There are a few improbable, unimaginable things that this year has just solidified as real life. A reality TV star is president, people take drags off of mini-obelisks instead of cigarettes, there’s an electric car parked in a rocket ship somewhere between here and Mars and Kim Petras can become a pop star with just 16 songs.
For the record, 16 songs is half the track list of any given Drake release. Sia could write 16 songs before lunch if she really put her mind to it. It would take longer to watch an episode of “Dateline” than it would take to listen to every song Petras has ever released.
And yet, Petras has amassed over a million monthly Spotify listeners and hundreds of thousands of social media followers. It’s the eternal music industry mystery — how to get people to like your music — but Petras has that undeniable, indescribable appeal.
She makes the kind of bombastic pop music that has faded away in a bygone era of the pop superstar (the Madonnas, the Gagas and the Beyoncés) — the kind of music made for a dance floor, made to elicit screams from teenagers, made to be listened to through headphones while you strut down the street. It’s the kind of music that all but disappeared from the radio once hip hop took over as the world’s latest favorite.
Petras’ songs evoke the aura of an Italian disco bathed in neon lights or of rolling through the hills of Hollywood with a lollipop in one hand and lip gloss in the other. They’re bratty synth-heavy fantasies about designer clothing, flirting with the boys next door and breaking hearts.
Of course, there is no popstar without a star, the glittering core of it all that fans can’t stop staring at. Petras understands how to build a public persona in 2018. Her social media is a collection of the mundane daily routines, comments on the artists she loves (the latest Charli XCX song, on repeat), the viral videos she laughs at (a clip of Emma Roberts screaming in “Scream Queens”), the food she eats (she just had her first Philly cheesesteak, and she loved it, heart-eyes emoji). And there’re the promos — a link securely in her bio for her latest single, her newest music video and her online merch store. She’s an everyday girl on her way to becoming a pop princess, and her followers can’t get enough.
Then there’s the final component of the total package: the backstory. Petras shot to fame in her native Germany when, at 16, she became the youngest person ever to receive gender confirmation surgery. As she got older, she wanted to pursue a music career. But, after releasing two singles, both of which failed to connect with the German public, she moved to Los Angeles and wrote for artists like Fergie and Jojo before going on to release her own music. A few years after she left Germany, her debut American single ended up topping Spotify’s Viral Global chart.
It’s nearly impossible not to root for Petras. Rejected by the German public, who put too much weight in her past life to accept her as a legitimate artist, she decided to take on Hollywood and, against all odds, found herself on the brink of becoming the next big thing.
There’s no looking back on the path to pop superstardom. As Petras’ profile grew, there was a movement brewing in the background. Women across the country and across professions were coming out of the woodwork to bring to light the actions of powerful men abusing their positions, and Petras, an ingenue, an almost popstar, was stuck in the crosshairs.
With each single released growing in listeners, a curious credit in Petras’ discography came to light. She was working with Dr. Luke, a music producer who had recently been accused by Ke$ha of rape and emotional abuse.
Here is the dilemma of enjoying the music of Petras. She is an artist easy to love. Her personality is magnetic. She has an expertly honed sense of style. Her music possesses an effervescence that makes the body explode with joy. If the core tenet of pop music is to make the listener happy, Petras is a pure rush of serotonin. She also represents a group of people drastically underrepresented in the music industry, and her success could possibly usher in a more representative and inclusive era in pop music.
Then there’s that one glaring detail, the turn-your-head-and-maybe-you-won’t-notice, the scratch on the brand-new car: supporting Petras also means supporting Dr. Luke. Everything that goes through her eventually makes its way back to him. He receives a portion of all revenue: every cent earned from every Spotify stream, every YouTube view and every iTunes purchase.
The solution might be as easy as imagining the scenario in familiar terms: Petras as the wide-eyed wannabe starlet and Dr. Luke as the figure in her shadow, lording over her while she searches for escape. It’s not hard to imagine that Petras simply signed a contract, eager to break through in the music industry, that ultimately forced her to work with a producer that was a proven hit-maker. It’s not hard to believe considering this is the exact kind of contract Ke$ha signed and later entered a very-public lawsuit in an attempt to get out of.
But fantasy always falls away for reality. Petras is an independent artist (technically, she is on the label BunHead, but she owns it and is the only person signed to it), meaning there is no contract tying her to a specific producer like a witch to a pyre. She could work with anyone she wants.
When asked in an interview with the Daily Beast why she chooses to continue working with Dr. Luke, Petras dodged the question, saying she feels for Ke$ha, though she’s had nothing but good experiences with the producer and would rather not get involved with the situation anyway. When fans questioned why Troye Sivan was including Petras as the opening act for his tour, she posted a statement to Twitter. Again, nothing but evasion.
— KIM PETRAS ? (@kimpetras) June 1, 2018
Pop music is made as an escape, as a concentrated burst of joy. The easiest path would be to turn a blind eye and enjoy Petras’ music for what it is: simple pop songs. But when an artist and all of their collaborators begin to profit financially from their art, it’s necessary to interrogate the process behind its creation. The money we throw at an artist is tacit approval, an indication that we support what they’re doing, exactly how they’re doing it. It’s a green light.
Petras’ continued decision to work with Dr. Luke ultimately makes it impossible to listen to her music without major implications. Supporting Dr. Luke feels like invalidating Ke$ha and her accusations, as well as continuing to allow the power systems that enable abusers in the first place.
Petras wants to make music that makes people happy, and it’s difficult to fault her for this. Our modes of entertainment should bring us joy and allow us to forget about the heaviness that shrouds the outside world. Unfortunately, Petras has made the decision to join the two realms by working with an alleged rapist and abuser. She’s a talented artist with a distinct musical point of view and backstory that make it easy to ignore her flaws. Ultimately, the decision to support Petras lies with each individual listener, but it’s difficult to ignore the tension when reality invades fantasy.