Performer Kim Petras (Photo by Astrida Valigorsky/Getty Images)

Perfect, plastic, pop princesses

The performance art of selling sterile sex

On Pop

Kim Petras, now 30, has been famous twice. Her second era of fame began in 2017, with the song “I Don’t Want It At All” — a hymn to pretty girl acquisitiveness. “I want all my clothes designer/ I want someone else to buy ’em,” she coos. It’s deliciously shallow and deeply catchy.

In the video, Petras prays to a Paris Hilton shrine. (Who else could play the patron saint of wannabe hotties?) Hilton cameos, and she and Petras make a striking matching set: pouty lips, sleepy eyes and cascades of platinum hair.

Pop music has always had a place for a princess. Madonna defined the type in the MTV era: absorbing her cues from Marilyn Monroe, she remade herself as the Material Girl — a blonde bombshell who knows her own value in a world where everything has a price.

the artificiality of the pop princess was so exaggerated, she’d ceased to be human

In the late 90s, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera picked up the tiara. A clutch of pretenders came after them, including Jessica Simpson and Hilary Duff; more excitingly, at some point in the noughties, the princess meme appeared to achieve self-awareness.

The Disney show Hannah Montana — which launched Miley Cyrus in 2006 — was built around the character of a girl who’s a regular high school student by day, and an international pop sensation by night. How could you tell which version Cyrus was playing? Because Hannah Montana wore a long blonde wig, of course.

Two years later, Lady Gaga took the pop princess as performance art to new heights. Her songs were really love songs to her own persona: unabashed self-invention in the quest for celebrity. (Her debut album was called The Fame, and reissued in an extended version as The Fame Monster.)

Fair hair was a helpful visual shorthand for the pop princess, but there were exceptions. Katy Perry — brunette with Bettie Page bangs to match her campy pinup style — was one: in songs like “Teenage Dream” she cast herself as a perfect carefree fantasy. And though it’s mostly a white archetype, Rihanna might count here too, her music mixing girlish sweetness with ferocious sexuality.

And just below the mainstream, popstars played with the idea to the point of destruction. Swedish singer-songwriter Robyn (who also worked on music for Spears) created concept albums about automata, imagining herself as a “fembot” developed to serve men and cursed with the eruption of emotions. In her work, the artificiality of the pop princess was so exaggerated, she’d ceased to be human.

Because the point of the pop princess is that she’s fake and knows it; a tableau of everything a girl is meant to be — gorgeous, malleable, man-pleasing — served with a twist of irony. A femininity so exaggerated it threatens to explode the whole con.

Petras is all this and then some. Her big breakthrough came this year with her verse on Sam Smith’s “Unholy”. “Mm, daddy, daddy, if you want it, drop the addy,” she growls (“addy” is address, though it could be that dropping the “addy” from “daddy” leaves you with “D” — dick.) “Give me love, give me Fendi, my Balenciaga daddy.”

The takes the sly innuendo of Madonna’s “Material Girl” — “Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me, I think they’re OK / If they don’t give me proper credit I just walk away” — and turns up the contrast until it is a song about turning tricks. Just like in “I Don’t Want It At All”, Petras plays the sugar baby, trading sex for designer goods.

In fact, it’s a role she takes over and over again in her music. On “Throat Goat” she praises her own oral skills over pounding electro (“goat” = “greatest of all time”). “I just sucked my ex, no gag reflex,” she brags — and her reward for these skills is that “your man just bought me a car”.

the price of becoming the perfect girl is never being able to experience pleasure

“Throat Goat” is a cowrite with Dr Luke, who also had a hand in many of Perry’s signature songs. Petras’s manager previously looked after Spears and Cyrus: her place in the pop princess pantheon could not be firmer. One thing though, sets her apart. Petras’s first encounter with fame wasn’t for her music. It was for being “the world’s youngest transsexual”.

Kim, who is male, began hormone therapy at 12 and received surgery at 16. When she was 14, the Telegraph breathlessly reported: “Kim looks like a typical girl of her age. She dresses in fashionable clothes, has long blonde hair and blue eyes.” This is not, of course, typical. But it is stereotypical.

The advantage of early transition for trans males is that it’s easier to pass if you never go through male puberty: externally, Petras is perfectly feminine. But skipping puberty has a cost.

Marci Bowers, a physician who performs gender reassignment and is trans, has said: “Every single child who was, or adolescent, who was truly blocked at Tanner Stage 2 has never experienced orgasm. I mean, it’s really about zero.” Trans reality star Jazz Jennings, who followed a similar medical path to Petras, now self-describes as “asexual”.

In other words, the price of becoming the perfect girl is never being able to experience pleasure. You can sing about making men come, but you probably can’t come yourself. Sex as performance, wholly commercialised and divorced from libido, is all that there can be. The ultimate version of the pop princess might be nothing but immaculately slutty surface.

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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