Politics aren’t accidental to the musician, one of a new wave of young polymaths speaking openly about their sexual identities and demanding their rights
Mikaela Straus, better known as King Princess, swaggered across the Metro Theatre’s stage in Sydney on a Tuesday night, beaming at the screaming audience in between swigs of VB and increasingly obvious puffs on her Juul vape. “We’re gonna go hard tonight!” She smirked suggestively, the air heavy with the kind of crushed-out intensity usually inspired by boy bands you’d save to your lock screen.
It’s been a while since I was at a show that vibrated on this kind of obsessive plane, with fans emitting strangled yelps whenever King Princess simply spoke, moved or vaped. At one point between songs she yelled either “y’all are gay!” or “y’all look gay!” and both worked just as well, the room full of mostly young LGBTI women dressed like they’d time-warped from 1994 to the present day to worship their new genderqueer lesbian deity who, coincidentally, just released a new single last week called Pussy is God.
Straus, a 19-year-old Brooklyn-born artist who now lives in Los Angeles, has an intense following for someone who has officially released only six songs. Signed to Mark Ronson’s Zelig label in the US, she’s been touring internationally the last few months to sold-out crowds. When she previewed a few new songs at the Sydney show, they elicited almost the same fervour as when she played her anthemic queer pop hit 1950. Inspired, Straus has said in interviews, by Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (later reprinted as Carol) and mid-century gay relationship dynamics, 1950 explores and updates butch and femme roles for a generation that may see that kind of coupling as quaint, rather than a means of survival.
That’s not to say that politics are accidental to Straus, who along with her actor girlfriend Amandla Stenberg is part of a new wave of young, publicly out polymaths who speak openly about their sexual identities and demands for LGBT+ rights instead of hiding them for fear of career blow-back, continuing that glorious tradition of reclaiming pejorative slurs for their own power. Earlier this week Straus tweeted a photo of herself advertising her new single with the comment “Baby it feels good to be a dyke bitch on a massive billboard”. As usual, her replies were filled with fire emojis and girls alternating between asking to marry her and telling her how proud they are. I was similarly thrilled when out gay rapper Kevin Abstract from US hip-hop collective Brockhampton appeared before tens of thousands of fans at this year’s Coachella festival wearing a Kevlar vest emblazoned with the word “faggot” across it.
To me, a woman in the twilight years of her 30s, there seems to be a plethora of out, queer artists across continents and genres to, ahem, “stan”. Am I using that right? Don’t @ me. Yes, queer artists have existed for time immemorial, but when I was a teenager in the 90s I definitely wasn’t seeing myself in the mainstream pop charts. I yearned for more than the gender-neutral love songs, queer-ish erotic iconography and wink-wink lyrics on offer, and turned to genres like riot grrrl and queercore. Bands like Huggy Bear, Pansy Division, Bikini Kill and Team Dresch all delivered the explicit pronoun usage I needed, and my 7” and zine collection became a safe haven for my complicated gay teen feelings.
Having a sense of belonging in a particular subculture is a well-worn adolescent tradition, and one that I embraced wholeheartedly. Spotting another kid out in polite society with a particular record label’s badge, their hair dyed just so, sporting a similar dog collar to the one I’d bought at my local suburban pet store? Well, that was a rare kind of heaven. But as much as I lived for the punk immediacy of the music and the underground, clandestine nature of it all, I do wonder how different it would be to grow up in 2018 with overtly queer pop songs just as likely to filter out of a woke, non-binary 17-year-old’s wireless headphones as they are from a high street sneaker store.
“I know you’re a bunch of lesbians but you’ve got to rock out,” yelled King Princess, and the Sydney audience wailed appreciatively. Before the show had started, a younger friend of mine’s phone started glowing with messages strangers in the crowd were AirDropping to each other. A Bi Visibility flag came in first, followed by a screenshot of a girl’s Instagram profile with added text “please date my friend she is single”. I have never felt more old and simultaneously buoyed by the brashness of millennials.
After King Princess cycled through her songs (eschewing two of the six released presumably because their live versions haven’t been adapted yet), she came back out for a quick encore draped in a rainbow flag thrown on stage before disappearing. As we left the venue, young queers dispersing into the night, I hoped they were able to take that safe-space-but-make-it-sexy energy wherever they were headed to. That the electric feeling of being among inclusive community wasn’t confined to the four walls they’d just walked out of but could follow them back into the world that they were bit-by-bit taking over.