In a hypnotic mix of indie rock, cabaret, electro-pop, and piano ballads, Prince Johnny’s new album, Stupid Sex, is a poetic ode to the trauma — and untethered joy — of moving through this world as a queer person. Though the genre-defying, Brooklyn-based musician didn’t live through things like the Stonewall riots or the start of the AIDS epidemic, the 27-year-old is deeply connected to their queer history and the impact it continues to have on younger generations.
“I believe the trauma the queer community experienced in the AIDS epidemic has impacted each generation since in a profound and pervasive way,” says Prince Johnny, who is comfortable with he, she, or they pronouns. “I explore queer intergenerational trauma in my writing. The concept that trauma can be passed down from generation to generation is a relatively new field of study, starting in the mid-’60s as psychologists began to study the lineage of people who had survived the Holocaust. There’s a 1988 study that found grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were overrepresented by about 300 percent in psychiatric referrals.”
The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist was born Viktor Vladimirovich to Jewish refugee parents who had fled a then-crumbling Soviet Union in the mid-’90s. After a childhood spent listening to their father’s bootleg MP3s (which included Russian alt-rock acts like Zemfira and t.A.T.u.), Prince Johnny began teaching themselves piano at age 13, via Regina Spektor YouTube tutorials. Now, in Stupid Sex, they’re using their art to communicate ideas about how LGBTQ+ people are inextricably linked to generations past.
“I imagine children [in the ’80s and ’90s] learning about queer people from caregivers whose voices are heavy with stigma and fear,” they say. “I think of blood banks nosily inquiring about sexual partners and turning donors away. I remember my own mother telling me, ‘Eighty-five percent of gay men have HIV,’ years before I even came out. The way I approached my sexuality was insidiously informed by the thousands of shameful and fearful messages I internalized growing up.”
Prince Johnny, who, in a nutshell, describes their musical style as “St. Vincent hitting on Regina Spektor at Leonard Cohen’s funeral,” was recently inspired to create the Troubadour Lounge, a monthly queer singer-songwriter charity showcase, “like Sofar Sounds mixed with Tiny Desk, but queer.” Pre-pandemic, Prince Johnny and their team raised over $1,000 for the Ally Coalition, and they’ll resume the shows as soon as safely possible. Other performers who’ve influenced the artist include Amanda Palmer, Nina Simone, Perfume Genius, Sade, Mitski, Frank Ocean, and Fiona Apple.
In addition to some of the deeper messaging, Stupid Sex includes lots of fun musical surprises — such as a sample of drag artist Alyssa Edwards’s famous tongue-pop sound, a drumbeat borrowed from Chicago’s “When You’re Good to Mama,” and a queer boy reimagining of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” The artist explains why they wanted to touch on the era of queer history just before the AIDS epidemic struck, like they did in “Sex Party,” which samples actual interview sound bites from the documentary Gay Sex in the 70s.
“The ’70s are such a fascinating time to me because it seems to me like it was the closest we got to widespread sexual freedom,” Prince Johnny explains. “I see it as this shining and joyful apex right before the hammer of the AIDS crisis slammed down and reversed so many advancements. I wanted to contrast the freedom of the ’70s to the restriction of the ’80s and imagine where we’ll go from there.
“I see a link between the current-day fixation on body image and the desire of AIDS victims (in the ’80s and ’90s) to not let their bodies show signs of the virus,” they add. “I see current-day hypersexualization as an exaggerated way to reclaim sexuality that was steeped in shame and exiled away. All of these attitudes and behaviors are ricocheting off us and into the media we consume and back to us.”