Dr. Luke’s name has been noticeably absent on pop track credits over the last couple of years, though it’s certainly seen its share of headlines, thanks in no small part to a contentious legal battle with Kesha over allegations of contractual servitude and abuse (her claims) and defamation (his). But he does have a new protege in his stable of developing artists and hit songwriters: Kim Petras, a German beauty whose recently released track “I Don’t Want It at All” topped the Global Viral 50 chart on Spotify shortly after its debut.
Petras, who is managed by Maverick’s Larry Rudolph (Britney Spears, Fifth Harmony), is well-known in her home country and all over Europe, not for winning a singing show, but for being the youngest genetically born male to transition to female. Petras, now 24, began the process with intensive therapy at age 13; hormone injections and the physical part came later in her teens. She completed gender reassignment surgery at 16 and officially transitioned from Tim to Kim by 17, all the while occupying newspaper front pages regularly throughout the continent. With Petras’ new identity, inspiration — and music — poured out.
“I Don’t Want It at All” is a bouncy radio- and club-ready track that hails the material aspirations any twentysomething would have — designer clothes, diamonds, summer in the Hamptons — while poking fun at “the L.A. sugar daddy lifestyle,” reads an announcement of the track’s release. But its symbolism extends beyond dance floor fluff. Though Dr. Luke has been hard at work supervising his stable of songwriters and producers — among them: Cirkut, who got to know Petras and brought her in as a potential act to sign — as well as his equity stake in Core Water, he’s mostly stayed out of the public eye.
Meanwhile, new albums by Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and, of course, Kesha have arrived (or will imminently, in the case of Cyrus) without direct creative participation by Luke (financially, he still stands to earn royalties if an album is released through Kemosabe, as Kesha’s is) and to mixed reviews, even if their sales and streams suggest otherwise (first-week sales-plus-streaming numbers for Kesha’s “Rainbow,” according to BuzzAngle Music, came in at 119,000, good for the No. 1 spot on the analytics platform’s chart). As the first Luke-affiliated major artist launch since the legal squabble began, will Petras bring redemption, or at least pave a potential path to a comeback, for the embattled producer?
The true test may come down to radio, which has seen Dr. Luke-written and -produced songs generate many millions of dollars by their sheer omnipotence. Still, some stations were slow, or even reticent, to embrace Becky G, Luke’s big-push signing in 2014, relegating her to Radio Disney and youth-specific programming (she was 15 at the time of her official launch). Luke’s last No. 1s date back to 2013 when Perry, Cyrus, and Kesha saw massive hits in “Roar” and “Dark Horse,” “Wrecking Ball,” and Pitbull’s “Timber,” respectively.
But in working with Petras, an artist who’s used to media scrutiny, is confident in her sexuality, and has the chops and discipline to make it as a pop star in today’s frenzied marketplace, has Luke thrown an unexpected curve-ball to the conversation? After all, gender issues take on an entirely different focus when Petras’ story is told. Or is he letting the music do the talking?
“Kim is such a star, it’s crazy,” says Rudolph, who has managed Spears since she first launched in the late 1990s. “She’s really got it all as an artist. I love her fresh perspective on pop music. And I especially love the fact that she wants to do it all independently.” (Petras has yet to sign a label deal, Rudolph tells Variety.)
To be sure, a producer’s attachment can only take an artist so far. Ultimately, Petras needs to stand on her own and have the songs bring recognition, not the backstory. With more music expected out soon, here’s hoping for another slice of delectable pop from this new discovery.
Adds Rudolph: “I see big things for this girl in the future.”
Correction: a previous version of this article listed Cyrus as a Kemosabe artist; she is signed to RCA.