If you frequent queer spaces in major cities or online, you’ve probably heard of Kim Petras. The young trans woman from Germany has become a favorite with gays thanks to her sunny bops like “Hillside Boys” and “I Don’t Want It At All.” The latter has racked up more than 5 million streams on Spotify and a campy music video in which Paris Hilton gives Petras a magic credit card for her to shop to her heart’s content.
The fly in this glittery gay ointment is that “I Don’t Want It At All” and many of Petras’ other songs were produced by Dr. Luke, a man whose reputation has overshadowed his legacy of hits. Most famously, Dr. Luke is known for allegedly sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abusing Kesha for years.
Petras has acknowledged this potential controversy in interviews, saying of Dr. Luke, “He’s been really great and supportive to me” and “I don’t see any reason not to work with him.”
Last week she told The Daily Beast, “My personal experience has been great. I’ve been learning a lot from him and I’ve always been a fan of his. It’s been really fun working with him.”
There are plenty of reasons to love Kim Petras. As the youngest woman in Germany to receive gender affirmation surgery, many would argue queers have a duty to support in the name of solidarity.
“I feel compelled to want to support Kim because, yeah, she’s trans. And I also think she’s very talented,” said Michete, an aspiring trans pop singer who has voiced her concerns with Petras on Twitter.
Petras’ songs are undeniably pop slappers. They reference the cheesy joy of the ‘80s both musically and in their materialistic subject matter, but boast enough auto-tuned vocal ad-libs to sound current in a post-Migos pop landscape. “Hillside Boys” delivers the kind of sugar rush all pop music tries to supply.
“’Heart to Break’ is a really good song,” Michete says. “The quality is compromising my morals.”
Videos for “I Want it at All” and “Faded” are full of sickening on-trend looks, Petras’ voice powerful and her charisma able to turn any song she touches into a moment. Guesting on “Unlock It” (one of her few non-Dr.Luke collaborations), she totally outshines Charli XCX, a pop star she’s often compared to.
But in the age of #timesup and #metoo, Petras’ fans are going to need to reckon with the dark side of her sunny bops. According to Kesha’s account, on one occasion, “Dr. Luke instructed [her] to take what he described as ‘sober pills.’ … [Kesha] took the pills and woke up the following afternoon, naked in Dr. Luke’s bed, sore and sick with no memory of how she got there.”
This alleged use of date rape drugs makes the context of Petras singing about “stay[ing] faded every night” more sinister than it was probably meant to be.
There are also business reasons to not work with Dr. Luke: Kesha has alleged she never collected “any meaningful profit from her work due to Dr. Luke’s exploitation of her over the last decade.” And shes’ not alone: Kelly Clarkson spoke out against Dr. Luke, saying, “He’s kind of difficult to work with; kind of demeaning.” Clarkson went as far as keeping her name off the writing credits on her single “My Life Would Suck Without You” in order to distance herself from the producer.
P!nk also had a bad experience working with Dr. Luke, who co-wrote three of the songs on her album I’m Not Dead. “I don’t know what happened [with Kesha],” she said, “but I know that regardless of whether or not Dr. Luke did that, this is his karma and he earned it because he’s not a good person.”
Petras isn’t just ignoring the voices of cis women, but also specific plights of other trans women. The #metoo movement, like many justice movements before it, has a blind spot to the specific needs of trans women. This blind spot exists in spite of trans woman like Trace Lysette and Van Barnes joining the cause by calling out Transparent star Jeffrey Tambor, and the fact that trans people especially are a target for rape and assault. Forty-seven percentage of trans people are sexually assaulted versus 20 percent of cis women.
Petras is essentially undermining the movement’s efficacy, prioritizing creating catchy bops with an alleged abuser over the shared plight of women in Trump’s America.
Despite all of the reasons not to, Petras has decided to work–and keep working–with Dr. Luke. The sad truth is every time listeners stream a Kim Petras song that Dr. Luke had a hand in (which is currently all of her released solo material), a portion of that money goes directly into Luke’s pocket in the form of a royalty check. This is true, of course, of any of the song’s he had a hand in writing or producing, including beloved tracks like Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You Been Gone,” Marina and the Diamonds’ “How to be a Heartbreaker,” as well most of Kesha’s discography. Yet Kim Petras is putting out new songs knowing Dr. Luke’s reputation, and we, as listeners, are consuming them knowing the same.
“Making the decision to work with him after all this stuff has come to light,” Michete said, “I just really can’t find a way to justify it. Ultimately she’s played herself because it’s going to cast a shadow on what people think of her for the rest of her career.”
As Kim Petras becomes more popular, Dr. Luke can use her as an example to show he still has star-making power, and morally questionable label executives can similarly continue calling him up to help build their starlets. And why shouldn’t they? They’re in a business, and as long as the customers (aka the predominantly gay stans) keep lapping up the product, the controversy remains unproblematic.
Guilty pleasures are one thing, but it’s time to face exactly how guilty we should feel. If you stream/buy Kim Petras songs you are supporting Dr. Luke, an alleged abuser, full stop.
“I don’t know if it’s really for me to say whether supporting Petras is inherently wrong,” says Hayley Livingston, a Brooklyn-based trans musician in the band Human People, “but hopefully we can find ways to support trans women without supporting abusers at the same time.”
Petras is a talented girl with a bevy of potential and less problematic collaborators such as Charli XCX and Sophie. She now has the kind of profile that would enable her to find alternatives to Dr. Luke. She can do better, but will she? Only if we hold her and ourselves accountable.