“What’s gayer than rock and roll?”
Getting to know King Princess.
Someone stabbed King Princess in the back. She’s walking around set with the knife still lodged through her centre, blood dripping down her ripped, white tank top. She’s wearing a bald cap and her make-up mirrors the look found on her new album cover – Marlene Dietrich’s eyebrows, rich magenta shadow on her lids, and a white highlight in between.
“Ow Cody, owww,” the 20-year-old musician whines, gesturing for Cody Critcheloe, the video director and musician known as SSION, to examine her perfect, prosthetic wound in the mirror with her. Today, Critcheloe and King Princess are in Los Angeles working on a promotional video (catch a glimpse here) for her upcoming album and tour.
The studio is wide and open aired. King Princess sits in hair and makeup. She attempts to FaceTime Mark Ronson. The hair stylist glues the sides of her bald cap back down, and the special effects artist touches up the colouring of her gash before she heads back to set. Her debut album, Cheap Queen, is out 25th October and her tour kicks off in Texas in a couple of days. King Princess is eager to experience the culmination of her recent efforts.
In the spring of 2018, King Princess found breakout success with 1950, the first single released on Mark Ronson’s Columbia imprint Zelig Records; the song received a boost on Twitter from Harry Styles. She’s been a hot, new thing in the music industry ever since, which is exactly what’s she’s satirising in the here and now on set. For one of today’s scenes, she pokes fun at just how hilarious a meteoric rise can be – playing the role of the surly pop star, having a total fucking breakdown upon the release of their album. Promo videos aren’t usually mockumentaries, but musicians aren’t always as funny as King Princess.
“I wanted to just start with the baseline that I’m here to be a goon,” she says of her wry sense of humour and her entry into the music industry. “A goon who makes great music.”
Comedian Kate Berlant was on set earlier, outfitted entirely in bedazzled rock ’n’ roll threads by Chrome Hearts. She plays the part of an aging rock ‘n’ roll journalist in the Cheap Queen promo video, glad that King Princess is single handedly saving the genre. You know, for the kids.
“Yes. I’m a rockstar… Guitar is so horny and I’m a rock star,” King Princess tells me. “My show’s a rock show, and I’m trying to deliver that type of gakery into the pop stream, because what is gayer than rock ’n’ roll?” (Note: Gak is a replacement for any word, a staple in the vernacular of some queer youth today, and in this context “gakery” could refer to her style, showmanship, musicality or overall zhuzh.)
For Critcheloe, a queer punk icon in his own right, the visibility of King Princess as a queer musician demanding space in mainstream rock ’n’ roll is everything.
“I love that she’s gay and there is no holding back whatsoever… There is so much erasure of gay women in the music biz and I love the idea of her becoming this huge rock star,” Critcheloe says. “The gay community has enough straight pop allies at this point… We need some actual fags, dykes, and trans people to come in and give it a legitimate voice, to sing about real experiences, rather than some generic catch-all about empowerment. The best part about King Princess is that it doesn’t feel forced. It feels honest and fun. You can tell she’s having fun while writing great songs.”
If it sounds like King Princess arrived to the music industry as a fully-formed artist, that’s because she pretty much did. She grew up shadowing musicians at Mission Sound, the Brooklyn studio her dad opened in the nineties, and notoriously turned down a record deal at the age of 11 in order to ensure she wasn’t “under-baked” before her debut.
As a teenager, she spent over five years writing music before putting anything out. Upon moving to Los Angeles, she majored in pop music at college until she dropped out to work. She brought Mark Ronson the songs that would become her Make My Bed EP, signed to his label and experienced a monumental (and rather instantaneous) response to its hit single 1950. King Princess, known to friends as Mikaela Straus, has been unprecedentedly busy ever since.
“I’m a drag queen,” she tells me, more specifically a “bio queen. The album is an homage to drag culture and to my community in Los Angeles. And a story of heartbreak.”
Cheap Queen is a break-up album full of break-up songs, but King Princess makes no references to the album being about any particular person or heartbreak. She wrote and produced it, playing guitar, piano and drums too. The mood is expired romance – wilted lovers and spoiled relationships – with layers of R&B and grunge atop a pop-rock core. She’s accompanied by musicians she refers to as “the best” – The Dap-Kings, Tobias Jesso Jr., Father John Misty and, of course, Ronson (who featured her on his own single Pieces Of Us in August).
Cheap Queen, the album’s title track, is a synthy pop song about how desire makes us mutable. Hit The Back is a seductive, stadium-pop anthem that reminds me of Spice Girls and leaves me drunk with bravado (a rebound song, surely). King Princess says Homegirl, with its raspy vocal quality, calm bass line and less calm guitar solo, is the most intimate song on the album, a self-deprecating love song about forbidden romance in public. She calls it a “realistic extension” of the same story explored more symbolically in her first hit 1950. The album makes me smell leather and whiskey vapour. It has a relenting sadness that could contrast her comedic approach to today’s video.
