Boyfriend talks about hair curlers, bullet-shaped bras and white-girl hip-hop 

click to enlarge Boyfriend: Equal parts Peaches, Madonna and Carol Burnett. - SOPHIE BERARD
  • Sophie Berard
  • Boyfriend: Equal parts Peaches, Madonna and Carol Burnett.

Boyfriend is a study in contrasts. In the recording studio, the provocative performance artist has collaborated with a remarkably incongruous assortment of musicians, including Galactic, Big Freedia, Charli XCX, and even the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

But it’s her onstage performances — which incorporate rap, cabaret and burlesque — that have been met with the most disparate reactions.

Back in June, San Francisco Weekly critic Brett Callwood described her live performances as “beautiful, important, and poignant.” Weeks later, she appeared at San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival, where Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was less complimentary:

“Liked Rainbow Girls,” posted the 69-year-old entrepreneur, “but walked from Boyfriend. Will see friends in Counting Crows.”

“I was literally woken up to that news,” says the 31-year-old performer. “We all had this big hotel room and everyone was like, ‘Wake up, wake up. Look at this tweet!’ At first it was annoying, because it’s never good news to wake up to someone not liking you. But then, once I was able to let it sink in who he was, it was awesome and hilarious. I realized it’s way cooler for him to not like me than for him to like me. ”

Unlike Counting Crows and Rainbow Girls, Boyfriend’s live performances are highly choreographed, outrageously costumed affairs. Accompanied by dancers in various stages of undress, her tongue-in-cheek stage persona — which could be described as equal parts Peaches, Madonna and Carol Burnett — slowly but surely transitions from prim to profane.

Along the way, she delivers lightning-speed raps about sex and empowerment over a collage of strident club beats, electronic soundscapes and experimental hip-hop. Shaving her armpits onstage and performing raunchy songs like “Hunch and Munch” makes the shows all the more memorable.

“My show typically moves, aesthetically speaking, from the retro to the modern,” she says. “I’ll start off all covered up in a white wedding dress and prancing around with aprons and brooms. And by the end of it, I’m in a cone bra and a thong.”
Boyfriend’s fondness for unlikely juxtapositions is further evidenced by her most recent photo shoot. The Kodachrome-style images find her portraying a stereotypical ’50s housewife, complete with pink hair curlers, polka-dot bathrobe, and cat eye glasses. Elbows on table and chin in hands, she’s surrounded by wood-paneled walls, a family-sized dish of Jell-O, and three empty place settings.

At first glance, these images are laugh-out-loud hilarious. But like a Todd Haynes’ film or Diane Arbus photo, they also convey a side of the human spirit that’s heartbreakingly sad.

“I think that retro aesthetic is the easiest way for me to get a feminist message across in a way that people can grab onto,” says the musician. “We’re all sort of familiar with that old-fashioned housewife imagery; Mad Men is living in everyone’s collective unconscious. And I’ve just found it more compelling to embody the thing that you’re trying to critique, versus just saying ‘This thing’s stupid, and here’s why.’”

Boyfriend came into this world bearing the less interesting name Suzannah Powell. Raised in a conservative Christian household (of course), she’s the daughter of Nashville country musician Monty Powell, who writes songs for chart-topping artists like Keith Urban and Diamond Rio. While other families would gather around the dinner table to talk about what happened at work and school, the Powells talked about music and songwriting.

“One of the things my dad would always say is that writing to the rhyme will make you a liar,” she recalls. “ You’ve got to think about what the song needs to say, and not what word rhymes with the line you just wrote.
So how much rhyming does Boyfriend do in her songs?
“More than your average bear,” she admits, “because rapping has about two or three times as many words as singing. So it gets challenging, but that’s the fun of it.”

After high school, the artist soon to be known as Boyfriend moved to Los Angeles and earned her degree in creative writing from UCLA. She subsequently relocated to New Orleans, where, until a few years ago, she taught grade school. Against all odds, her musical alter-ego was never outed. “As far as I know,” she says, “they still don’t know.”

And while some white rappers desperately attempt to avoid being perceived as self-caricatures, Boyfriend goes in the opposite direction. Her first singles included “Tolkien White Girl,” a 2014 track that included the timeless line: “English-major rap gonna make your brain bleed.”
“The point was to make fun of whiteness, with me operating as the punchline,” she says. “And I’m still doing that now with the housewife stuff.”

Where does Boyfriend see herself two years from now?

“That’s a great question,” she says, “and I don’t know the answer. I know that, as far as the actual music goes, I’m singing more and more. Growing up in a family of musicians, I was never the one with the great voice, and so I honestly didn’t have the confidence to think I could sing a song that people would want to hear.”

But now she does. Boyfriend’s second collaboration with Galactic, “Bring It to Mama,” was released earlier this year. The track confidently swaggers into the realm of vocal jazz and blues, with Boyfriend’s singing and Ben Ellman’s baritone sax positioned front and center.

“My song with Galactic sounds sort of like the Amy Winehouse rip-off,” she says. “I only say that because I hold her in such high regard; I would never deign to compare myself to her. But then there’s also the song ‘Pinky’ that I recorded with some Chicago producers, and that sounds like a straight-up rap song. Those were released within a month of each other. It think it’s really fun to put on all these different hats. And I think that the modern music consumer is sophisticated enough to handle that.”

So for an artist who’s delivered lines like “Look at me, I need some fuckin’ attention,” how does it feel to be getting it?

“Well, from my side of things, it’s all been such a gradual slog that it doesn’t feel like I’m suddenly getting a bunch of attention,” she laughs. “You know, it’s not like being an artist who really breaks, and their life changes. Like LissA is going through that right now, and I do think it would be weird. I know that, whenever I get what I want, I panic a little bit. Because if that happens and you’re still unhappy, you can’t blame anyone but yourself.”

In any case, Boyfriend is very happy with where she is now.

“I’m not goal-oriented,” she says. “If this is it — if I never get a publishing or recording deal, remain independent forever, and keep doing my thing — then it’s pretty damn good. The fact that people show up and watch me play dress-up, and listen to the songs I wrote, that’s awesome. I’m having a good time with it.”


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