Mikaela Straus a.k.a King Princess is no longer a teenage pop-hopeful whose dancy music is mostly blasted in bedrooms. After gracing a series of festivals, late-night shows, and tours, the 20-year-old star has propelled into the mainstream—and she’s brought her explicitly queer aesthetic with her. From the 2018 release of her first single “1950,” which queers the ideal of the suburban romance idealized in decades past (“I like it when we play 1950/ So bold, make them know that you’re with me”), to her recently released debut album Cheap Queen, King Princess’s career has vulnerably explored both queerness and herself. Her first full-length effort is no exception, reflecting on the fame that has blurred the lines between her private life and public persona.
It’s no secret that surviving as a pop artist relies on walking a fine tightrope between privacy and openness, a perpetual choice between broadcasting personal truths for radio play or keeping them close. When celebrities are queer, this delicate balance becomes even more prominent: Choosing to be openly queer is still considered a subversive and even dangerous act for pop stars, or, as King Princess explained to them in June 2015: “Everybody has a choice of how they want to express their queerness, and for me it just, if this is the way that I can provide for people to like attach themselves to my art and feel like I’m voicing something for them, then fuck yeah.” King Princess’s rapid ascension reflects a larger rise in radical queer pop artists, including Hayley Kiyoko, Janelle Monáe, and Tegan and Sara, who make their sexuality central to their art.
“This is the art we need right now,” King Princess told Rolling Stone in August 2018. “This is what we need right now. We’re in a renaissance, and we need people to rebel, come forth and bring messages into art.” Historically, poems about same-gender attraction have been banned from being published or forcibly edited to conceal any hint of the writer’s sexuality. Other artistic attempts to normalize women who love women are overwhelmingly relegated to the private sphere, though it’s often geared toward cisgender men’s pleasure. (For example, Pornhub’s 2018 year in review noted that “lesbian” was the most searched for porn category throughout much of the world, despite the aggressively widespread nature of homophobia and a specific hatred of lesbians.) King Princess, however, belongs to a pop cultural movement that rejects the heteromale objectification of lesbians in favor of an authenticity that prioritizes queer audiences. Cheap Queen celebrates the complexities of lesbian love against the backdrop of newfound fame.
King Princess pulls the strings of fame, love, loss, and queerness in equal measure, presenting a struggle that’s unique to her experience. She experienced a sudden burst of fame after Harry Styles favorably tweeted about the five-song demo album she posted to Soundcloud in 2018; he also supported “1950,” which widened King Princess’s reach, and tapped her to be the opener for his forthcoming tour. “If You Think It’s Love,” a song all about a relationship reaching its breaking point, uses romantic love as a metaphor for her rapid ascension to fame: “My world’s been changing fast/ The normal things I never thought/ I’d miss are obsolete.” Throughout the album, King Princess glances toward her past, most notably on the titular track—about the “good love” between friends and doing “the same shit (she’s) always liked”—which takes aim a single question: How did she become a celebrity, and how has it impacted the overall quality of her life?
On “Do You Wanna See Me Crying,” she sings to an abandoned lover about all the ways she’s changed (“It’s cuter when I dance now/ I think I’m nicer to my friends now/ I think I’m working through the stress now”) before turning to the undeniable change that fame brings to relationship dynamics (“You’re probably just a fan now, babe.”) Her relationships, both platonic and romantic, are changing as she becomes more prominent, a shift she’s grappling with in real time. The chaos that often accompanies fame is the driving force of Cheap Queen, giving the album a pervasive sense of complexity that teeters on the edge of messiness.
In a genre as dependent on persona and mass appeal as pop, it’s tough to create a satisfying album that centers on the complexities of an individual’s person’s shifting identity. Look no further than Taylor Swift’s 2017 album reputation to understand the double-bind of authenticity and celebrity. Though reputation topped the charts, Swift’s attempt to explore the trappings of fame got swallowed up by a sentiment Pitchfork called “stubborn petulance.” Cheap Queen, however, presents a nuanced meditation on the spheres King Princess occupies and the different demands they place on her.
“Cheap Queen” is first and foremost an album about a 20-year-old searching for truth amid the commotion of her new life.
King Princess maintains this authenticity through intimate and loveworn lyrics that balance desire and loss, confession and performance. She brings listeners to a party, to her home, to a one-sided dialogue, and to a stage all while positioning listeners as both audience and lover. In “Homegirl,” she sings about appearing at a party with an object of desire. Though there’s love between them, their relationship is better explored away from prying eyes. She tells her lover, “We’re friends at the party/ I’ll give you my body at home.” In “Ain’t Together,” she asks a lover if putting a label on their relationship would “make it taste better” while in “Isabel’s Moment” she sings about a declining relationship that lies somewhere between friendship and romance: “And I’m still trying to draw all the lines through my friends and my lovers/ It ain’t clear how we feel, when we spend all this time with each other.”
Though Cheap Queen tackles big ideas, King Princess doesn’t attempt to answer specific questions about the ways she’s marginalized by her queerness. It’s not an album about that specific form of trauma; instead, it’s an album about a 20-year-old searching for truth amid the commotion of her new life. By depicting the specific commotion of her personal and professional life, King Princess pulls listeners into the relatable and overwhelmingly human experience of being unprepared for life’s transitions. We dance with her throughout it all, knowing that labels don’t necessarily “make it taste better” but can offer excitement alongside confusion, and, at times, a little bit of loneliness.
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