I’ve long wondered if the transkids raised as the gender they identify with would buy into the transgender party line.
Her defiantly hedonistic music has put her on the map, and she wants to make people forget their problems with songs about ‘love, superficiality and rich dudes who broke my heart’
By Alexandra Pollard
Fri June 8, 2018
In an era of “woke pop” – in which Beyoncé’s dancers are raising black power fists, Katy Perry is flogging “political liberation” anthems and Lana Del Rey singles allude to tensions in North Korea – Kim Petras’s music is almost defiantly apolitical. As the world burns, she sings through her thrillingly garish electropop of spending sprees, weed-smoking and unrequited crushes, while lounging on her pink bubble-wrap throne. On her debut single, I Don’t Want It at All – the video for which sees her worship at the altar of Paris Hilton – Petras is a millennial Veruca Salt, demanding she be given designer clothes she can’t afford.
In a way, such wilful hedonism is a statement in itself, particularly given that Petras’ very identity is politicised every day. “Sometimes, it’s hard not to get completely reduced to being transgender,” she says. Having moved from Cologne to Los Angeles aged 19, after a YouTube cover of a Chris Brown song got her noticed by a producer there, the German musician worked as a songwriter for more than half a decade, penning tracks for the likes of JoJo and Fergie. Last year, she broke out as a solo artist when I Don’t Want It at All topped the Spotify global viral 50 chart. A few months later, she collaborated with Charli XCX on the track Unlock It, before releasing more singles: the low-riding pop-rap of Faded, the strutting Heart to Break and the newly released Can’t Do Better, a lung-busting, bombastic power ballad. But on a recent trip back to Germany for a week of press, she wasn’t asked about any of that.
“I got asked: ‘Do you miss your dick?’” she recalls, incredulous. “I’ve worked for five years to become good at something, writing three songs a day, moving to a different country and making it there – and that’s the first thing you want to bring up? The first big headline I saw was, like: ‘Successful pop star in America – here’s what she looked like as a boy.’ They won’t let it go.”
Petras has been putting up with intrusive headlines like this since she was 16, when she became one of the youngest people ever to have gender-affirming surgery. Before that, she says, “I had to go to school in neutral clothing and cut my hair short because a doctor was like: ‘Your kid should go to school as a boy.’ As soon as I didn’t have to suppress myself, I was out there in dresses and heels, just living my life.” The subsequent media interest was overwhelming. She was invited on to TV shows and asked demeaning questions. “I was just really young and they would tell me to say stuff like: ‘Hi, my name is Kim and I used to be Tim and I was born a boy,’” she sighs. “Now, I won’t do any shit that anybody tells me to do, but I feel like my whole life I’ve had to explain it to people.”
It’s hardly surprising then, that Petras’ “unapologetic pop” revels in escapism. Blending 80s European disco with 00s pop, her music is bright and brassy, with insistent beats and synths that blare out like a melodic traffic jam. “I don’t have songs that are like, ‘I aaam transgender,’” she says with a laugh. “I’m just writing about my emotions; things that have nothing to do with being transgender.”
Recently, though, her apolitical position has been shaken by her decision to work with Dr Luke – the producer accused by Kesha of sexual and psychological abuse, allegations which he denies – and her subsequent assertion that “I wouldn’t work with somebody I believe to be an abuser of women”. I am told by Petras’s publicist that there will be nothing further from her on the matter, but after we speak, the news that she will be supporting the Australian singer Troye Sivan on tour pushed the controversy into the headlines again, with some of his fans objecting. “While I’ve been open and honest about my positive experience with Dr Luke,” she said in a statement on Twitter, “that does not negate or dismiss the experience of others or suggest that multiple perspectives cannot exist at once.”