When pop princess Kim Petras first broke out with songs like “I Don’t Want It At All,” a glitzy ode to capitalist excess hooked around the line “close your eyes and swipe it," life and lyrics didn’t exactly line up.
For Petras, these songs were aspirational, about how she wished her life would be. It wasn't all labels and luxury. “I was writing songs about all these designer clothes and getting whatever I want when I was living on a futon in an apartment with four other roommates,” she says. For a pop star with an image predicated on glamor, it's a decidedly unglamorous admission.
Now, after the release of two volumes of Halloween projects, a deluge of singles released weekly, and her first full–length project Clarity, Petras just started The Clarity Tour, which will bring her to The Fillmore Philadelphia on Nov. 19.
Petras’ pop is synthed out euphoria—undiluted, unabashedly produced bubblegum. Listen for too long and you might find it cloying, but the right dose is a pure dopamine hit. Petras comes off as a pop purist. Where other acts experiment with hip–hop stylings, her style feels like a series of updated '80s pop bangers.
But that signature production of Petras’ work has also caused significant controversy. When asked about her long–standing collaboration with Dr. Luke, the producer whom Kesha has accused of sexual assault and other abuse, Petras said, "you can go online and find out what I have to say about it."
In June of 2018, Petras cited her “positive” experience with the producer, but said that it doesn’t negate the experiences others have had—a take that caused significant controversy, as she continued to work with him (he produced Clarity). “I don’t want to involve myself in that anymore,” Petras says.
While her primary musical inspirations may skew more MTV than MTV.com, Petras' brand is uniquely online and carefully curated. A neon silhouette of Petras with her signature bun denotes “Era 1”; ”Era 2” centers around Clarity. The sonic differences are there, but the idea of “eras” is really a feat of branding. Instead of releasing a few singles as a promo for an album, Petras took a different tack—dropping singles every week. “I’ve just been really building my fanbase by releasing music constantly,” Petras said.
The “eras” give a sense of proleptic iconography; she's claiming the status as an icon a few decades earlier than usual. The continuous release strategy of Era 1 belies a careful curation of image. Petras is someone who’s extremely internet–savvy, thinking about where she fits in the pop canon even before she fully finds her place there.
Petras is reluctant to call Clarity an album, even though it’s her first full–length project, telling Billboard that the songs needed to come out, but that “this is still [her] building phase.” She echoed the sentiment in this interview when talking about her future goals, saying, “I don’t feel like I’ve written the best songs I can write."
The music industry, despite her success—singles charting on Billboard and Spotify and fans who often cry when they meet her—hasn’t lined up exactly with what Petras expected. “When I was a kid, I thought it would all be really glamorous and really amazing. I thought songs were done in one take," she says. "I was very naive to how it is."
“I feel like, by choice, life isn’t very glamorous,” she said. Life looks more like studio, writing, tour, repeat, and less like the unattainable glamour in sparkling music videos with high–fashion costumes and Paris Hilton cameos.
One aspect of Petras’ brand that’s both darkly glamorous and appropriately seasonal is her Halloween album. "Turn Off the Light Vol. 1" was released in 2018, and on Oct. 1 of this year, Petras completed the project with new songs for a full 17–track "Turn Off the Light" release.
It’s club music that curls around itself and curdles into something dark and unsettling, but it’s also a subversion of a music industry mainstay—the Christmas album.
“It just simply came out of a conversation that we had in the studio: Why are there no Halloween albums and so many Christmas albums?” Petras explains. After writing and recording the dark love song “Close Your Eyes,” they had a jumping–off point.
It seems like a natural progression—"Close Your Eyes" takes tropes of love songs to a narrative extreme, with lyrics like “when it’s after dark/I’m gonna eat your heart.” It synths up the dark underbelly of romantic obsession until it hardens into a club banger.
And then they got Elvira. Petras’ excitement crackles when talking about her “literal icon”— at one point enunciating “AM–A–ZING” so that you could almost see it spelled out in front of you with exclamation points breaking up the syllables. They wanted Elvira for a verse on the title track, for which she’s credited as “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.” Though Petras was on tour during Elvira’s sessions, the two did get to meet for an interview for PAPER.
"Turn Off the Light" also features a song called "TRANSylvania," a few breathy moans and signature “Woo–Ah’s” stretched out instrumentals for nearly three minutes. It’s a song perhaps best suited for a Halloween–themed rave, but its title does speak to an important part of Petras’ identity.
Petras is one of the most visible trans artists working today; she transitioned at 16 and initially either faced animosity from labels for being trans or a hyper–fascination on that facet of her identity. “It was a little tough at the beginning because it overshadowed everything I was doing and it was everything anybody wanted to talk about, but now I feel like my music speaks for itself,” she explains.
But Petras stresses that she’s honored that her trans fans—any of her fans—see her as an icon, saying "I feel honored that anybody would look up to me." Later in the interview, Petras notes that one of her goals as she moves up in the industry is to use her platform to help trans people, particularly trans women, who she notes, face a disproportionately high murder rate.
In the coming months, Petras will be on tour, meeting crying fans who say they can’t believe she’s real, travelling around the U.S. and Europe. And despite the grueling schedule and the need for vocal rest ("I'm really talkative!"), she seems to be looking forward to performing, saying, “When I’m onstage, I don’t feel like it’s my job."
If the first tour stops are any inclination, she'll parade across stages in sparkling knee–high boots and bodysuits that look like space–age couture. She'll leave with offerings: concertgoers in Seattle carved pumpkins with her face on them and tossed them up on stage. Fans will cry after meeting her and tell her that they feel seen. And she’s just getting started.
Looking forward, she wants more. “I feel like the artists that I really admire, and what I admire about them is that they have a world of their own," she says. And Petras is working on building that for herself.