King Princess: The Price of the Queer Female Prodigy in the Modern Music Industry
by Leena Kardacz
From the moment a female artist arrives on the music scene, she is building a brand for herself, even if she doesn’t realize it. Kristen Lieb says it best in her book Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry: The Social Construction of Female Popular Music Stars, “…we can no longer distinguish a private person from her public representation of herself, we feel like we know her—especially if she is on Twitter, just like us. But what we really know is her constructed advertised brand” (31). When twenty-year-old, genderqueer, lesbian popstar King Princess (Mikaela Straus) released her song “Prophet,” it was clear that she has had a long-standing battle with the music industry. In “Prophet,” King Princess sings, “Oh, no apologies, twisting your word and your policies/Oh ohh, and honestly it’s the price of the prodigy wannabe,” suggesting that in order to be successful in the music industry, you have to pay a price. And for many artists, including King Princess, that price is her public image.
As Lieb stated, every female music artist has a “constructed advertised brand.” The nature of branding is to emphasize someone’s profitable qualities and leave out the rest, and for King Princess, her most profitable quality is her queerness. Though being gay has been historically looked down upon in the music industry, it is now “in” to be queer. In the essay, “Lesbian and Gay Music,” Philip Brett and Elizabeth Wood state, “From the start, homosexual identity was seen as contingent: ‘our homosexuality is a crucial part of our identity, not because of anything intrinsic about it but because social oppression made it so.’” For that reason, musicians that are members of the LGBTQ+ community cannot simply be artists—they have to be queer artists. Further, the underrepresentation of queer people in popular music mixed with the sudden surge of gayness being trendy forces LGBTQ+ musicians to bring their sexuality to the forefront of their brand, and King Princess (KP) is no exception. Yet, these gay artists still have to appeal to heteronormative audiences in order to bring in revenue.
Heteronormativity differs from heterosexuality as “heterosexuality implies behavior while heteronormativity speaks to the institutionalization—in laws, narratives, songs, virtually all facets of culture—of an organized understanding and privileging of sexuality” (Torrens, 86). Due to the lack of overt queerness in the music industry, King Princess must brand herself as a “Queer Icon,” which commodifies her sexuality, yet she still must fulfill the role of “The Temptress” in order to adhere to heteronormative standards of attractiveness for women in the industry and to appeal to mainstream audiences. But King Princess also chooses to embody “The Casual Deviant” in which she distances herself from the music industry, a construction which is paradoxically necessary for her success.
I Love It When We Play 1950: Lesbianism in Popular Music
In King Princess’s breakout song “1950,” she sings, “I love it when we play 1950/It’s so cold that your stare’s about to kill me/I’m surprised when you kiss me.” In her Genius Lyrics and Meaning interview, the young singer describes what the song means to her. She says, “It’s a metaphor. The way that queer people had to hide their love throughout our history being a parallel to unrequited love, feeling like someone is being cold to you in a public space. That looks very similar to the way that people once just couldn’t be gay in public. I wanted to pay tribute to that point in history.” Societal expectations are maintained through large industries and media platforms, continuing a particular narrative. Music before the 1960s reflected the ways in which queer people hid their love on a social level. It’s not that there was no queer music—rather, the gay music was heavily coded to remain safe for heterosexual audiences.
Because of the recent surge of queerness being accepted and profitable in the music industry, King Princess doesn’t need to code her music, though she does pay tribute to it. This is demonstrated in “1950” as well as KP’s slow track “Homegirl” in which she sings, “We’re friends at the party, I’ll give you my body at home.” Though not a musical example, journalist Peter Wildeblood was one of the first men in the UK to publicly declare his homosexuality and use gay codes. As recently as 1954, Wildeblood received an eighteen-month prison sentence for “conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offenses with male persons” (CNN). Because of this incident, many gay men developed sophisticated codes to coexist as queer in a world that criminalized their identities. Polari, secret British slang used by gay men, for instance, allowed queer males to speak freely without the fear of arrest (CNN). In my research of this topic, I struggled to find detailed records of the codes lesbians would use in history, as most of the research done in this area is geared towards gay, white men.
