
The artist currently known as Boyfriend first experienced New Orleans in 2012. She was in Los Angeles and wanted to get back to the South but not Nashville, her hometown. New Orleans was the only other city in the region that held any appeal to her, so she and her roommate got in her car and drove across country. “We spent one night there couch surfing with someone who also used to live in L.A. who was a stripper who did afterschool tutoring work with kids,” she says. “My first experience in New Orleans was going to the projects to help kids with their math homework, then going to Rick’s [Cabaret] at night, then going to Bullet’s to see Kermit play. Then going to Cafe Du Monde at 4 in the morning to finish it off. It was almost like an episode of Treme. Later when I watched the show, I thought Wow, I didn’t realize how cliché I was being.”
She worked in film while in Los Angeles, and when she moved to New Orleans, she deliberately didn’t take any movie work even though it was around. “That was the very thing I was trying to escape,” she says. Instead, her first night in town became her professional life, working with kids in the daytime and at Rick’s at night.
“I had this moral hang-up where the only work I wanted to do in New Orleans was to karmically balance what was going on and do the non-profit, working with kids thing. I’m very glad I did; it opened up my perspective pretty widely.”
Boyfriend’s career as a dancer at Rick’s was intermittent, but she quit for a very prosaic reason: “It was bad for my voice. I had no issue with any other aspect of it other than I’d lose my voice for two days every time I walked in there.”
The effect of smoke wouldn’t always be obvious on Boyfriend’s tracks. Her voice when she raps often has a level of electronic distortion that, when paired with aggressive, slightly abrasive beats, gives her music a punk quality. Boyfriend’s not trying to push listeners away, though. On her most recent release, “Deadbeat” on Soundcloud, the beat is a laid back, psychedelic R&B groove, over which she raps, “Tried to fall in love but he’s a fucking deadbeat.” Her sound isn’t always easygoing, though. Boyfriend breathlessly blurts “Mama always said don’t dip your pen in the company ink” over a ticking, electroclash beat that is sonically as much of a warning as anything she says. Taken as a whole, Boyfriend’s songs cohere quickly into if a millennial dating FAQ.
The video for “Attention” features Boyfriend in lingerie rapping into a megaphone and pacing on top of a storage container, telling everyone in earshot, “Look at me / I need some fucking attention”—emphasis on the “fuck.” Those scenes are intercut with street scenes of crowds and computer generated pedestrians packing the streets. The video implies that she’s talking to these people, or they are her people, except that they obviously aren’t. She is clearly in one location nowhere near other people, and many of them only exist digitally. As a performer, she really does want some fucking attention—ideally in those numbers. The game the video plays is similar to the one her name does as it announces her big league ambition and underdog status at the same time.
Boyfriend considers her video for the song “Hunch N Munch” to be the official start to Boyfriend as a project. She posted it on YouTube in February 2012, then did a new video monthly for the rest of the year. Video helped her establish Boyfriend in a way that Soundcloud tracks or her Love Your Boyfriend EPs couldn’t. She can be provocative in her songs, but she looks like a grad student with a carefully calibrated sexuality. She might get freaky but she’s not a freak. She knows enough not to fall for some guy’s lines unless she has her own reasons to fall for them.
“The Love Your Boyfriend project is meant to be my contributions to conversations about love,” Boyfriend says. She writes with a consciousness of other songs on the subject, and she wasn’t put off by how similar they are but by how unhealthy they are and seemingly always have been. That realization came to her while doing housework one day and singing along to female vocalist Vikki Carr's 1967 hit "It Must Be Him."
I pick the pieces off the floor
Put my heart on the shelf again
He'll never hurt me anymore
I'm not a puppet on a string
I'll find somebody else someday
Thats when the phone rings
And once again I start to pray
Let it please be him
Oh, dear God,
It must be him
It must be him
Or I shall die
Carr’s lack of self was startling, but Boyfriend became interested in the way those thoughts sound quaint and part of another era when heard on vinyl, but they don’t stand out or seem unusual when we hear them today. “How come an 808 beat makes a song about co-dependency suddenly okay?,” Boyfriend asks.
“We like to think we’re in a post- era. We’re post all of that, but I don’t find that to be true,” she says, and to test her theory she looked at a list of the most viewed videos on YouTube and found Rihanna and Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” near the top. The more she thought about it, the more she thought about how much pop normalizes unhealthy, dependent and abusive relationships and wondered how such lyrics affected young women, particularly those just starting to try to understand love. Do they take being pushed against a wall as a sign of aggression or passion? Do they come away with the idea that love is rough or needy? That if he’s not pushing, his love’s not real?
Thinking about those questions brought to mind the passage from First Corinthians often quoted at weddings—“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud”—and inspired a song. “When I wrote the song, “Love Means,” I tried to write about what I had actually seen and witnessed and felt, and it was kind of the opposite of those things,” she says.
Boyfriend wondered if songs like “Love the Way You Lie” create a feedback loop between idea and reality, and she thought about her own experiences. “Does art shape my relationships, or do the reality of my relationships affect what songs sound real?” she wonders. “It made me want to challenge people to listen more critically and academically and actively to the messages that they consume daily. Is it an idea that you want to perpetuate? My music is offering a set of questions rather than a set of answers because there’s such a convoluted narrative about the way romance is.”
Boyfriend didn’t start out trying to be a rapper. “It was more a matter of I have all these things to say; why don’t I say them so that somebody else can hear?” she says. She’s similarly not precious about her beats. She doesn’t make them herself—“I have no interest to devoting my time to be half as good at a craft as someone who’s chosen it as their calling”—and she has got them from a number of sources. Generally, she has a musical idea in her head and goes on what she calls “an epic scavenger hunt” to find something to go with that.
“It’s been like when you go to a party and talk to someone in the hallway for a while, then you go to get another beer and end up talking to someone near the beer for a while,” Boyfriend says.
She worked with party rap duo Sex Party on Love Your Boyfriend, so the process was a little different. “We could actually able to be in the moment,” Boyfriend says. “I could say, I want a song that uses this section of my voice as the hook, or I want a song at this bpm or I want a song that has this bass line. We were really able to curate the project, and that’s how I want to work moving forward.”
Boyfriend’s level of brainy self-possession could easily come off as too conceptual or too theoretical, but she succeeds in delivering basic pop pleasures. The songs work at the most superficial level as well as the more considered ones, and she’s a fully formed, web-friendly brand. Between her videos and tracks on Soundcloud, you can easily spend an hour in her world. Or “her” world. The enigma at the heart of the project is also part of its appeal. Where will Boyfriend go next? Some place wilder, or maybe some place more familiar. All options are possible, which is something that can rarely be said of real people.
One advantage of assuming an identity is that if it doesn’t require too many permanent physical changes, it can be left behind just like the original identity. Boyfriend is similarly practical about Boyfriend. “Perhaps someday when it’s no longer sexy to become a rapper, I’ll go back to teaching kids again. Because lord knows, there will always be kids who need to be taught.”