A Gay Icon Grows in Brooklyn: King Princess & The Queer Renaissance in Pop Culture
She’s been hailed as “Lesbian Jesus” and for good reason. Born and raised in her father’s recording studio, Mission Sound, in Brooklyn, NY, King Princess (born Mikaela Straus) grew up surrounded by music, and was afforded the opportunity to “f*ck around with instruments and equipment”, to see how the industry operates, and to grow into the rising (see: shooting) star she is today.
She burst onto the scene in spring of 2018 with her debut single “1950”, an affecting love song which the singer-songwriter has described as being inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt. “I was reading a lot of gay literature,” she explains “and that really stuck with me because it’s just a beautiful story, and I think what I loved about it was it took place in the ‘50s and the way that queer people were allowed to be public was so censored and it was all about body language and this kind of icy interaction because you had to hide yourself So, I was interested in the parallel between the metaphor of “1950” being how queer love looks in public and how it’s very similar to having a very cold relationship.” Oh, and she also wrote the hit song in the shower of her dorm at USC. She recorded the song in two days, and she hasn’t changed it since. “I kind of just held onto it,” she shares, “reassuring myself that it would come out one day.”
On social media and in interviews, King Princess is laid back and blunt, candid and self-deprecating yet utterly confident, the #coolgirl we all want to be. She describes her child self as “such a f***ing loud, obnoxious kid.” Underneath her frank, funny and irreverent exterior, however, there is a quiet sensitivity; a poetic attunement to the small graces of life, which is given a voice through her music.
In June, she released her “Make My Bed” EP, which features six equally breathtaking tracks. In “Talia” she grapples with the heartbreak that often follows the swell of euphoria which accompanies romantic love, and which imbues the almost divinely sweet track that is “1950.” In “Upper West Side,” she re-imagines a familiar cultural clash and delves into the nuances and contradictions of romantic infatuation; it is a gay, less campy take on Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” It is a story about the strained, and perhaps severed, relationship between a girl who lives downtown (maybe in Brooklyn?) and a girl from the Upper West Side, the kind of girl who, according to King Princess, buys herself a diamond chain and then tells her friends it’s fake. “I can’t stop judging everything you do/but I can’t get enough of you,” she sings, acknowledging how our intellectual dissatisfaction with someone’s behavior is often challenged by the far more capricious and unaccountable allegiances of the heart. There is something haunting, delicate and wistful about her voice, at once raspy and yet also angelic, ethereal. Every word seems to carry a weight that far surpasses its ordinary application, leading us to linger on each syllable with her as we are transported to a lighter, dreamier, more beautiful reality.
Perhaps most radical about her music is the manner in which it describes homosexual relations with the same authority with which straight songwriters have been exploring romantic love for, well, ever. This is a bold gesture in a hetero-normative culturethat demands that non-heterosexual relationships be defined by their difference, be boldly asserted as gay with a capital G, leaving little room for the meaningful reflection and oh-so-human messiness which artistic depictions of straight relationships are afforded.
There is arguably a similar trend taking place in film and even literature, in which art does not necessarily pose queerness or homosexuality as something to be appraised or dissected, or as anomalous in some way, but rather as a kind of certainty, as an element of one’s life that is as innate and undemanding of lengthy discussion as one’s name, job, hometown, etc.
Take Princess Cyd - an underrated movie you can watch right now on Netflix- for example. In the 2017 drama, we get to experience a young, female protagonist who seems interested in both boys and girls. Whether or not this is a newfound discovery is not clear, but it ends up not mattering so much; her sexuality is never discussed. Instead, the viewer has the joy of watching a young girl who accepts her sexuality with openness and grace, and able to her and the other characters involved.
In the literary world, we can turn to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (shortlisted for the 2017 National Book Award). This genre-bending masterpiececonsists of eight stories in which homosexual, specifically lesbian, relationships are explored, and presented without exposition or explication.
The last few years have seen the release of a steady stream of this kind of art in which queerness is implicit. This is not to say that it is necessarily subtle or that it is peripheral to the heart of the work, only that it’s presence is one which does not ask to assert itself, it just does. We are perhaps moving into a cultural moment in which it is ok for not all content about queer individuals to explicitly revolve around their oppression. In many ways, the struggles faced and the history of oppression of LGBTQ+ folks is so woven into the fabric of their experience and sensibility that the inescapable weight of these experiences does not need to be announced so much as felt and, as the adage goes, “the personal is political.” The song “1950” is a prime example. To the average listener, it may just sound like a straightforward love song about a lesbian relationship. However as King Princess shares, it was deeply influenced by the culture of secrecy and fear surrounding homosexual relationships in the 1950s.
The 20-year-old singer has alsocommented on the need for openly gay artists to represent their communities. She accepts the title of “Lesbian Jesus” and reflects that “I am obviously not the perfect representation of anything and neither is anyone else, but I do feel it’s important that we have people who say they are gay because there are gay people who aren’t bi, who aren’t pan, who aren’t just queer, who feel that they need people who are going to just be with women or men in television or film and music and relate to that.…Everybody needs their people.” It’s an interesting assertion, considering it seems to typically be those who fall somewhere in the middle of the Kinsey scale and who maybe less certain about their sexuality who are most underrepresented in media. But the core message is clear: We all deserve (and all of society benefits from) proper representation. I’m transported back to 2013, when Macklemore released “Same Love” and we were all kind of confused as to whether he himself was gay or not. This is not to say that he didn’t have the right to or should not have made the song, only that, perhaps the impact of the song would have been greater if it had come from a gay individual. While songs like “Same Love” are all fine and good, perhaps even necessary, they should not be the be-all and end-all of queer pop.
In just a few months, King Princess has established herself as the Gay Icon we didn’t know we needed, and fans are anxiously awaited her debut album as they replay the the six tracks included on Make My Bed ad nauseum. Now she is kicking off her “Pussy is God” tourand will return to New York this month with a show at Irving Plaza in Manhattan and another at Warsaw in Brooklyn. She’s also performing at a number of upcoming music festivals, including Governor’s Ball and Firefly. Check out her website for her upcoming tour dates: https://kingprincessmusic.com/.