Though King Princess is revolutionary in her own right, she could not exist as a popular artist without the queer female musicians that came before her. Outliers in our history of queer oppression are Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who recorded a number of overtly lesbian songs in the 1920s, and lesbian and gay performers could become popular in New York’s Prohibition era “pansy craze” (Brett and Wood). There was also Gladys Bentley, the famous openly lesbian male impersonator that “attracted the rich and famous to her act in Harlem and introduced scat-singing and lewd extemporary parodies of popular songs as well as explicit lesbian lyrics into her act, [representing] a glorious extreme of the inter-war years” (Brett and Wood). These artists used music as a “tool whereby traditional understandings of gender, gender roles, and social identity [could] be subverted, reclaimed, and redefined” (Torrens, 64).
But in the United States, drag, and (to a lesser extent) male impersonation, carried the stigma of gender liminality that also marked homosexuality, leading to its being banned in many places (e.g. Los Angeles) in the repressive 1930s that followed the hopeful roaring twenties. Drag remains integral to the gay male community, which KP honors in her song “Cheap Queen” and in her cover art for her debut album, on which she is fully glammed in drag makeup. Additionally, KP invites a different queen to open for her in every city, which reflects her respect for the drag community that she borrows from on “Cheap Queen.”
Following the emergence of drag culture was a tumultuous sequence of events that dramatically changed the landscape of queerness in the United States. The 1950s civil rights movement began to change the status of African-Americans in the U.S., and with it arose a lesbian and gay movement, fomenting on both coasts of the U.S. after World War II. This queer movement was mobilized by the Stonewall Riots in 1969. The 1980s brought increasing conservatism into the music industry as a reflection of American politics, further closeting queer artists and their music (Brett and Wood). Throughout the 80s, “David Bowie and other glam-rock stars who responded to the swinging-both-ways 1970s, would no longer advertise their sexual ambivalence or pretend to be gay, and gay performers in the mainstream were usually guarded and their songs still coded” (Brett and Wood).
Similar to the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s, the 1990s brought hope following the mainstream oppressive and homophobic ideologies of the 1980s. Lesbian artists such as Melissa Etheridge and Indigo Girls were able to reach success in the industry while singing overtly queer music, something we did not see in the previous decade. Etheridge’s popularity greatly increased after she came out as a lesbian, demonstrating the existence of a lesbian audience that was “actively engaged in hearing and experiencing both her music and her persona” (Torrens, 84). The way lesbian fans flocked to Etheridge upon her coming out proves the lack of queer representation in the industry and why artists like King Princess are so essential to the industry’s landscape. The 1990s brought “the emergence of openly lesbian musicians into the mainstream from the alternative space of women’s music,” thus launching a trend of queerness in the music industry (Brett and Wood). The 1990s was also the decade in which the LGBTQ+ community reclaimed the word queer, which was once a form of abuse, but would from then on be used as “an umbrella for the alliance of people of all unorthodox sexualities and those willing to associate with them (Brett and Wood).
Fast forwarding to the present day, there has been a recent surge of queer artists in mainstream music, which made KP’s career all the more accessible. When Frank Ocean released his album Channel Orange in 2012, rumors ran rampant regarding his use of male pronouns, and he took to Tumblr to share that it was true: his first love had been a man. Though not evident then, queer voices in mainstream music came alive. Queer female artists such as Hayley Kiyoko, Kehlani, Halsey, Clairo, and more, found themselves not simply tolerated due to their sexuality, but celebrated for it. LGBTQ+ audiences are desperate for content they can relate to as there is so little of it in mainstream media. In an interview with KFOG Radio, King Princess discusses growing up without queer artists to look up to, “I didn’t have anybody who was gay who was making music the way that I needed them to. It’s not their fault. It’s a systematic issue,” KP explains, “But it’s also really possible to be gay in this industry because everybody is really hungry for authenticity. I think the system that is in place grants very little authenticity. So when people come through and have a voice, I think there is space to be made.” King Princess wants to be the authentic artist that queer kids look up to, and the industry has made space for her to do so. In the next portion of this paper I will examine how King Princess is marketed and packaged, in which I will explore three brand categories: “The Casual Deviant,” “The Temptress,” and “The Queer Icon.”
