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The misplaced promise of Kim Petras

Kim Petras, the 30-year-old German-born pop singer, is currently in the process of figuring out where she wants to be in the pop music echelon.
Luke Gilford
Kim Petras, the 30-year-old German-born pop singer, is currently in the process of figuring out where she wants to be in the pop music echelon.

In the hierarchy of pop music, there are defined tiers of success.

Behind the iconic career divas that need no introduction — the Madonnas and Janets of the world — there are industry A-listers, celebrities with established, multi-album careers who could net a diamond record if the cards were right: Billie, Dua, Ariana.

Beyond that is where things get a little murky; there are high-tier floaters, precariously moving between the A and B levels of stardom and musical ubiquity depending on the year. Take, for example, Selena Gomez, who, before 2023, had her last big hit pre-pandemic, or SZA, an artist that is five times platinum but still not quite a household name. Then there are up-and-comers shooting up the chart, aided by a fervent fanbase and the top 40 hits to match. These placements, though, are precarious, and this type of pop relevancy could end in an instant if a star can't pivot fast enough to accommodate the changing tastes of an audience.

Kim Petras, the 30-year-old German-born pop singer, is currently in the process of figuring out where she wants to be in the pop music echelon. After an early career of releasing demos on SoundCloud, her 2017 run of catchy debut singles positioned her as a newcomer who could potentially dominate the pop charts one day, her aesthetic slotting in comfortably among the more alternative, PC Music-adjacent pop darlings of the late 2010s. On paper, most of her career has aligned with the Ava Maxes and the Bebe Rexhas of the world: precariously placed, C-tier pop stars whose music is shared between gay people with the question "why is this low-key good?" Artists destined to play at corporate Pride performances and maybe get a platinum single, if they're lucky, making inoffensive, nondescript electro-pop that could appropriately soundtrack a nightclub in a mid-budget Netflix original.

Instead, Petras has diverted from this path entirely. Over the past year, she's garnered an international No. 1 hit with over a billion streams — the Sam Smith collaboration, "Unholy" — songs with Nicki Minaj and Meghan Trainor, a historic Grammy Award and seemingly the support of the Great American Pop Music Machine. Her newest project and debut album, Feed the Beast, has collaborations with Max Martin and frequent Ariana Grande collaborator ILYA. On its release day, she adorned the stage of the Today show, a place that welcomes A-listers like Lady Gaga and Harry Styles in performances fit for middle American viewers. Through this, she's been poised to reach a level of A-/B+ superstardom, and it would seem that 2023 is meant to be Kim Petras' breakout year. But the paradox of Petras is proving to be unfortunate — her recent debut studio album Feed the Beast proves: The bigger her celebrity becomes, the more unremarkable her music gets.

In the earlier years of Petras' solo major label career, looking specifically at her output from 2017 through 2018, there was something special about the music she was making. Whether it was the sheer poptimism of the late 2010s or the scrappier ethos of a budding artist, there's still a glimmer in tracks like "Hillside Boys" and "I Don't Want It At All." Petras was an artist with a personality, her image rooted in a nostalgic — albeit white-coded — ideal of 2000s femininity: young, rich, blonde and pretty. On her early tracks, a signature "woo-ah!" tag emphasized a smart cheekiness to her music, whether it was a carefree ode to partying or the naivety of falling in love. These are songs where you don't just remember where you were when you heard them for the first time, but you remember the community around them. Nothing brought a sweaty queer dive bar together like the bit-crushed opening seconds of "Heart to Break," and Petras' feature on Charli XCX's mixtape Pop 2 track "Unlock It" felt like one of hyperpop's early crowning moments.

Kim Petras is also, to our knowledge, the very first openly transgender pop star to reach this level of mainstream visibility. For many of her fans, to see her succeed was a personal win; an unspoken sense of solidarity eternally present between Petras and her fans, the bulk of whom are members of the LGBTQIA+ community. On the other hand, there's also the Dr. Luke problem. Many of Petras' hits were written and produced by the pop hit maker, known for his work with Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson, and who was sued in 2014 by Kesha who alleged the producer drugged and raped her, the lawsuit having only being settled this year. Publicly, Petras has frequently tossed aside criticisms to her working with Luke, and the producer is also all over Feed the Beast, with credits on almost half of the album. It's an upsetting duality that has followed her whole career, but more often than not, Petras' music has prevailed over the narrative, with many forgetting that Dr. Luke produced the entirety of last year's dirty, sleazy, sex-positive EP, Slut Pop.

Despite the issues plaguing her start, Kim Petras had promise — and a brand — as a pop star. But her current work seems to toss away everything that originally made her exciting as an artist. The music on Feed the Beast is inauspicious and soulless at its core, with the power and sense of self previously in her work fading away in favor of a disappointing anonymity in both style and substance. It's a premature push for stardom, with her identity as a musician suffering; many of the songs on Feed the Beast play out like an AI sex bot was told to write a song through a parameter of Twitter machinations and platitudes. Lyrics like "I like sex talk / Can you make my bed rock?" are repeated ad nauseam until they become devoid of true meaning.

