Deeper, Not Softer: An Interview with Princess Superstar
She influenced too many off-beat divas to count, but was struggling for her own record deal. Now, Princess Superstar is back, and she means business.
Let's just get this out of the way: without Princess Superstar (nee Concetta Kirschner) there would be no ... well, you can probably fill in the blank with the spunky, twerking, pottymouthed, blond pop-rapstress of your choice.
Like so many pioneering artists before her, the DNA of Kirschner's influence and innovation can be found all over mainstream radio and YouTube -- even though the Princess herself has never enjoyed mainstream success in the US. Her blend of sultry electroclash and haha-hip-hop (or "flip-flop", as she once coined it) was intriguing enough to disrupt the musical landscape in the early aughts but too oddball-edgy to expand beyond a loyal cult following. But European radio and dance floors embraced her now-iconic "Bad Babysitter" -- a terrifically funny meditation on the perversions of American culture (or maybe just a silly narrative of an irresponsible, underpaid Mary Poppins lusting after her charge's daddy) -- which helped get her on the radar of The Prodigy, to whom she leant her distinctive vocals on "Memphis Bells".
Princess Superstar's forthright wordplay and shimmery aesthetic may seem somewhat tame, even familiar, in 2014, but that isn't stopping Kirschner, now a 43-year old wife and mother, from doing what she does best, as evidenced by the video for her new single "I'm a Firecracker", the title track off her new EP, in which she reclaims her throne by shaking her moneymaker all over Times Square.
PopMatters sat down with Ms. Superstar to discuss her struggles and successes, her own musical heroes, and her much-celebrated, impromptu gig teaching toddlers to rap.
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First, I have to tell you: this past May was my 10-year college reunion and at some point, "Bad Babysitter" may or may not have been sung. It was definitely kind of an anthem for my friends and me.
[laughs] I love that!
Yeah, my roommate showed me the video in 2002 and I was hooked. Then we got others hooked, of course. But we were all so surprised later to learn you weren't British!
Right, yeah, because it was a really big hit in the UK, and it never actually took off in the US. But that's always been my story, not being big at home but having a cult following. I feel really psyched about my trajectory, though. Even though it's been a really strange one.
I think one of the reasons "Bad Babysitter" stood out was that it dropped during that period where people were finally getting sick of Eminem -- I know I was at least -- and that single seemed to so effortlessly achieve the blend of humor and grit he was always reaching for. It was especially exciting to hear it out of a woman's mouth.
It's really funny that you say that. I'm not so sure if I was necessarily setting out to satirize anything. I didn't really have that in the back of my mind, but I do love humor. I just feel like humor is everything, and I wanted to make something that made people laugh and made them feel good, like you're talking about. And it was important to make sure it was fun and authentic and honest. Maybe you were thinking Eminem got too serious, but I'm sure when you're that famous it gets hard because there's a lot of pressure on you to make hits. It can get easy to try too hard or something. And I was never super big or anything, but I just kept going enough to be able to make my music and do my thing. I feel really lucky about that. I feel like I have longevity. You don't always have that if you're really successful at the start. Like, if you shoot for the top it's harder to keep going and to stay at top. My way has its struggles, but I still feel very lucky.
You're finally at that point where you're being regarded as a major musical influence -- not necessarily by the musicians who are reaping the commercial benefits per se, but by observant music journalists. How do keep evolving knowing that what's making money right now on radio is something you already did a decade ago? How do you resist the urge to backslide and try to claim a piece of what you helped create?
Well, it's definitely always hard. A few years ago I was super broke and couldn't get a freaking record deal. It was crazy what I went through. At that time, I was bitter for a second. But I was like, "Where is this bitterness getting me?" It's just an ugly look. Thankfully, I was working with this amazing teacher and one day he said to me, "There's enough success in the universe for everyone. Why do you think there's only a little bit?" If people are now recognizing that I pioneered some stuff, that's awesome and I appreciate that a lot. Let the other girls do their thing. It's hard to make it in the music business, and if they are making it, good for them. I honestly mean that. As far as my own music goes, I just – I don't know how to explain it. I never sought out to push the envelope, I just wanted to make good music. And that's what I am still trying to do. Asking yourself, "how can I be innovative, how can I make a hit?" -- of course you want those things as an artist, but if you go after them it's like chasing after the carrot, you know? And then you get writers block too. I've been there, trying to force things and it's not going to happen. It doesn't work.
I listen to a lot of music and I think, "that shit's really hot." I get really excited and inspired, and then I can see myself doing this and that. That's always how I've gone about my music. It's like that old saying, there's really no new art, right? It's just how you absorb your influences and how you spit it back out into the universe with your stamp on it. And I love that about creating.
