Kim Petras Goes Back To The Future

The synthpop trailblazer shines bright as ever while kicking off a new era. 

by Ben Boddez

With her first ever major-label deal in place and a new single optimistically looking towards the future, flashy and fashion-forward dance-pop star Kim Petras seems poised to ascend to an entirely new level of recognition. If it seems like it all comes naturally to her, it’s because Petras has been destined for the spotlight from a very young age, constantly attracting attention and shining brightly while doing it.

From making a documentary at the age of 12 educating the public on trans issues to successfully campaigning the government of her native Germany to amend a policy allowing her to become what was then the world’s youngest person to receive gender confirmation surgery at 16, Petras has had media attention for more than half her life. That kind of drive and work ethic has persisted throughout her entire career after dropping one sparkly, synth-infused pop banger after another while touring with acts like Troye Sivan and Charli XCX. Whether she’s transforming into a blood-splattered succubus for one of her fan-favourite Halloween-inspired projects or turning heads wearing all pink at the MTV VMAs, Petras relishes in shifting between her many guises – but she always knows which one the moment calls for.

Appearing over a Zoom call in a three-piece suit – which she excitedly explains is an homage to Diane Keaton – Petras notes that her greatest inspiration always stems from scouring her closet to best match her morning mood. “I never really know what I’m going to pull out of my hat,” she says. “It’s kind of like ‘I want to look like a wizard today, what can I find that fits that?’ I don’t care if it’s comfortable, I have to wear this today.” Giggling her way through anecdotes about her favourite pop stars, blowing all her money in her fledgling career and her need for a video game based off of recent Netflix survival-horror hit Squid Game, Petras is just as charming and idiosyncratic as her tongue-in-cheek lyrics would have you believe.

Feeling inspired to be herself by artists like Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue, Petras always had dreams of being a pop star, honing her craft in her bedroom as a teenager and recording multiple demos a day while blasting the most cathartic and liberating tracks from her idols. For all of the imaginary concert tours she put on within those four walls, actually achieving the real thing feels all the more natural to her. “It’s hard to perform to a camera after being on tour,” she says of her recent pre-recorded performance at the VMAs. “It’s easier to perform in front of 10,000 people than a single camera, for some reason.”

Petras has spoken extensively about pop music and the boundary-pushing artists who offer a respite for her in her darkest moments, driving her to be the one to provide that escape to others going through the same thing. When Petras faced the mockery of her peers for showing up to school in an extravagant outfit, she could always turn to Lady Gaga’s message of acceptance as she waited to break onto the scene in her own right. “I love the transformative aspect of pop music,” she says. “Bubblegum pop gets looked down upon, but I think it’s an art that you need to take years to learn. When I was a kid, I could put my headphones on and escape my life, and that to me is what art should be. Fun music is the best to forget, and to feel better.”

Of course, all of the most culturally significant pop stars have another job that’s equally important to Petras – bringing new ideas to the forefront and riling people up who can’t take anything that’s just a little bit out of the ordinary. To Petras, pushing people out of their comfort zone is the first step to eventually seeing some kind of growth and progress. Petras became somewhat of a trailblazer for the acceptance and normalization of trans artists in the mainstream, being one of the first to achieve widespread success when she began dropping viral tracks like “Heart to Break” in 2018. “I think my core thing is that I’m pushing people’s buttons,” she says. “I love to dress overly feminine and reveal a lot, because it makes people uncomfortable and that’s what any good pop artist is here for. It’s funny to watch.”

It feels like Petras has constantly been billed as “the pop star of the future” since her first couple of singles. Appropriately, the track she chose to kick off her latest era is titled “Future Starts Now.” A soaring pop anthem looking ahead to brighter days, Petras says that writing the song made her remember to avoid extensive planning, stressing too much about perfection, and going into what she calls “robot mode.” A global pandemic hitting a month before she was meant to make her debut on the Coachella stage didn’t help matters much. Petras says that the song helps her remember to embrace her dynamic, multifaceted human side and the fun-loving spontaneity that’s attracted so many fans to her work. “I just started doing what I’ve dreamt of my whole life and everything was taken away,” she says. “I had to learn to grieve and not be an anxious mess. The song reminds me to accept that you can’t control the future, and that now is what matters – it’s something I need to work on every single day.”

Pop music can tend to fall into formulas, especially when artists find the niche that their audience loves with a couple chart-toppers, and Petras herself admits to striving to find the elusive magic formula for maximum catchiness and memorability in her early career. However, as that audience expands and her projects keep coming, her goals are steadily starting to align themselves with her shifting multitude of personalities and attitudes as well. “There’s something to say about learning the rules before you break them, and I think I’m now at the point where I break them,” she says. “There’s always something appealing in simplifying a song, but now my thing is catching people off guard. Or maybe I’m just being a dick.”

As her favourite hallowed holiday season once again rolls around, Petras is feeling a little more villainous than usual. While there aren’t any plans to add to her spine-chilling Turn Off The Light collection this year, Petras has understandably always been drawn to the holiday’s insistence on stepping outside of yourself and playing a character. “Writing from the standpoint of a psycho killer is freeing because I don’t have to stick to anything that I am; I get to be a fictional, evil character,” she says. “I always thought that villains were the best characters in movies – not to mention the best dressed.”

No matter which outlandish mode Petras might adopt on her upcoming album or show up to her next public appearance in, she always knows how to touch on what makes her feel like the best version of herself, regardless of anyone else’s opinion – something that she implores everyone to do a little more.

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