There's a fine line between being an artist and a professional personality, and when you add the hip-hop concept of personality to the mix, things can get weird. An unmistakable alpha girl, Princess Superstar is all-American in a pretty wonderful way: bleached blond, entrepreneurial, earnest and calculatedly trashy. She's gimmicky but honest, and undeniably shrewd; her lyrics, such as, "This pussy got four stars in Zagat," could have been lifted from the New York Times' Sunday Styles section. It's not surprising that she's huge in Europe and quite popular among gay men everywhere.
There's also an off chance that Princess Superstar, born Concetta Kirschner, might be the first white-girl rapper to break through to the mainstream, a possibility that's beautiful and sobering. Her newest album, Princess Superstar Is, is respectable on technical terms (featuring a slew of A-list guests, including Kool Keith and Beth Orton) and exciting in those unquantifiable ways. Her range has grown considerably since her 1996 debut, Strictly Platinum, and she varies from her forté (straight-up witty raps), branching out into sweet and sad hip-hop soul. Between puns ("Oochie Wally Wally give it to my Beaver") and advanced name-dropping ("I hang with Ralph Nader and Roc Raida"), Princess Superstar Is is an uncontrived record, written from a clearly underrepresented perspective. The record's second single, "Bad Babysitter," is so deceptively coy and clichéd, it's easy to forget that she's ruthlessly telling untold truths about money and sex. For example, there's the bit with a teen-age girl bragging about "getting laid while you're getting paid." Although it would offend many--and so what?--we would be so lucky if Britney and Christina Aguilera would impart this Junior Achievement-worthy message to the masses.
"Bad Babysitter" has paid off for Kirschner; it was a Top 10 hit in the U.K. earlier this year. Like a true capitalist she admits, "I am kind of sick of it, but this song is actually making me money, which has never happened before." Kirschner speaks in a midtempo whine. She has immediate answers for everything. Yet she is restrained enough not to be too excited: "It kind of blew up over there. I think it happened because there are less stringent rules about what can be popular. It's kind of telling about what we think our hip-hop should be like."
Princess Superstar performs April 14 at Gypsy Tea Room.
Born in New York (she's of Sicilian, Polish and Jewish descent) and raised in Pennsylvania, Kirschner returned to New York at 17 to study acting at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. After dropping out, she found the guts to start writing rhymes, and Princess Superstar was born. "With acting, you have to confine yourself; you have to be acceptable to a much greater extent," she explains. "With music, you just start; you can take it to a much higher level." A Village Voice article called her show "a grant shy of performance art," and for Kirschner, being Princess Superstar has been a worthwhile and more productive use for her theater training. "I put all my theatricality into developing this persona and making this music happen," she says.
Doing hip-hop has been freeing for Kirschner, but some barriers are universal. "There's a really narrow definition of how women can be famous in film or in theater," she says, "but it's fucking becoming more and more narrow with music."
It's hard to figure out exactly what is and is not part of the Princess Superstar persona. The three previous Princess Superstar records (two 1999 EPs, I Hope I Sell A Lot of Records at Christmas... and Come Up to My Room, as well as 2000's Last of the Great 20th Century Composers full-length) have been released on The Corrupt Conglomerate, a label Kirschner founded and co-owns with another woman. And Kirschner is adamant about writing her own lyrics and producing her records (as evidenced on Princess Superstar Is' biting "Who Writes Your Lyrics"). In conversation, she is self-congratulatory and dogmatic about her D.I.Y. roots, and maybe justifiably so.
Back from a lengthy European tour as well as a stop at Miami's Winter Music Conference, Kirschner is eager to get Princess Superstar Is out to the clubs. In Miami, she had a chance to show off another passion: "I'm a DJ, too, and me and the guy who DJs for me live, Alexander Technique, had a showcase," she says. "It was so hot. We were rocking the hip-hop and classic rock, like Rush. It was so fun."
Kirschner is eager to promote herself, which, of course, is an MC prerequisite. But her hard work is laudable and real, hardly a novelty. "I finally quit my day job," she says. "I was running the label, and I was working for someone, updating a Web site. But really, I've done everything. From working retail, selling glass ornaments, to baby-sitting, to waiting tables." The Princess Superstar persona is inversely related to Kirschner's work ethic. "It's like the total antithesis of this glamorous persona," she says. "It's running your label, and going to the post office, and borrowing $20 to send off your records to a distributor. But it's what makes things happen and makes everything else possible, including Princess Superstar."
While it's tough to listen to someone so culturally keen speak in clichés, Princess Superstar's unwavering social scrutiny is what really makes her compelling. "I don't feel above celebrity worship," Kirschner admits. "I have to laugh at myself and see things honestly. I am, like, observant about that." While her previous records were primarily smutty, Princess Superstar Is tones it down somewhat to show off her greatest strength, which is being "like, observant."
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A devoted pop-culture reveler, Kirschner has a particular soft spot for the silliest aspects of celebrity. "I am obsessed with, you might not know about them, but they're huge in New York, the Hiltons," she says, referring to Paris and Nicky, the teen-age hotel heiresses, quasi-models and social scene fixtures with notoriously bad taste. She recounts a particular Paris Hilton episode, the Jane magazine make-under. "Oh, my God, yeah, she was in that magazine, and she was, like, pissed that they wouldn't let her wear lipstick." With great enthusiasm, she rattles off more. "Jocelyne Wildstein, that lady who got all that plastic surgery to look like a cat. I can't get over these gross social celebrities that are famous for no reason at all."
In the modern social era, other female rappers have turned the socialite persona on its ear. Although Princess Superstar wears Versace like the rest of them, she's not about to sell her soul--literally or in a moral sense. She says repeatedly, "Nah, man, I'm just a musician," which doesn't seem quite complete. The fact is that no white female rapper has ever been really respected or revered, and even now, Princess Superstar verges on novelty. The reality is harsh: "The public perception, and the corporate perception of a white girl rapper, doesn't exist," she says. "There's a lot of sexism on top of it." Being earnest and gung-ho about musicianship is necessary then, because "major labels have been afraid of marketing someone like me...Being a white girl in hip-hop is inherently cheesy and has to be handled delicately."
That said, Kirschner claims she doesn't approach it from that end of the deal. "I never considered myself a white girl in hip-hop," she says, and, again, "I'm just a musician, and that's all that I care about." Maybe that's why Kirschner is levelheaded about the attention she's received thus far. "People focus on my Jewishness, and I'm proud to be a part of the tradition of Jews in hip-hop," she says. "But people focus on what they wanna focus on, whether it's my Jewishness or my tits. I'm over it."
Whether or not Kirschner is as earnest as she acts doesn't really matter. As a personality, Princess Superstar is amusing, but as a rapper, she might really shake things up. Hopefully.