I Can Make Grown Men Cry: King Princess as a Brand in the Modern Music Industry
King Princess blew up when Harry Styles Tweeted her lyric, “I love it when we play 1950” in March of 2018. The song was already doing well, but the Tweet from Styles skyrocketed the song’s fame. KP grew up hanging out in her dad’s Mission Sound studio in Brooklyn, NY. KP was offered deals and meetings in the music industry when she was as young as eleven-years-old, but she turned them down. She cared deeply about her music’s sound and wanted to get to know herself before releasing music, she has said on multiple occasions. King Princess is very honest about her thoughts on the music industry. “I don’t understand how you can live in 2018 and allow someone else make your music sound a certain way,” KP tells KFOG, “That’s just some crazy shit to me.” In the interview she also describes the experience writing her EP Make My Bed, on which she played all of the instruments, besides a few of the more challenging guitar riffs. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” she says.
King Princess’s lasting and often fraught relationship with the music industry provides insight to her current brand’s development. In an interview with FaceCulture in October of 2018, King Princess describes her observations being raised close to the industry. “I grew up in a studio and what would happen was bands would come through and they would write music and I would be like, “This fucking music is amazing.” Then the label would get involved and something would happen and my dad and I would listen to the final product and say, “What the fuck is this?” Music would just get fucked up. I watched so many people go down the drain. That was the best training.” After her first year of college at the University of Southern California, KP dropped out to pursue her music career as she found confidence in her sound and message. Thus, King Princess dropped “1950” in February of 2018 followed by the beautiful heartbreak track “Talia” two months later, and she ascended into the industry. King Princess is signed to Mark Ronson’s record label Zelig Records, an imprint of Columbia Records, which functions under the Sony Corporation.
In the second chapter of Lieb’s Gender, Branding, and The Modern Music Industry entitled “Female Popular Music Stars as Brands,” Lieb compiles her research to give the reader an overview of how female pop stars’ brands exist in the music industry. As contextualized previously, the art of branding is to pick out the qualities of a person that are most profitable and leave out the rest. Lieb explains, “Selecting the right meanings and leaving the wrong ones behind is a difficult task—any one of us has thousands of possible meanings, and celebrities presumably have even more than that. But achieving resonance is all about selecting the right meanings for the right customer at the right time. Therein lies the ‘art’ of managing a pop star brand. And the messiness” (31). King Princess is messy; she is simultaneously feminine and masculine, chaotic yet in control, and casual while also purposeful, therefore packaging her successfully is a great feat.
Further, Lieb states, “Overall findings suggest that female popular music stars are objectified, productized brands who are considered high-risk investments given their relatively short-term careers and the tremendous amount of money it takes to market them successfully” (32). Money is the most intransigent and crucial player in the music industry, therefore a label is less willing to take risks with their clients in fear of no return on investment. Not exploring this unsafe territory is what upholds the mainstream narrative. If Sony is responsible for 22% of all the music you hear, then 22% of music is reinforcing Sony’s brand to which the artist must conform their values to—the point is not to know who these artists are on a deeper level, but rather how these artists can best and most lucratively represent their company. In her book, Lieb refers to Rindova et al’s (2006) work about celebrity firms and how personification tactics are employed throughout the process of building a firm’s celebrity (32). Rindova argues that those responsible for branding and positioning a female artist must make her appear to
- be likable;
- have a voice;
- exhibit diversity;
- be memorable;
- experience conflict; and
- appear deviant, but not too deviant.