“I do think there are moments of comedy in my lyrics, even like irony. On social media I just go balls-to-the-wall with all the shit that pops into my head. All the jokes, all the times I can be a clown,” she says. “Then the music is much more serious and emotional. I think that the juxtaposition is interesting.”
Today’s shoot is one of these balls-to-the-wall scenarios. She throws on a raven wig and finds her bearings on the next set – wood-panelled with a ladder, mimicking the seedy basement featured in the Steven Meisel for Calvin Klein 1995 campaign (three years before her birth). King Princess leans against the ladder as Critcheloe shoots video. She arches her back, further emphasising the stab wound she’s sporting. “It’s a metaphor,” she shouts at Critcheloe as he interviews her from behind the camera, directing this entire production while also playing the part of the director who King Princess butts head with in this section of the video.
“It doesn’t look like a metaphor, it looks pretty literal,” Critcheloe retorts, stoking the improvisation.
Their rapport is gracefully irreverent. Critcheloe also directed the video for Prophet, the sultry, trip-hoppy single off Cheap Queen with a heavenly breakdown and another iconic visual metaphor – King Princess as a thick slab of red-velvet cake that pig-nosed executives in cheap suits feast on after eating up her live show.
“I love being eaten as a cake, because I felt like that was just the perfect representation of what that song is about. The whole album alludes to this idea of being commodified by people who love you because there is an ability for you to be commodified,” she says. “It’s not only people in the industry who see you as nothing but a product, but also, like, the people you love. It’s the ones closest to you.”
Critcheloe says King Princess has “this rotten sense of humor” that he loves being around and she tells me her creative relationship with Critcheloe is “totally symbiotic”. But on set today, in mockumentary world, things aren’t going as swimmingly.
At least not while his camera is rolling.
“This entire room is full of flies and they’re landing all over my titties,” King Princess complains.
She’s disgusted. First, production prints the blown-up photo of her in black and white instead of colour, then Critcheloe suggests she use spray paint to fix it.
“I hate every inch of this equally,” she continues, eventually roaring at her team and the crew, “Fuck all of you!!”
Fortunately, they love it. Some stifle their laughter. Critcheloe continues to egg her on and films reactions to her bitch fit. Once someone calls for a cut, King Princess softens and squeals about how well the day is going.
Next up is a Chicago-inspired dance sequence with her friend, choreographer and hilarious co-conspirator Henry Metcalf, who also plays characters in almost all of her music videos (and on her Instagram too). Most recently, the two can be seen line dancing together in a video for Hit The Back, “the anthem for bottoms everywhere.” She’s encouraging fans to learn the dance routine to Hit The Back in advance of the tour.
King Princess is confident in the knowledge that she’s swiftly become a sex symbol, and she’s glad to inhabit that space in the cultural imagination today, especially as a genderqueer person. She yearns for greater visibility for different types of hotness. “I think we’re all really hungry for sex symbols. If I can provide any solace that you can be a sex symbol and still not really know what the fuck is going on with your body or where you land on the spectrum, I’m glad,” she says. “I don’t need to tell you exactly what the fuck I am… Just know that you’re hot and know that there’s fun to be had. It’s fun.”
I ask her about being someone who is reported to have queered pop music, and she responds before the words could finish coming out of my mouth: “It’s been queered.”
“I mean look at like Whitney honey, like we’ve been gay. Elton, you know, Freddie, even Prince as queer-adjacent. We’ve been a queer community. When I look at music history, I validate all kinds of queer-identifying and queer-adjacent people, but today it’s just this idea that queer pop is a genre. And all the people who fuck people of the same gender are supposed to identify with that genre,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Fuck you.’ I don’t identify with any, I don’t find myself relating to queer art as a single genre or a single group. That’s just what’s marketable right now.”
“Pop music has always been very, very gay,” she adds, also arguing that this applies to the Queen of Pop: “And also Madonna isn’t straight. Like, you know, The Sex Book. The Sex Book. She fucked everybody.”
Fiona Apple, who King Princess considers her all-time favourite pop idol, is now a “good homie”. The two bonded when they teamed up to record a new version of Apple’s song I Know last year. “She texted me out of the blue. I told her I just got dumped and she was like, ‘Come Over.’ She is an emotional woman and an emotional writer in a way that I’ve never seen in anyone else. Her lyrics are unmatched.”
King Princess is grateful to study with such a master in accessing our gut feelings. “I really like to write music that makes people cry,” she tells me. She may consider herself a “goon”, but aren’t all the best clowns sad?
Cheap Queen is out 25th October