Mirabella Miller ’23
In the era of social media, it is increasingly common for young musicians and singers to subvert the traditional path to stardom, becoming social media stars before their formal recognition as artists. This is because social media offers performers a widely accessible and visible avenue to construct their persona, allowing them to capture listeners with their unique style, look, and/or personality before establishing an actual discography. In the 21st century, just one viral feature or single can lead to a cult following, placing the burden on the performer to keep their audience’s interest piqued as they race to follow up their breakout moment with more content.
Mikaela Strauss, who performs under her stage name King Princess, walked this same path to borderline pop stardom. Her single “1950” in 2018, a slow and aching pop ballad about queer love in an era when it wasn’t safe to express publicly, immediately broke the Billboard Top 30 and was eventually certified gold after reaching 500,000 streams and purchases. But beyond appreciating the song in all its tender emotion, people wanted to know more about its creator. Who was King Princess? Where did this girl come from, and when was she dropping more music?
Four months later, she followed up “1950” with a five-song EP, and quickly announced that she was working on an album. Because Strauss is only 20, she was able to deploy her familiarity with social media to create a specific persona in the musical lull leading up to her album. The enviable nonchalant swagger with which Strauss carries herself is on full display on social media, particularly Instagram. By sharing things like outtakes from her Playboy photo shoot where she’s dressed in a football uniform and videos of her pole dancing to her own songs, Strauss gives the impression that she’s tough, confident, and won’t be fazed by what anyone else thinks.
Additionally, one of the things that fascinated listeners about Strauss from the beginning was her unapologetic queerness and her androgynous expression. She has centered her queerness in her music from the very beginning, yet never wades into identity politics. The fact that she is lesbian isn’t something highlighted in an attempt to stand out from the crowd, but more of a worldview, a lens through which she sees everything.
Then, on Oct. 25, she dropped her debut album titled “Cheap Queen.” The title is an homage to drag culture, and Strauss appears in drag makeup on the cover. The album is a chronicle of Strauss’ path towards growing up, and she brings her listeners along. Because her listeners are generally young as well, there’s a sense of growing up together that enhances Strauss’ relatability, which in turn fuels her persona and starpower, the thing that made her in the first place. By connecting with her fans primarily through social media, she is able to cultivate a seemingly personal and direct bond with them that is proving to be valuable to her sales and reach as an artist.
“Cheap Queen” is a chronological and cohesive story of a relationship’s rise and fall. “Ain’t Together” is a catchy and lighthearted song that comes early on the album, perfectly capturing the relationship between two people who care a lot about each other but don’t know if or how they should put a label on what they have. Strauss expresses confusion in this situation, singing “Being chill, being chill with you / Oh it kills, I ain’t chill at all, at all / We say I love you but we ain’t together / Do you think labels make it taste much better?”
Some of the most powerful and best songs come toward the end of the album, when Strauss is rapidly approaching and subsequently coming to terms with the breakup she memorializes. On “Isabel’s Moment”, the opening lines are full of uncertainty and sadness; “Maybe it’s over / Maybe it’s not / But hope is a thing that you find when you’re sober / And your clothes are still in my drawers like you’re haunting my home.” It’s obvious that these people realize that they have grown apart, but still have a little bit of lingering hope for their relationship, despite however misguided that hope may be. “Watching My Phone,” which comes a couple of songs later, is equally somber but contains the clarity and self-awareness that accompanies adjusting to a breakup and getting over it. “I apologize / For holding you so tight you couldn’t breathe / And thinking you’d be fine,” she sings, acknowledging how her behavior might have played a role in the breakup. This is followed by the lines “And I know I / Can’t be the million girls you’re going to meet / And I think that’s alright.” In these lines, she sounds a bit resigned, but gives an unapologetic shrug: Strauss can’t be anything but herself.
While the songs on “Cheap Queen” maintain a cohesive storyline, they are unexpectedly quite varied in pace and genre inspiration. One of Strauss’ strengths is the smokiness and raspiness of her voice, and it works in a variety of contexts to add character to songs ranging from power ballads to melodic whispers to dance tracks. On “Hit the Back,” an upbeat club anthem, she snarls out “Ain’t I the best you had?” repeatedly on the chorus, the texture of her voice making the remark even more impactful on the listener. But on the final track, a beautifully meditative slow song called “If You Think It’s Love,” the unique humming quality of her voice draws out even more emotion from the simple lyrics. “If you think it’s love, it is,” she sings. “And if you think it’s trust, it is.”
These are the final words on the album, and the lessons and themes these lines convey are what Strauss leaves us with. Within these ending lyrics, she reaffirms the importance of trusting your gut through tumultuous experiences, knowing yourself, and not shying away from challenges because they are often opportunities for valuable growth. For a young artist with an equally young fanbase, it’s an impactful message. Strauss’s voice, unique lens, and ability to pack her songs with emotion on “Cheap Queen” solidify her establishment as an artist.