Below, I have attempted to distill King Princess’s many possible meanings into three brand categories to explore how she both adheres to these heteronormative standards for women in pop music while simultaneously deviating from them.
The Casual Deviant
King Princess’s social media does not look or sound typical of a pop artist. The Casual Deviant, a term I coined, is someone that appears to market themselves effortlessly and casually, while in reality, making it look easy is just part of the brand. King Princess’s Instagram page (@kingprincess69) on which she currently has 707K followers (as of April 12, 2020), is a collection of unedited and silly photos, dance videos of KP and her friends, and the occasional snapshot from a photoshoot, usually paired with a humorous caption. King Princess’s casual, cool, city-girl aesthetic deviates from the typical, intense branding of women in the music industry, and it works. It makes her fans, myself included, feel like we know her, or at least know her more than we do high-profile celebs like Ariana Grande and Beyoncé.
Beyoncé’s feed is clean cut, highly edited, consistent, and formal. She has an image she upholds with every upload. KP’s Instagram, on the other hand, doesn’t reek of intense editing and industry policies, but rather the opposite. In her interview with FaceCulture, King Princess said, “There’re so many artists that perfect their image on social media and that’s how they come across to their fans. It’s an image rather than a person. I think that’s dope and that’s one way to do it. But there’s this other lane that you can go in, which I feel I’m in. I just make a fucking joke out of it.” While that may be true, I argue that despite her casual exterior, her effortless brand is just as much of a construction as any other. She deviates from the heavily edited, feminine norm of pop singers while concurrently capitalizing off of her fans’ feeling close enough to know her, yet she stays out of reach.
The Causal Deviant also bleeds into King Princess’s musical career. King Princess both rejects the industry and uses it to her advantage when she feels it best suits her. In her interview with Zane Lowe on Beats 1 in October of this year, he pokes fun by asking KP why she didn’t include her single “1950” on her debut album, Cheap Queen. King Princess explains that putting “1950” on the album would dismantle the narrative body of work she created. Lowe teases back that it would have made her money and played on the radio to which KP responds, “You think I’m trying to be big radio? Big mainstream radio?” This proves that King Princess doesn’t care about playing on the radio and that she won’t do anything for the sole purpose of making money, which deviates from a typical artist’s desire to make the most lucrative decisions possible. She will not jeopardize her creative work for the sake of increasing revenue, while an artist like Ariana Grande will launch gimmicky perfume campaigns as a marketing ploy in disguise. Lowe jokes back that it was the obvious move to put “1950” on the album, to which KP answers, “I’m not obvious.”
Though King Princess appeared to make that decision look effortless, whether or not to put her biggest hit on the album was likely a calculated decision. This choice plays into Rindova et al’s idea that to be successful in the music industry, a woman must be deviant, but not too deviant. KP is not making the most obviously lucrative move, but she is still releasing a successful album.
Lieb lays out a life cycle for popular female artists in the music industry in her book, and King Princess is not exempt from this sequence. The cycle is essentially a roadmap to show how female artists have branded themselves over their career in order to remain relevant and successful. In the “Lifecycle Model,” in order “to become and remain a dominant female popular music star, one must start off as a good girl: ‘cute,’ ‘innocent,’ ‘stable,’ and ‘fun’” (90). I argue that King Princess is currently in the second phase of the Lifecycle model, which is a “temptress” phase. Lieb explains, “This is where she and her handlers make her sexuality and ‘hotness’ more salient in her public image. For many female artists, the road ends during her temptress phase” (90-91).
