When Katy Perry released “I Kissed a Girl” 10 years ago last month, the catchy song launched the preacher’s daughter to chart-topping fame. It was praised by some as a groundbreaking and bold “lesbian anthem.” For Perry, it was a “sweet and innocent” song about curiosity.
But for many others, the song trivialized queer female sexuality.
“I kissed a girl just to try it,” Perry sings, describing the taste of the girl’s “cherry ChapStick.” Kissing girls isn’t what “good girls do,” she went on, adding that she hopes her boyfriend doesn’t “mind.” “It felt so wrong, it felt so right, don’t mean I’m in love tonight.”
Earlier this year, Perry admitted that if she had to write that song again, she would probably make some changes. “Lyrically, it has a couple of stereotypes in it,” she said.
“We’ve really changed, conversationally, in the past 10 years,” she told Glamour earlier this year. “Bisexuality wasn’t as talked about back then, or any type of fluidity.”
Yet after the passing of a decade, a similar conversation has been playing out in recent days in response to a song inspired by that same controversial 2008 hit.
“Girls,” by Rita Ora in collaboration with Cardi B, Bebe Rexha and Charli XCX, was also billed as an anthem, a carefree summer song about being whatever you want to be. “I am excited, I’m open-minded,” Ora sings in the track. “I’m 50/50, and I’m never gonna hide it.”
But to some queer women, and other members of the LGBT community, the song perpetuates stereotypes about bisexuality through its lyrics about drinking red wine and “sometimes” just wanting to kiss girls. The criticism of the song shows that artists are still figuring out how to strike the right tone and balance.
Singer Hayley Kiyoko wrote a lengthy Twitter post last week condemning the song’s lyrics as “downright tone-deaf,” with a message that “does more harm than good for the LGBTQ+ community.”
Kiyoko, a former Disney Channel star whose fans call her pop music’s “lesbian Jesus,” said she fully supports artists opening up about their sexuality, but felt a “song like this just fuels the male gaze while marginalizing the idea of women loving women.”
“I don’t need to drink wine to kiss girls; I’ve loved women my entire life,” Kiyoko wrote. “This type of message is dangerous because it completely belittles and invalidates the very pure feelings of an entire community.”
Kehlani, a singer who came out as queer last month on Twitter, also weighed in on the lyrics: “Hate to be THAT guy but there were many awkward slurs, quotes, and moments that were like ‘word? word.’”
The song drew anger from non-celebrities as well, with many pointing out on Twitter that the team of songwriters behind the lyrics was predominantly male.
The song’s message, one person wrote on Twitter, “reinforces the stigma that bisexual is an experience and is under the male gaze as ‘girl on girl action.’” The message “plays into the disgusting narrative that girls only hook up with each other when drunk or for a mans pleasure!!! it’s not written/sung by any queer girls!!!” another wrote.
“Nah you can’t ‘be a lipstick for one night’ stop appropriating my culture,” read another post on Twitter
Before the backlash, Ora had told Billboard that “Girls” was meant to dispel labels and send a message “about freedom and acceptance. … It’s not actually that deep,” she said. “It really is just about that. It’s a free message, and for me, really fun.”
When People asked if the song revealed anything about her own sexuality, she said: “If people look at it like that, it’s very narrow-minded, and I don’t think that’s what this record is. I don’t think that that even matters.”
Following the criticism, Ora’s tone appeared to change. On Monday, she posted a message on Twitter apologizing to anyone her song may have hurt and opening up about her own sexuality.
“Girls was written to represent my truth and is an accurate account of a very real and honest experience in my life,” Ora wrote. “I have had romantic relationships with women and men throughout my life and this is my personal journey.”
“I would never intentionally cause harm to other LGBTQ+ people or anyone,” she added. “I have strived to be a contributor to the LGBTQ+ community throughout my entire career and always will be.”
On Tuesday, Cardi B also reacted to the outrage over her collaboration with Ora, and appeared to respond to accusations that none of the artists involved in their song identified with bisexuality.
“We never try to cause harm or had bad intentions with the song,” Cardi B tweeted. “I personally myself had experiences with other woman … with a lot of woman ! I [thought] the song was a good song and i remember my experience.”
The debate over “Girls” also comes at a time when pop artists are increasingly opening up about their sexuality, both in interviews and in their music.
In 2012, Frank Ocean posted an open letter on Tumblr, timed with the release of his album Channel Orange, in which he described falling in love with a man. A new song from Harry Styles has been hailed as a bisexual anthem, though he has been vague about his own sexuality. And Janelle Monáe’s music videos for her recent album Dirty Computer have been described as “a utopia of sexual fluidity.” In a Rolling Stone cover story last month, Monáe came out as “pansexual.”
The singer Halsey, who identifies as bisexual, has been praised for her 2017 song “Strangers,” featuring fellow bisexual artist Lauren Jauregui. It has been described by some as “the first straight-up, same-sex love song on Top 40 radio.”
“It’s a groundbreaking track that should be recognized for completely stepping out of the box and telling the story of lesbian and bisexual women in love, one that is often either ignored, merely hinted at, or used as a tool to sexualize the experience of same-sex couples instead of digging deeper,” Billboard wrote.
Last year, Halsey told Paper magazine that she’s tired of seeing bisexuality exploited or portrayed as “taboo,” or a form of rebellion against parents. “Don’t tell your mom” or “We shouldn’t do this” or “This feels so wrong but it’s so right.”
That narrative, she said, is “damaging to bisexuality and its place in society. That’s something I’ve had to fight my whole life and something I still fight.” (Some speculated she was referring to Demi Lovato’s 2015 song “Cool for the Summer,” which includes the lyric “Don’t tell your mother.”)
“Today, bisexual musicians are more visible than ever in pop, with new artists writing wistful love songs using same-sex pronouns and chart-topping stars waving pride flags on-stage,” wrote Dazed, a British alternative culture magazine. “But the mainstream has to create more genuine presentations of bisexuality if they want to satisfy Gen Z teenagers. Rather than two women sharing lipgloss for a couple of seconds in order to tantalise the commercial gaze of gossip columns, pop stars are providing more nuanced presentations of bisexual love. Less a phase, more a commitment.”
But ironically, some of today’s most authoritative singers in the LGBT community credit Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” for inspiring their work — despite the issues surrounding the song.
Kiyoko, the artist who helped prompt the wave of backlash over “Girls,” told the Guardian earlier this year that when she first heard “I Kissed a Girl” in her teens, it was the first time she had heard a song associating queer desire with joy.
“There was nothing out there like it,” she told the Guardian. “It was a very exciting moment. … Of course, I wished that it was a gay girl singing, but I was like, ‘That’s gonna be me.’”