Most people who listen to popular music don’t spend much time reading the credits. So producers who want to make sure their work is recognized occasionally mark their creations with what’s known as a producer tag—an audible watermark near the beginning of the track. Metro Boomin, one of the dominant hip-hop producers of the twenty-tens, sometimes used a sample of the rapper Future, one of his clients, saying, “If young Metro don’t trust you, I’m gon’ shoot you.” Take a Daytrip, a duo behind many of Lil Nas X’s biggest hits, had a more celebratory tag: “Daytrip took it to ten!” A few years ago, a pop-obsessed German immigrant named Kim Petras decided that she needed a producer tag of her own, as part of her plan to achieve musical ubiquity. Petras is not, in fact, a producer but a songwriter and a singer. The tag she created was, like her music, enthusiastic and more than a little absurd: “Woo Ah!” The “Woo” is high, like a siren; the “Ah!” is breathy, like a sigh.
In short order, “Woo Ah” took over the world. Or, at any rate, the Kim Petras world, which was a bit smaller and a lot more vivid than the one most people lived in. Her fans called themselves Bunheads, for the off-center coil that Petras wore in her hair, and they treated Petras like the pop star she wanted to be. On Twitter, some of them celebrated #InternationalWooAhDay on August 1st, which was the anniversary of the day, in 2017, that she released her first single, “I Don’t Want It at All.” In 2019, fans sold out Petras’s show in New York, at Irving Plaza, which holds about a thousand people. It was a warm night in June, Pride Month, and the audience of Bunheads, largely male and gay, was happy to take direction. Before the music started, a robotic prerecorded voice came through the speakers. “When I say ‘Woo,’ you say, ‘Ah,’ ” it intoned. “Failure to comply will be grounds for immediate ejection from the premises.”
Moments later, Petras emerged, wearing wraparound sunglasses and an oversized sports coat, neither of which lasted long. Her show compressed big-room energy into a medium-sized room. There were two costume changes, dozens of photogenic poses, and hardly any lyrics that the crowd didn’t sing back to the stage, twice as loud. Introducing “I Don’t Want It at All,” Petras called it “the song that cemented my place as a brand-new pop queen.” It is perfectly pop, an ode to expensive clothes (and, by extension, to the kind of man who might buy them as a gift), with a pastel video starring Petras’s friend Paris Hilton as her fairy godmother. But the song had remained an underground favorite, not a radio hit. On that night, it was not clear whether Petras would ever become a real star—although it was clear that, in a different sense, she already was one. On the way out of the club, you could buy a “Woo Ah!” baseball cap, secure in the knowledge that people who saw it generally wouldn’t know what it meant. (I did, and they didn’t.)
These days, Petras’s quest for ubiquity is a lot closer to its goal. Last year, she collaborated with the English pop star Sam Smith on a song called “Unholy,” which went to the top of the pop chart, becoming one of those songs which you hear whether you want to or not. On “Saturday Night Live,” Smith sang it dressed in a voluminous pink tulle gown—voluminous enough, in fact, to conceal Petras. After the chorus, she suddenly emerged from between Smith’s legs to sing her verse, in which she slips into character as a rich man’s bratty sugar baby: “Mm, daddy, daddy, if you want it, drop the addy / Give me love, give me Fendi, my Balenciaga daddy.” (Petras has declined to clarify whether “addy” means “address” or “Adderall,” but it probably does not mean “attitude”—in her songs, nobody ever seems to drop the attitude.) In February, at the Grammy Awards, Smith and Petras were introduced by Madonna, and performed a version of “Unholy” that seemed to be set in a satanic night club: fire, cages, red leather. Even better, Smokey Robinson presented them with a Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, and Petras began her acceptance speech by mentioning something that some of her listeners already knew, although maybe not all of them. “I am the first transgender woman to win this award,” she said, and the cameras caught Taylor Swift, among others, standing and applauding.
“I don’t think I would have been able to handle the whole ‘Unholy’ thing without having been in the industry for years,” Petras told me, the following month. It was a gray morning in New York, and she was sitting in an apartment that belonged to her publicist, sipping Veuve Clicquot in honor of someone on her team, who was celebrating a birthday. She was dressed casually, but not carelessly, in wide-legged stonewashed jeans and Lanvin skateboard sneakers, and she seemed unfazed by the fact that her Grammy performance had not been met with universal acclaim. Senator Ted Cruz had retweeted a clip of it, with the verdict: “This . . . is . . . evil.”
For someone in Petras’s line of work, the judgment of a Republican senator is generally less consequential than the judgment of that heterogeneous mass of people who constitute the audience for pop music, and whose tastes can be hard to predict, even for someone as well versed in pop history as Petras is. “I’m one of the biggest pop studiers,” she told me, suddenly sounding more like a German fan than like an American star. (She claims to have learned English by watching Britney Spears interviews on YouTube.) Petras was preparing to release a single called “Alone,” which is a kind of pop-history project: it is built atop the beeping beat of “Better Off Alone,” the 1999 global hit by Alice Deejay, a Dutch group. To turn the song into an event, Petras had recruited Nicki Minaj, who gave her not only a guest verse but a new nickname: Kim Petty. Petras said, “All my friends and me were, like, ‘How the fuck didn’t we come up with that?’ ”
On June 23rd, Petras will release her major-label début album, “Feed the Beast,” on Republic Records; it was named for advice given to her by a label executive, who kept urging her to make more music for the company to sell. For Petras, the all-consuming nature of the music industry is part of the fun. Being truly pop means being widely palatable, and it also means risking public rejection. “It’s like when the gorgeous girl gets fed to the beast—but the beast doesn’t want to eat her,” she told me. “What will make you want to eat me?”