It was evident from early in King Princess’s career that she had a large sex appeal. She is effortlessly gorgeous, sings overtly sexual songs, and meets many of the stereotypically heteronormative beauty standards (i.e. white, thin, and at times, feminine). On her track “Cheap Queen,” the song her album is named for, KP sings, “I can be what you like/And I can be bad sometimes/I’m a real queen/I can make grown men cry.” I read these lyrics to mean that though she is confidently and overtly lesbian, men are attracted to her, and perhaps the fact that she doesn’t want them is part of the appeal. Men are known to fetishize queer women, and I would argue that King Princess is aware of this and chooses to capitalize on it rather than fight it. Thus, appealing to straight men as well as her typical crowd of queer women becomes part of her brand.
When I first saw King Princess perform in Philadelphia in July of 2018, she wore street clothes, and for the most part, stood still for the entirety of the show. She was beautiful and captivating, but there was no dancing, no set, and no intense lighting. King Princess’s everyday style is relatively masculine, which is how she dressed for shows in her “good girl” phase. Now, in the temptress phase, King Princess wears the same crop top and high-waisted dress pants for every show on the Cheap Queen Tour in a variation of colors. She frequently rolls her hips and dances, especially while singing two of her most sexually charged tracks, “Hit the Back” and “Pussy is God.”
I’m not claiming that how King Princess currently presents herself is inauthentic; when you attend her shows, it truly does feel like her. Her personality comes through every track and dance, and there isn’t anything she does that feels forced or disingenuous. However, more than ever before, King Princess is using her sexuality and hotness to brand herself. Though it feels like an authentic part of who she is, according to Lieb’s extensive research, the temptress phase is not where stable and long-lived careers are built upon.
The Queer Icon
In the modern music industry, it is nearly impossible to be queer without that intrinsic characteristic being an integral part of one’s public image. This occurs because queer people have historically been forced to define themselves outside of the norm due to the social oppression they experience (Brett and Wood). King Princess is no exception to this rule. In her song “Prophet,” the song that inspired this essay, she sings, “You know what you want/It’s only ‘bout the money/And control, can’t step off it/Someone else will cop it/Like it’s gold, you’re a prophet/Someone’s gonna profit.” In the “Prophet” music video, King Princess is infatuated with a girl who appears to love her back. But when given the chance, the girl bakes KP into a literal cake, which is devoured by pig-like businessmen. This is a metaphor for how queerness is monetized in the industry. The love interest in the music video represents the music industry and because KP is knowingly gay, the girl uses her sexual prowess to lure KP in. When the girl bakes King Princess into a cake and feeds it to a group of men, it displays the watering-down of KP’s sexuality to make it digestible so that men of the industry can consume and profit off of her. King Princess is their prophet; she brings them money and fortune, thus the prophet/profit homonym.
“The Queer Icon” perhaps suggests that there is a counterpart, “The Straight Icon.” But there is not, because heterosexuality is the given and therefore straight artists can define themselves without an inherent link to sexuality. Still, there are positives to being a queer icon. In describing the crowd at her concerts during her Beats 1 interview, King Princesses explains, “You are loved and admired for being this thing that isn’t really definable. I love being on stage and seeing people get me. It feels good to be gotten.” In her YouTube mini mockumentary “King Princess: Deep Inside Cheap Queen,” KP describes the audiences at her shows: “To see that my concerts provide this space for young queer kids, especially for dykes, there has to be some sort of haven to fucking rage. There is something church-like about it.”
Being queer and in a position of power inspires people like them to be who they are, and King Princess provides this safe space because she is so confidently queer. Also, because queer people were oppressed in the industry for so long, it makes sense that a gay artist would capitalize off of that freedom. An interview with MTV news spoke with King Princess about representation in the industry. And while she’s happy to be creating music that makes the listening experience more inclusive for everyone, we can all agree that this type of representation is long overdue. “It’s changing,” she said, “But it’s only become profitable and trendy to be gay in the last couple of years. Now it’s time for people to be out and gay and make music.” Though King Princess loves being gay, she isn’t branding herself this way because she necessarily wants to, but because she has no choice.