As a record, Petras's debut is not totally lacking effort; the tracks that show some promise, like "uhoh" and "King of Hearts," show her grasping for something, anything, to capture the magic that fueled her earlier work. There's hints of something special, shining through a well-placed vocal warble, 2007-era Britney Spears synth bass and gag-worthy hooks like "everything I drop is a banger." But ultimately even the best tracks come off like B-sides for a lesser artist, rejects for her C-tier pop peers that made their way to Petras. These rejects aren't awful, but they're not incredibly interesting, either. The album results in several songs that feel as though Petras never put any input into them; not even jaunty bubblegum production can save a song like "Hit It From The Back," which is so one-note it overstays its welcome after only a minute.

It creates a jarring disconnect between Petras' music and her potential — Feed the Beast doesn't fall in line with most of Kim Petras' output to date. Sonically, it's the same synth-heavy pop music that she's made her entire career, but spiritually, the lights aren't on at home. It lacks the concept of her Halloween-inspired TURN OFF THE LIGHT, the polished songcraft of her early-career singles, the carefree sexuality of Slut Pop. Some songs from earlier, more thoughtful eras happened to make it onto Feed the Beast — "Coconuts," for example, was released in 2021 — but when it comes to Petras' new music, her "brand" of pop bimbo-adjacent femininity seems to have run its course. If anything, Feed the Beast is most similar to her debut mixtape, Clarity: a tepid collection of of-the-moment tracks where even the bright spots are void of a distinct personality.

Feed the Beast also follows the success of "Unholy," which won the Grammy this year for best pop duo/performance and made Petras the first trans woman to win in the category. But "Unholy," a meaningless romp about a daddy doing unsavory acts at the body shop, was a caricature of what "queer music" could be. It's a song designed for heterosexual middle America to clutch their pearls to, but not nearly transgressive enough to be actually scandalous. On the track, Petras is an afterthought, her presence reduced to that of a diversity vixen, a disembodied female voice designed to add some much-needed levity.

There's an example to be made out of one of Feed the Beast's singles, "Alone (with Nicki Minaj)," a slightly rote sampling of the trance anthem "Better Off Alone" by Alice Deejay. Months ago, the song was teased on social media, prompting a level of anticipation that Petras, frankly, needed, after a string of lackluster singles and collaborations, including "brrr," the remix of Meghan Trainor's "Made You Look," and the confusing "If Jesus Was A Rockstar" (the latter was appropriately left off of Feed the Beast). It promised a song along the lines of the simple ditties of Slut Pop, a track for the girls and gays to dance to this summer. After all, creating a song by sampling an already classic, queer dance anthem is, inherently, gay catnip.

When the song dropped, though, it was a lackluster trap-pop hybrid that immediately felt past its prime, the sample mostly discarded, with an anticlimactic Nicki Minaj verse that would land itself on the lower tier of her features. It is a hollow song, one that could possibly indicate how the industry sees Kim: a queer-pandering pop star stuck between mass, commercial success and alternative celebrity. This dichotomy, then, results in songs like "Alone," pieces not fit for her core fans, nor crowd-pleasing radio, despite best efforts to work for both. Since the song's release, Petras released several remixes of "Alone," including one named "Alone - 2.0" that remedies the main issue with the original, forgoing the muted trap verses for pounding, sample-heavy dance-pop production. It shows she's not entirely unaware, but that's why Feed the Beast is so frustrating: It's toeing the line of two worlds, unsuccessfully appealing to either.

What does it mean to be a queer-focused, transgender pop star in 2023, achieve a breakout moment with another transgender star and then immediately shun the specific sound and style that give rise to your stardom? It feels a bit like corporate pride platitudes: rainbow T-shirts and credit cards that attempt to placate a marketable demographic, which is then treated as an afterthought when more money is on the table.

Though I would pay good money to never hear "Unholy" again, I do respect that Sam Smith seems to have their own vision. The same can be said for Petras' other collaborators, like Minaj, Paris Hilton and even Trainor. Petras herself, however, doesn't seem to have a vision of her own. As the stages get bigger and the hype gets stronger, what made her voice and sense of self identifiable as an artist has fallen secondary to the sound and appeal required of a pop star in 2023. The exciting promise her music was founded on continues to shrink, and in tandem, her work's central appeal begins to be swallowed up by the pursuit of mainstream success. Maybe it's not Petras' fault, but one of the industry she finds herself in; in a way, she might actually be feeding the beast, just not in the way that she hoped.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Reanna Cruz
Reanna Cruz is a news assistant for NPR Music's Alt.Latino.