When Dove Cameron started writing “Boyfriend,” she had zero expectations it would take flight. “I never thought it would end up on the EP if I’m being honest,” she tells Billboard. But after a TikTok tease of the chorus went viral, the singer/actress and her team wasted no time getting into the studio to complete the unfinished demo.
Now, the Disruptor Records single is her first non-Disney hit on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching No. 42 on the March 19, 2022 chart. “Usually you have three months to prepare for a song, but we all strapped in and have been making up for lost time. Which means I’m not ever sleeping,” she laughs.
“Boyfriend” is not only a win for the Descendants/Liv and Maddie alum’s adult music career, but a validation of her queer identity, which the public only learned about last year (though she’s been out to her friends and family since she was a child). “That means the most to me of anything,” she shares. “It’s healing for me to be having this experience.”
I will ask you about music, but first and foremost I have to know what it was like being a guest judge on Drag Race.
It’s one of those things that has meant so much to me for so long. And I was not fully convinced would ever happen. When they called, I had a full-blown panic attack — I’ve been watching Drag Race for probably eight years. Seeing it so boldly represented in mainstream media was very important for my experience with my own coming out and my relationship with my queerness.
How did “Boyfriend” come together?
“Boyfriend” was the very first song I sat down to write for my EP. I had just come off a tour the night before, so I was writing from a perspective of freedom. I never thought it would end up on the EP, if I’m being honest. I was telling the story of this crazy night I had a couple weeks before that. And in the middle of recounting this insane story I think I casually said something to the room like, “F–k, I could be a better boyfriend than this guy.” And we were all kinda like, “wait, is this a good hook?” A lot of it became a report of what it felt like to grow up queer and be surrounded by all these women who were famously mistreated and under-celebrated.
Can you share the particulars of that crazy night?
The circumstances surrounding it were so far-fetched that if I told them to you it would give the whole thing away and it would reveal who these people are. I sadly can’t. Just know it was a very wild night and maybe I’ll put it into a book one day.
How quickly did it come together?
I’m finding that of all my favorite songs I’ve written myself, the concept, the writing process and the recording process are all under 3-4 hours, which sounds insane. It’s fast. Once you have the concept and have built the world, that’s the key for me at least. I’ve fledged out a cinematic moment: we’re gonna zoom-in on special shots, we’re gonna get the atmosphere, it’s gonna be lyrically aligned with making you feel transported somewhere. And once you do that, it’s pretty easy. You’re teeing up a scene that you yourself have roots in. I like writing from a sensory perspective.
And the funny part, for me, is I had just come off of tour and my voice was wrecked. And everybody is like “wow you have this saucy, sexy vocal sound” and I’m like, “You mean damage? It’s called something is sitting on my cord.”
I’m hearing a lot of cinematic terms as you describe your music. Do you draw on your acting as you record?
Yes, definitely. When I set out to do the EP I was feeling particularly inspired by a lot of my male cinematic classic villains in some of my favorite films. Not their story, but the mood. Everything is very influenced by cinema for me. And “Boyfriend” is very orchestral, the big crashes and swells and the horns in the production.
When “Boyfriend” blew up on TikTok, were you following all the clips people shared?
What happened with “Boyfriend” is that I posted a nine-second clip of the chorus, which is really misleading — the rest of the song sounds nothing like the chorus. When it blew up I was so shocked. I was dumbfounded, jaw on the floor, refreshing the recreates every hour. Like, “what is going on?” It was like somebody put a spell on the song. I couldn’t tear myself away from how creative people were getting. The mark of a song that is beloved is when people take it and make it into something else that’s important to them. It’s so flattering. TikTok is a great measure. Going forward I have a new song called “Breakfast” and I’m going to test how people feel about the hook in “Breakfast” first before I decide what I’m going to release next. It’s an amazing immediate feedback loop we’ve never had in the industry and it’s going to allow me and other artists to release music more immediately. It’s like, “I wrote this last week and I’m going to release it next week.” It’s really freeing.
When it blew up, did your label notice and hop into gear?
I’ve been with the same team for ages. Everybody has kids, they’re going to barbeques, they have migraines — it’s just a bunch of humans. When I wrote “Boyfriend” and a bunch of other songs in October they were like, “Why don’t you put something on TikTok to show fans that you’re working on in the studio?” And that was the whole reason I released “Boyfriend.” It was not a grand plan, there was no promo behind it.
You tip to your queer identity in this song. It must have been liberating to see it received so well.
Yes, for a million reasons. I can recognize that it looks so intentional, like I was like, “Now I’m gonna dye my hair and write a queer anthem,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I wrote it being like, “I don’t even know if this is good” and then put it away and wrote a bunch of other songs where my sexuality isn’t the focal point. And then when people warmly responded to the hook I was like, “oh they think it’s something it’s not, it’s going to be disappointing (for them).” But then to watch the rollout and see people continue to beat the support drum — “oh we love it, no questions” — has been very healing for me. Both to marry who I’ve always known myself to be with my very public decade-long career; those things have been very separate. To be clear, I’ve always known who I was and always been out in my own immediate circles. I feel very lucky. I think I told my parents I was queer when I was eight. I told them, “I’m in love with Erin. And also Colby.” And they were like, “Great.” It was unbelievably lucky. When I went into a career in the public eye, it wasn’t like, “I’m going to keep this a secret.” It was like, “I know I’m queer and someone will probably ask me about it and then I’ll say it.” But no one ever did! And I was publicly dating men and I think I present like a straight cis woman, no one asked me. So finally when it came up and I was like “I’m really f—ing gay,” people were like “w-w-wait, wha?!”
For the most part, people are very kind and very receptive, and I think that’s a testament to where we are right now with this younger generation and their own queer experiences. This generation is so much more expressive and in touch and in communication with each other about intentionally building queer circles and opening up the conversation. It’s a much more open-minded generation from when even I was in middle school. That means the most to me of anything.
Does the rest of the EP sound like this or are there some left turns?
All the music coming next is sonically from the same world. We use a lot of organic sixties musicality, a lot of jazz. In the way that “Boyfriend” is secretly a jazz song — we snuck in an upright bass. They all live within the same world but they are all different girls.
What is it gonna be like on stage when you tour?
I’m still figuring that out, but if I was to dream it up, I told my label I want lots of horns and strings and they were like “Great.” When I tour, I was presenting more rock/alternative before and now I’m thinking big band/jazz. I’m very excited for all the live shows. I found this incredibly talented upright bassist and cellist and violinist and all this crazy sh-t. This is my dream as a movie villain myself — I’m already walking around the world thinking there are strings and horns behind me. It’s a blend of sexy film noir but it’s modern. The blueprint of the house is a dubstep song, drrrrrr, then huge drop, but we’re doing it with live instrumentation and with a sexy affectation.
I thought you said Dovestep for a moment.
You’re not the first person to say that. How f–king egotistical would that be? “I’m creating my own genre and you’re going to have to get with it.”
Anything else you want to add?
I want to thank everybody. I’ve never felt this creatively in touch and permitted to create whatever I want. I think I told myself I was always a supporter for whatever other people wanted to do, and suddenly I just feel renewed and inspired. This song has changed my life and people’s reaction to it has changed my life. I’m shocked and grateful and want to say thank you.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 26, 2022, issue of Billboard.