Petras once described herself as having “crazy nonsensical confidence,” which seems as good an explanation as any for how she got from the German suburb of Uckerath, outside Cologne, to the Grammy stage. She was born in 1992, and says that she knew from a young age that she was a girl. At the age of twelve, she persuaded her parents to help her find the right doctor and began medical treatment. In the years that followed, she found community in the gay clubs of Cologne. She says that she also knew, with similar conviction, that she was a pop star. While in high school, she talked her way into a local music studio and eventually earned a songwriting contract with Universal Germany. She attained musical success, of a sort, composing advertising jingles. In her spare time, she sang covers on YouTube, and at nineteen she went to Los Angeles, with not much besides a plan to connect with some music people she had met online. Stories like this typically end in disappointment, or worse, but Petras had a canny approach: instead of selling herself to executives as a potential star, she sold herself to songwriters and producers as a fellow music nerd. She soon met Aaron Joseph, who had a small publishing deal with Prescription Songs, the company formed by Lukasz Gottwald, the hitmaking impresario known as Dr. Luke. Joseph should probably have been developing a catalogue of songs that he could pitch to established stars, but instead he found himself helping Petras write material that fit both her campy sensibility and her voice, which is loud and raucous, like a record on the verge of distorting.
Pop music, broadly defined, includes just about any song that lots of people love. But there is also a narrower definition of pop, one that cohered in the nineteen-eighties, and that may still evoke the eighties today: bright melodies, synthesizers, club-inspired rhythms, outrageous fashion, a hint of mischief. In short, Madonna, and anyone who even slightly resembles her. Music might be recognizably “pop,” in this sense, even if it’s not actually popular. Joseph and Petras shared an intense interest in pop music, including more marginal acts like Baltimora, the Italian group behind the 1985 hit “Tarzan Boy.” Alex Chapman, a producer and d.j. who is known for headlining high-profile gay parties, met Petras a few years later, and was for a time her roommate. He, too, was struck by her enthusiasm for pop arcana. “We love a trashy pop moment,” Chapman says.
By the time Petras and Joseph started building a résumé, in the mid-twenty-tens, pop stars like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga were no longer so dominant, and the songs on the radio were growing slower and moodier, under the influence of hip-hop and R. and B. In that context, Petras’s brash, upbeat sound seemed either behind the times or ahead of them. Petras remembers wondering, “Why do I have to want to make girly, gay pop music when no one’s listening to it—why is that my gift?” In 2015, she and Joseph travelled to New York to perform for the C.E.O. of Epic Records. It was Petras’s first time in New York, and they had no money for a cab; they arrived at the record company frazzled, played a few songs for the gathered executives, and flew back to California, with no clear idea what to do next. Eventually, Petras signed a contract—not with a major record company but with Gottwald, who had taken an interest in his protégé’s protégé. Gottwald became Petras’s constant collaborator, helping to write, produce, and release her songs, sometimes under a pseudonym; her major-label début is being issued by Republic through Gottwald’s imprint, Amigo Records.
Gottwald helped create the sound of twenty-first-century pop, co-writing candy-sweet hits like Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.,” and Doja Cat’s “Say So.” He is also notorious, because of allegations made by Kesha, a former client, who says that he drugged and sexually assaulted her. Gottwald denied having ever had sexual contact with Kesha, and in 2016 a judge dismissed her legal claims; Gottwald has accused Kesha of defamation, and the trial is scheduled to begin this summer. At times, Petras’s professional association with Gottwald has been a liability, and in a 2018 interview with NME, the British music site, she seemed to defend him, saying, “I would like my fans to know that I wouldn’t work with somebody I believe to be an abuser of women, definitely not.” A few months later, she made a more conciliatory—or maybe more lawyerly—statement on Twitter. “While I’ve been open and honest about my positive experience with Dr. Luke, that does not negate or dismiss the experience of others or suggest that multiple perspectives cannot exist at once,” she wrote. “I didn’t communicate this clearly in the past.” Petras no longer talks about Gottwald in interviews; perhaps she calculates that people who think it’s unconscionable to work with him aren’t likely to be persuaded otherwise.
Thanks in part to the success of “Unholy,” Petras can now work with just about any songwriter she likes, which explains how she found herself, one day in April, in a Hollywood music studio, participating in the kind of all-star writing session that she once dreamed of. The biggest name was David Guetta, the French producer and d.j., who helped teach Americans to love the kind of euphoric dance music that has long been popular in Europe; his résumé includes “I Gotta Feeling,” by the Black Eyed Peas, and “Titanium,” featuring Sia. Sarah Hudson was there, too (Katy Perry, “Dark Horse”; Dua Lipa, “Levitating”), as well as Rami Yacoub, a Swede who has worked on an astonishing list of hits stretching back to Britney Spears’s “. . . Baby One More Time,” which still sounds, nearly a quarter century later, like just about the most devastating pop song ever loosed upon the world. Petras was excited, or maybe just nervous. “I’m pacing,” she said, to the room. “I’ve always been a pacing kinda bitch.”