These are high times for Kim Petras. Previously a marginal figure in the world of pop – she attracted a degree of notoriety for 2022’s spectacularly potty-mouthed EP Slut Pop – she was catapulted into mainstream consciousness when she appeared on Sam Smith’s global chart-topper Unholy. It made Petras the first openly transgender artist to have a US No 1 and the first trans artist to win a major category Grammy. There followed other markers of the German pop star’s newfound celebrity. In May, she appeared on the red carpet at the Met Gala, clad in Marc Jacobs, and was announced as one of four cover models for Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue.
If only the music on her major label debut album was as interesting and innovative as its author is, or even as diverting as Unholy, the gothic theatricality of which sounded markedly different to any other recent No 1. It’s tacked on to the end of Feed the Beast, but its presence only serves to underline that there’s nothing else like it here either. Instead, the album occasionally lunges towards some well-worn current pop trends. The clipped 80s sound familiar from the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights and subsequent hits including Ed Sheeran’s Bad Habits and Harry Styles’ As It Was gets another airing on Minute. Alone, meanwhile, fits with the vogue for borrowing huge chunks of immediately recognisable old hits by sticking a trap beat under Alice Deejay’s pop-trance smash Better Off Alone, a trick already pulled on Wiz Khalifa’s 2008 single Say Yeah.
But what the pumping four-four beats, Giorgio Moroder-ish sequenced synths, ravey electronics and dinky-doo melodies of the title track, King of Hearts and Hit It From the Back most closely resemble is the 90s European pop-dance of the Real McCoy, Clock and Capella; the frantic Castle in the Sky, meanwhile, sounds remarkably like 2 Unlimited. You could argue that this is a timely move. This stuff was never intended for the ages, and appeared to have been quietly written out of history, redolent of an era when pop music was tackier, cheesier and less artful than it is today, but Radio 2’s relentless recent pursuit of a very specific late fortysomething demographic means that in 2023 you’re substantially more likely to hear Alex Party’s Don’t Give Me Your Life or Mr Vain by Culture Beat than you might have expected.
You can even see its appeal, evoking an ostensibly less complicated time, during which pop was less freighted with responsibility: no one ever enquired after Haddaway’s views on intersectional feminism or body positivity; no one expected Dr Alban to give soul-bearing interviews in which he detailed his mental health struggles. But there’s something about the music itself that resists successful revival: it’s too wilfully slight and tinny-sounding, too concerned with immediacy, to really develop a nostalgic patina. So it proves here.
Feed the Beast might have worked had the songwriting been a bit more robust. Something flickers into life on Bait and Brrr, but for the most part, the melodies are so flimsy a light breeze would knock them flat. They’re not much helped by the Auto-Tune that lends Petras’s voice a brittle, nasal quality. The lyrics, meanwhile, are frightful, the kind of racy material that made up Slut Pop dialled down and denuded of its edge in the quest for mass appeal. Why anyone would think that necessary in a post-Wap world is a mystery, but it would at least account for Coconuts, which is a song about how much breasts look like coconuts. “My coconuts, you can put them in your mouth,” sings Petras, “my coconuts watch them bounce up and down.” It apparently took eight people to write this, one of them presumably a 12-year-old boy.
You’re left wondering what happened, given the array of tried-and-tested songwriters and producers onboard. Perhaps they’ve saved their best stuff for their more established clients: it’s quite hard to picture New Rules’ co-author Ian Kirkpatrick presenting a song like Uh Oh to Dua Lipa with a straight face. The more dispiriting interpretation is that they didn’t think they had to try, that Petras’s increasing celebrity profile would just sell the album regardless of its contents: anyone swayed by that argument might note that Petras recently appeared on a remix of Stars Are Blind, a pallid bit of cod-reggae from Paris Hilton’s eponymous 2006 debut, an album that owed its very existence to precisely that kind of thinking.
It’s a risky strategy at the best of times, but one that feels like insanity in a world where pop fans are spoilt for choice, where 49,000 new tracks are uploaded to Spotify every day: you struggle to imagine Feed the Beast cutting through. It’s a missed opportunity. Kim Petras is both a groundbreaking figure and – as anyone who saw her with Smith at the Grammys knows – a charismatic performer. She deserves better than this, and so does everyone else.
This week Alexis listened to
Raye – Oscar-Winning Tears
A low-key but killer support slot at SZA’s blockbusting O2 gigs reminded me how fantastic Raye is: no elaborate production needed, just talent. This sounded particularly amazing: emotive but never overwrought.