Queering Pop: King Princess Ascends
“I can make old men cry” is the first line pop musician Mikaela Straus, known in the music industry as King Princess, sang at her concert in Boston on January 25. The line, just like the concert that followed, was provocative, brash, and unapologetic. I stood to the side of the stage at the nightclub Royale before the concert began with a cluster of my queer friends, feeling both excited and strangely vulnerable. There was something cathartic and exhilarating about the prospect of screaming the lyrics to King Princess’ “Pussy is God” alongside a club full of largely young, queer fans like myself. I can only describe it as akin to the feeling of saying your first curse word in front of a parent and getting away with it––you feel liberated and just a little bit dangerous. I couldn’t imagine myself even admitting to liking King Princess, much less attending her concert, when I was still in the closet two years ago. For me, this concert was an exercise in fighting my own shame and internalized homophobia with pure, unabashed joy.
King Princess has been out as gay and genderqueer since the age of 13, and her songs intentionally and explicitly explore her romantic and sexual relationships with women. The crowds at her concerts are often filled with many young, queer women. Because of this, the 19-year-old singer feels simultaneously familiar to many of her fans and startlingly captivating in her confidence, talent, and passion. She’ll reference a Vine, jokingly call herself a “faggot,” and hit her Juul, all before starting to play one of her songs from her debut EP, Make My Bed.
For young, queer women who are not used to seeing themselves so clearly represented in the world of pop music, King Princess’ concerts take on an almost ritual quality—they become a haven of queerness flirting with the blurred lines of femininity, all within the context of the traditionally straight male world of pop music. Tufts sophomore Nadia Slater, who also attended King Princess’ show in Boston, explained that King Princess was the first queer artist she had ever seen in concert. “It felt like I was watching one of my friends onstage,” she said. I felt the same way. I almost couldn’t really believe that someone so similar to me could carry themselves with such confidence in front of such a large audience.
On the night I saw her in concert, King Princess’s opening act was an hour-long drag show that she watched from the wings of Royale, adding clips of the performance to her Instagram story all the while. This reveals another integral element of King Princess’s brand: her unapologetic celebration of the queer community. At one point during the chorus of her popular song “Talia,” audience members even held up homemade rainbow-colored hearts. In an interview with The Cut, King Princess explained that her core audiences “are kids who are going to [a] venue to find peace… it’s a queer gathering. If I can provide that, that’s really important.” That sense of comfort and camaraderie was constant throughout the night. My friends and I danced and sang with abandon, and afterwards we all agreed that the atmosphere of support and community was unlike anything we had experienced at a concert before.
Oftentimes, queer women in music are fetishized in popular culture and their art is performed for the male gaze. This means the audience is automatically put into the perspective of a heterosexual man. The male gaze presents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer, and prohibits the women depicted from transcending this label. Essentially, any celebration of female sexuality in popular culture must still be performed for male consumption.
While King Princess walked on stage at her concert in a men’s polo, khaki pants, sneakers, and no makeup, sensuality and pure sex appeal were definitely still a large part of her performance. However, King Princess’ relationship with sexuality reminded me not of the classic, highly-sexualized, barely-legal female pop singer that is so common in the music industry, but of the male pop rock legends of the past and present—Led Zeppelin, Jack White, even Harry Styles. As her predominantly queer female fans threw everything from bras to roses on stage while King Princess belted her collection of intelligent, overtly lesbian pop songs, the energy throughout the venue was almost surreal. King Princess somehow managed to integrate her sexuality into her performance while maintaining her agency and completely subverting the traditional boundaries of gender, femininity, sexuality, and female performance established and perpetuated by the patriarchy. King Princess’ sexuality, and for that matter, the sexuality of her fans, is not for male consumption and is thus almost revolutionary in its boldness.
King Princess carried herself with the overwhelming confidence usually reserved only for male stars and commanded her audience with the masterful bravado of someone who knows she’s a force to be reckoned with. Her relationship to femininity and queerness does not restrict her. In fact, the power of her performance lies in her ambiguity. Her identity transcends labels, and this fluidity is a part of every facet of her art from lyrics to music videos. Her concerts are, in her own words, a “multimedia queer experience… [she] wants [her] shows to feel like a shrine, like a history lesson and a f*cking reminder of what we have to be grateful for.” For her young queer fans, a King Princess concert is often a welcome respite from the rest of the world—a place to be unabashedly themselves, whatever that may look like. For me, seeing King Princess celebrate her queerness without it being reduced to a male fetish or something to be ashamed of was truly transformative. The next time I wore one of my four (4) oversized rainbow striped t-shirts, I thought, I would let myself feel sexy without fear or embarrassment. If King Princess can celebrate sexuality without adhering to the rules of patriarchy, so can I!
As her stage name implies, King Princess is awash in contradiction. A classic-rock-influenced musician in a synthetic pop world, fluent in the internet language of her age cohort and yet so firmly rooted in the generations of queer art and culture that came before her, she is both debonair and slightly grunge in her music and in her performance. She is one of the few female artists in pop today that remains unscathed by the male gaze, and has entered into the mainstream already a fully formed queer icon—completely independent of any powerful man.
As King Princess says in an interview with LGBTQ publication them, “I think I wanted to emulate these male music figures… that were able to just talk about the women that they wanted to be with.” Her queerness is not a gimmick played up by an all-male marketing team in order to sell concert tickets. It is not a label that restricts her to a niche audience. And it is most certainly not up for debate.
Watching her perform is like watching a glimpse into the future of pop: rebellious, innovative, authentic, and overtly queer. While she may have only recently burst into the mainstream, King Princess is already actively breaking down barriers and comfortable norms about gender and sexuality that have existed in pop music for decades. King Princess’ ascension feels like a natural continuation of our current cultural reckoning with the restrictive norms of patriarchy—or, as King Princess herself says, “Art is just gay as f*ck.”