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All you need to know about Kim Petras is that when AstroPoets tags her as a quintessential example of a Virgo — “I’m sad but down to f*ck” (lyrics from the track “Personal Hell) — she retweets it. Sure, most emerging pop stars are *extremely online* in 2019, but Petras uses her Twitter and Instagram to share memes and interact with fans in a way that feels decidedly personal, even for a millennial star. While her online presence and status as an often hilarious internet personality is part of the appeal, Petras is also beloved for her pliable voice, ear for melody, and an uncanny ability to incorporate anxiety, desire, and euphoria into her music. Relatable much?
It only took one song to turn me into a Kim Petras fan. In early 2018 the bouncy, ‘80s-inspired feel of “Heart To Break” — with its surreal video to boot — was instantly catchy and smart, just the right balance between vulnerable and coy. Though it’s rarely the case with fledgling pop stars, nearly everything she’s put out since has been even more impressive. Late last year she released the Turn Off The Lights Vol. 1 Halloween EP, a campy and playful project that still contained plenty of undeniable bops. And though a themed project is great for the holidays, Kim was still known more for her singles than anything else.
That is, up until several weeks ago, when she began to unleash a slew of new music that would make up a full release. Styled as her first full body of work (Halloween EP be damned, apparently), song after song landed upon fans in quick succession, until Petras finally announced the cohesive project, Clarity, would come out at the end of June. And the whole cycle perfectly coincided with Pride, aka the entirety of June, the month that has become specifically earmarked for celebrating queer identity tied back to the historic Stonewall Riots.
Pride has been an interesting moment for Petras, an openly transgender woman who transitioned a decade ago and doesn’t necessarily make her queer identity the focus of her stardom. As the album release cycle ramped up alongside the cultural conversation around Pride, she used her social media in another way — to talk openly about her experience as a trans woman. “I’m hella proud of being transgender and I’m constatntly [sic] inspired by my trans, gay, lesbian, bi or whatever tf beautiful friends,” she wrote on Twitter at the beginning of June. “Happy pride month !!! y’all r my family and I’m so proud of us.”
About a week later, she apparently fielded enough confusion and comments from fans to address it again: “Duh I’m trans,” she wrote, following it up: “Errrbody actin surprised n sh*t lol.” This past weekend, shortly after Clarity was officially out in the world, she broached the subject again: “Ppl always told me a trans girl could never be an actual popstar ? and I still have a long way to go but thx 4 believing in me.”
When she transitioned at the age of 16, Petras was one of the youngest people to undergo gender-reassignment surgery, and made headlines for it at the time. Ten years later, now 26, mainstream culture is finally beginning to understand and acknowledge the experience of transgender people like Kim — and the queer community at large — with a lot more nuance. In that light, the rise of Kim Petras feels like an overwhelmingly positive thing that will help more people educate themselves about issues of gender identity, transition, and the fluidity of gender and sexuality.
The other elephant in the room when it comes to Petras is her close working relationship with embattled producer Dr. Luke, who has been publicly accused of assault and abuse by his former protege Kesha, and remains tangled in legal battles with her, vilified and all but exiled from the music industry. Petras has asserted that she’s only had a positive relationship with him, while allowing for “multiple perspectives” when it comes to working relationships. She addressed it head on when backlash over her inclusion on Troye Sivan’s Bloom tour reached a fever pitch in 2018, once again using social media as her platform:
On Clarity, the entirety of the project is co-written with Luke, and shows his polished pop expertise while maintaining Kim’s eclectic personal style. In fact, it shows more breadth and depth, musically, than most pop stars pull off over the course of several different albums — all without losing the icy, emotional undercurrent that defines Petras’ aesthetic. Moving from depressively anthemic on “Personal Hell” (my current favorite), to the downtempo trap of “All I Do Is Cry” and “Broken,” right on through to the disco-ready, throwback vibes and out-and-out lust of “Sweet Spot” and “Do Me.” Then there’s “Got My Number,” a sort of reverse booty call that moves into synth-y and flirtatious territory. While plenty of pop songs are empowering for fans, the impact that singing along with Petras’ narratives can have for members of the queer community seems enormous, or even imperative.
But for fans of Kim, a group that tends to include a lot of queer and extremely liberal people, listening to Clarity can sometimes feel like an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Supporting one of the first openly transgender pop stars — who is an incredible performer and songwriter, all identity markers aside — is a no-brainer, but doing so while that star is working closely with a producer accused of abuse is definitely a strange paradox. Ultimately, the choice is a personal one, but in my opinion, the pristine perfection of Clarity — and the impact of Kim’s visibility — is impossible to ignore.
Clarity is out now via BunHead. Get it here.