On the last Monday and Tuesday of June, 19-year-old Brooklyn native King Princess (Mikaela Straus) sold out two consecutive shows at Elsewhere in Williamsburg. Despite the fact my Tuesday night ticket was a hot commodity, I debated selling it. I mean it was a Tuesday, it was sweltering-hot outside, and I’d have to trek all the way to Williamsburg (a neighborhood quite inaccessible from just about any other area in Brooklyn).
Beyond those mild inconveniences, I’m not obsessed with King Princess’s music. “Talia” is the only song from her June 2018 debut EP Make My Bed that really sticks in my head. This is partly because pop isn’t my go-to genre — it takes a mighty gem like “Cut To The Feeling” by Carly Rae Jepsen or Lorde’s Melodrama to really get me — but in the few months since her debut hit single “1950,” it’s clear that King Princess isn’t just another budding bubblegum star, but a bonafide queer pop icon.
She’s not alone in this role. The 2018 music scene has rightfully been deemed #20GayTeen on social media (see Hayley Kiyoko , Janelle Monae and Troye Sivan, to name a few), and as a queer woman coming off of heels of Pride Month in New York City, I can’t tell if I feel flattered or fetishized by the recent, rapid embracing of gayness from mainstream music and brands alike. But regardless of the moment we’re living, it was, indeed, King Princess’s gayness more so than her music that told me to hold onto my ticket and see her live. Whether I named it or not at the time, I wanted to be within the crowd of a community cultivated around queer music.
I got off the L train, arriving at Elsewhere solo, and quickly befriended an Australian woman who had also come to the concert alone. She told me she had coordinated her trip to the states around King Princess’s show. We soon expanded our small talk to include another young woman who I spotted reading Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts” by the bar. I was pleasantly surprised at how seamlessly we three strangers sustained conversation, chatting about our favorite concerts, Sydney nightlife and our jobs. We eventually made our way down to the crowd together, just in time to see King Princess saunter onto stage in a half-buttoned jersey, loose jeans and one of the ironic little smirks that populate her Instagram page.
“Make My Bed,” the eponymous first track off King Princess’s EP, was first-up on the setlist, and the singer drove the ballad with her signature, ringing rasp. Then came an ‘80s-infused track from an unreleased record that she joked “isn’t out yet but will be at some point.” I don’t often get hooked on songs upon hearing them for the first time, but I fell for a SoundCloud-only track King Princess played called “Sunburn.” She repeated the simple yet slightly subversive lyric, “I always do better when it’s cold outside,” imbuing the song with crisp, raw, nostalgia that reminded me of autumn.
Throughout her set, King Princess’s stage presence was undeniably endearing, as she offered up bits of herself to her fans. She engaged with the audience in a way that was at once goofy and wise and tinged with heaviness. When someone yelled “Take off your jersey!” she flashed a hint of her bedazzled sports bra and crooned, “Stop it, my parents are here!” When a different fan shouted “hit your juul!” she flirtatiously inhaled on her e-cigarette, and responded “this is my addiction.”
These moments of unfiltered personality from King Princess were often coupled with expressions of her instinctual self-awareness. For instance, near the middle of the set, she got swept up playing an impeccable, distorted guitar solo. Her facial expression would be one of seemingly involuntary passion, and then she would flip instantly into silliness, making wide-eyed, tongue-in-cheek gestures to her bassist, not letting herself to linger in raw emotionality too long. After plucking the last note of the solo, King Princess poked fun at herself, remarking, “We’ve got indie guitar over here,” almost as if she was defensively stating the obvious, or diminishing the originality of the song before someone else could. Given her youth and overall chill-girl persona, I didn’t expect King Princess to expose these depths of herself on stage. In many ways, the mystique of King Princess laid in Mikaela Straus herself, more than her music — in the dichotomy of her nonchalance and sense of responsibility for herself and the community she represents.
She closed out the night with her hit “1950,” a song I initially deemed too basic and bubblegum for my liking. Watching her perform, though, I was reminded that, while the song’s surface is one of fluttery melodies, it, in King Princess’s own words, also serves as remembrance of the “the way that queer people had to hide our love in history.” She’s remarkably eloquent and informed regarding both the history and modern heft that her identity carries — personally, and politically. At just 19, she’s found a way to gather the weight and weave it together with the tingly and triumphant, first-crush-feeling of pop music. I walked away from Elsewhere cloaked in that tingly glow, and a sense that — regardless of genre, and how far we’ve come from 1950 — there’s immense power in a queer idol that represents, cultivates and honors her community — in all of its complexities.