Speaking of influences: who are yours? Any that would surprise us?
Well, I don't know if you'd be surprised if I said David Bowie and Led Zeppelin? I really love older music. David Bowie is not so surprising because he's innovative and did his own crazy ass thing and really brought performance art to music. That's what I've always loved and have been inspired by. Really, I just always wanted to be a combination of David Bowie and Biggie! [laughs]
The new EP is great. It's totally you, and yet it sounds markedly different than past work. There's something very mature about it sonically, production-wise. Was that intentional and if so, what inspired that?
I think I went through a lot of struggle in the past year and that really kind of informs [the EP]. And then I came out the other side of that struggle. I also had a baby. A lot of personal things happened and in between my last two releases, and I think that all resonates on the new EP. It's also super positive and happy and I want people to feel happy and feel good about it. That was really my only goal.
You were once a bad babysitter, but are you a good mama?
[laughs] Yes! I am! Sometimes I'm a bad wife, though. Like I just got yelled at because I didn't do the dishes. But I'm a good mama and I love [motherhood] so, so much. It's really funny, people who know me well will tell you when I have to hire a babysitter, I'm like extra suspicious. I'm like, "you better be a great babysitter or I will kill you."
Speaking of children, you received a lot of attention recently for recently teaching a kid's hip-hop class at Rough Trade in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn. If I had known this was happening, my June would have been a lot different.
I know! A lot of people were like, can I come even though I don't have a kid? That was so fun and yeah, it was wild how much attention I got. Oh my God, I loved the New York Post's full-page story; the headline was like, "Would you let this woman teach your kid?" Hilarious. I didn't expect that at all. I was doing it out of the love of having a kid and wanting to do something fun like that. Kids are just so free, and they don't have the hang-ups we adults have. I love working with that and I think language is so incredible, and teaching them how to rap just made think, "Wow, I wish someone had taught me how to rap." It's asking you to be smart in an unusual way.
It's also a rare instance of a celebrity wanting to connect with and give back to the community she lives in. I think a lot of people were responding to that too.
Thanks for saying that. It never occurred to me. I just wanted to do it, it seemed like it would be super fun to share something I love with kids. And it's so funny because sometimes I don't even think of myself as a very public person. I just live my life, and now more than ever, I identify as being a mom and I do normal mom things and then sometimes I remember, "Oh wait, I'm Princess Superstar and I'm like, filthy! I forgot about that!" [laughs]
That seems healthy, that you're able to separate the alter ego a bit from daily life.
Yeah, and I think what you're talking about is a real epidemic among artists. Not just musicians, but celebrities in general where it's like, the ego sort of takes control and then it's all drinking, drugs, collapsing on camera. I don't want that life. I want to do my music and my art, and I just want life to be simple and it's not always easy to do that because you have many temptations. But that's part of the struggle in this business. It all looks good on camera, that lifestyle, but it's not sustainable and it isn't actually fun. The way I live my life today versus a few years ago is actual fun, you know?
A lot of female musicians get criticized unfairly when they become mothers, the perception being that you're suddenly going to soften up or sanitize your art. That's not something anyone worries about with men. Did your approach to making music change with motherhood? What do you think about that criticism?
You know, in my new video for "I'm a Firecracker", I had a blow-up butt and I'm twerking in Times Square, so I don't know about that! [laughs] I don't really worry about it. I feel like I'm Princess Superstar, I'll always be Princess Superstar, and I have been through so much and have been in the game for so long, I can weather anything. I don't feel softer at all. I just feel better. There hasn't been a softening, but I do think there's been a deepening. And this EP totally goes deeper than my other works. Deep doesn't have to mean soft.
I like that sentiment. And I think I'll steal that as this feature's title.
[laughs] It's yours!
You've had a lot of interesting collaborations over the years. Any stand out to you as particularly important to your development as an artist? And is there anyone you're itching to work with the in the future?
Good question. I've really loved working with the rapper Kool Keith. I was always a huge fan of his. We made a really funny video called "Keith N Me" and that was an awesome experience. He has no filter on his rapping and that really influenced me a lot. Learning to not censor myself really helped me grow as an artist. I collaborated with The Prodigy and I really liked that because I made a lot of money! [laughs] And of course, working with Arthur Baker was amazing. He produced my last album My Machine and that dude ... whoa, he's just legendary. I feel so lucky.
In the future I would love to work with Diplo. But everyone and their mother wants to work with Diplo, right? I actually know him, though, so hopefully that can happen. I used to DJ with him. I remember seeing him spin for like five people and now he's huge. Diplo, if you're reading this – call me!
I would also love to work with Missy Elliot. She's been on my list forever and ever and ever. But where is she? Where has she been? Maybe she just needs a little Superstar. Let's put that out there too.