Kim Petras, the German-born transgender pop star who’s collaborated with Charli XCX and toured with Troye Sivan, has been nominated for a GLAAD Award. The GLAAD Awards seek to “recognize and honor [people] for their fair, accurate, and inclusive representations of the LGBTQ community and the issues that affect their lives.” They’re not necessarily the biggest or most glamorous awards, and hell, most people outside of media probably don’t know they exist. But GLAAD is also the closest thing the LGBTQIA+ community has to an official advocacy group, and so the GLAAD awards matter: they define the most important contributions to queer culture in any given year. But does Kim Petras fit that criteria?
I am not asking this question in any musical sense; Petras’ songs are among the best bubblegum pop tracks released in the past half-decade, the kind of carefree and casually anthemic songs someone like, say, Carly Rae Jepsen, would probably kill for. I am asking whether Petras deserves to be recognized by a significant queer body because, well, Kim Petras’ music (most of it; at the very least, the entirety of Turn Off the Light, the album she’s nominated for) is by-and-large made by Lucasz Gottwald or, as he’s more commonly known, Dr. Luke—the Max Martin acolyte who produced hits for Katy Perry, Pink and Kelly Clarkson. Petras has been Gottwald’s only consistent collaborator over the past few years; that’s because in 2014, former Gottwald protege Kesha accused the producer of sexual assault and battery. In the years since, as much of the pop industry distanced itself from Gottwald, the producer has in turn sued Kesha for defamation and breach of contract.
Gottwald’s suit against Kesha is still in court, and in light of the continuing battle between the two artists, many of Gottwald’s old collaborators (including Pink, Interscope exec John Janick and Kelly Clarkson) have asserted their distaste for him. But while litigation has been ongoing, Luke has been working, writing and producing tracks for Petras, who has been releasing songs at an increasingly frequent rate. That gradual speed-up seems to have paid off. Petras’ GLAAD nomination is her first major awards recognition. It’s an unsettling concept: that, via his young, transgender avatar, an alleged rapist could, albeit tangentially, receive a stamp of approval from a significant queer organisation.
For what it’s worth little is known about Gottwald’s writing process, but from what we do know, it would seem that he tends to bring completed or mostly completed songs to the artists he writes with. An interesting tidbit in a New Yorker profile from 2013—the year before Kesha accused Gottwald of rape—notes that, unhappy with merely writing songs for pop stars, Gottwald was actively looking for a young female popstar who he could sign a deal with and write exclusively for. Considering the fact that all 16 of Petras’ solo songs were written by Gottwald, you could make a case for the idea that Gottwald has finally found his pet project. Petras does have writing credits on most of her songs; whether or not that means anything, of course, is unknown, as it’s common practise to credit a performer even when they haven’t had any writing contribution to a track. Petras, for what it’s worth, has described to Noisey an in-depth collaborative process with lil aaron, who was featured on Petras’ Gottwald co-write “Faded”, but her representatives have not responded to requests for comment on the particulars of her creative partnership with Gottwald.
Petras, for her part, seems to be very aware of the allegations against Dr. Luke and has, in the past, responded quickly and sharply. “While I’ve been open and honest about my positive experience with Dr. Luke,” she wrote in a statement last year, “that does not negate or dismiss the experience of others or suggest that multiple perspectives cannot exist at once … I want to say that I’m sorry to anyone that I upset.” It’s the kind of apology that slyly removes culpability while still allowing Petras to collaborate with Luke. (Since releasing her apology, she has gone on to release nearly ten tracks, including the entirety of Turn Off the Light, written and produced by Luke.) I highly doubt that Petras would be oblivious to the implications of Turn Off the Light winning a queer media award. If I’m being charitable, I would say that Petras is probably stuck in a bind: she’s achieving success with Dr Luke, and has to choose between that success and stalling the momentum she’s so easily built up with his songs. Many fans have implicitly made the decision for her, continuing to stream her songs, attend shows and buy merch. ‘ Kim kept working with Dr Luke, so why can’t we keep supporting him?’, the logic seems to go.
Complicating all of this is the fact that, last week, GLAAD announced that Oscar favourite Bohemian Rhapsody would not be eligible for the award ceremony’s outstanding film category due to the allegations of rape against director Bryan Singer. What’s different in the case of Petras? There’s a big difference between filmmaking and music, and Singer’s position as director is undoubtedly more public-facing than Gottwald’s as producer. But at the end of the day, both Singer and Gottwald stand to make money from their respective projects’ GLAAD win. Even if Gottwald is a much less public face of his project, he’s still going to receive a hefty paycheck from any streams that Turn Off the Light gains from its newfound publicity. It is unlikely that anyone with more than a passing interest in Petras at this point wouldn’t know about her strong links with the producer.
But sometimes it’s easier to turn a blind eye to shady behind-the-scenes actors when the public-facing star—a charismatic, representative, talented musician—is so appealing in terms of optics. (It also helps Gottwald that Kesha brought her allegations to light before the #MeToo movement gained mainstream traction; you get the sad feeling that things might have worked out a little better for her had she gone public post-Weinstein.) Petras is one of the few—perhaps even the only—transgender pop stars currently operating on a scale significant enough to even be recognised by the larger pop machine. So to cut her off from this kind of success due to her choice of collaborator would also feel like a broader loss for trans representation in pop music.
From GLAAD’s perspective, it’s probably easy to disqualify a film like Bohemian Rhapsody, which is not only disliked by critics but also, in some viewers’ eyes, the subject of straightwashing; its disqualification feels almost natural. Petras, on the other hand, is eminently likeable and very talented, and comes with a significant and very vocal online fanbase who would undoubtedly flip out at the idea of Petras being un-nominated. The fact that even GLAAD can’t find a hard-and-fast rule on who to honour and who not to in a single award year just goes to show that as conversations around #MeToo continue, many of us are still in the dark as to what the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ solutions are. Questions around Petras’ collaboration with Gottwald will likely continue to arise as she continues her come-up. Just don’t expect any easy answers.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
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