The drawback of queerness being the main staple of King Princess’s brand is that it puts her in a box. Simply defining KP as a queer icon, implies that she cannot be an icon for straight people. Though queerness is breaking free from the niche market, the creations of LGBTQ+ individuals are thought to be separate from those of heterosexuals. Because heterosexual musicians do not have to define their brand through their sexual preference, they are able to be an icon for everyone while queer icons are bound to their community, and therefore, struggle to find their way into the mainstream.
While King Princess loves who she is and her incredible fans, she doesn’t love the box her queerness keeps her in. In her MTV news interview, KP reflects on her music being referred to as “queer pop.” She says, “‘Queer pop’ is literally saying sexuality is a genre. I don’t want to be grouped in with only gay people. That’s ridiculous. I want to battle everyone. If you’re going to compare me, compare me to straight people, too.” For this reason, KP’s brand as “The Queer Icon” is simultaneously freeing and restricting her in the industry.
Conclusion: It’s Cuter When I Dance Now
Viral pop sensations such as Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish maintain a simple, specific, and consistent public image. Ariana’s high ponytail, oversized sweatshirt, and over-the-knee boots are a familiar trademark in popular media and would make for an instantly recognizable Halloween costume. Grande and Eilish alike have an unvarying musical sound and Eilish’s identifiable tomboy style never wavers. What separates King Princess from this uniform, stylized standard is that she places authenticity and creative integrity above the desire to be easily commodified. KP’s discography offers classic, catchy pop numbers such as “Hit the Back” and “Cheap Queen” juxtaposed with tracks reminiscent of the rock n’ roll era such as “Ohio” and “Prophet,” not to mention the country-influenced “Homegirl.” Additionally, KP does not maintain one distinct image, but rather she fluctuates musical style as well gender presentation and fashion sense the way any non-celebrity would. King Princess allowing fans to see her change in real time exhibits a vulnerability that sets KP apart from the rest.
King Princess, Grande, and Eilish, have young fans who likely idolize and aspire to be more like them. Therefore, it could be potentially harmful for supporters to pursue unattainable consistencies that are nothing more than a well-constructed brand and not this icon’s reality. Further, it is all the more valuable that King Princess presents a realistic, authentic brand because she is a queer artist. Her LGBTQ+ fans are able to explore their gender identity and sexuality alongside their favorite celebrity who is doing the same. If more female artists used King Princess’s casual and vulnerable model of branding, it would bring a much needed element of humanness to an industry where the most successful women are reduced to commodities.
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King Princess Interview with Zane Lowe on Beats 1, 2019. Via YouTube.
King Princess Interview, “Deep Inside Cheap Queen,” 2019. Via King Princess Vevo on Youtube.
King Princess Interview with KFOG Radio, 2018. Via YouTube.
King Princess Interview with FaceCulture, 2018. Via YouTube.
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Taylor, Jodie. “Claiming Queer Territory in the Study of Subcultures and Popular Music.” Sociology Compass, vol. 7, no. 3, 2013, pp. 194–207, doi:10.1111/soc4.12021.
Tilchen, Jordyn. “King Princess Is ‘Bored Of Heteronormative Narrative’ – But Don’t Put Her Music Into A Box.” MTV News, 31 Oct. 2019, www.mtv.com/news/3144454/king-princess-cheap-queen-queer-pop/.
Torrens, Kathleen. “The Spaces Between: Transforming Heteronormativity with the Indigo Girls.” Singing For Themselves: Essays on Women in Popular Music, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007, pp. 80–104.
Leena Kardacz is a senior at Emerson College where she is set to graduate in May 2020 with a BA in Media Arts Production and a minor in Hearing and Deafness. Leena is passionate about working on projects that feature women and/or queer people at the center of the narrative. She is an advocate for diversity in popular media, both in front of and behind the camera. After graduation, Leena plans to move to L.A. in order to pursue a career in television.