When Rita Ora announced her new single “Girls” earlier this month, the song had all the makings major pop event. With a star-studded lineup that also included Cardi B, Charli XCX, and Bebe Rexha, “Girls” appeared to be this generation’s answer to “Lady Marmalade” and a Song the Summer contender.
When it was finally released last Friday, “Girls” was an event, alright – but the reception wasn’t all celebratory, thanks to criticism its depiction same-sex attraction and a chorus that goes, “Sometimes I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls/ Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls.” While some fans heralded the song as a “bisexual bop,” others — including prominent queer pop stars — felt that “Girls” was yet another example pop culture misrepresenting attraction between women as a drunken dalliance, an infantile dare, or a performance meant for men.
In a note posted on Twitter, singer Hayley Kiyoko — whose fans call her “Lesbian Jesus” and whose recent debut album, Expectations, was praised for its nuanced portrayal queer life and same-sex desire — called the song “tone-deaf” and argued that the song “does more harm than good for the LGBTQ+ community” by catering to the male gaze. (Sample lyric: “Last night, yeah, we got with the dude/I saw him, he was lookin’ at you.”) Kehlani, who as sung about relationships with both men and women, called the song “harmful” in a since-deleted tweet and said it used “awkward slurs, quotes, and moments.” (She didn’t specify, but she may have been referring to this Cardi B lyric: “I steal your bitch, have her down with the scissor.”) Katie Gavin alt-pop band MUNA, whose members all identify as queer women, said the song was just another example songwriters writing about communities that they don’t belong to.
Much the initial criticism levelled at “Girls” stemmed from the assumption that the artists involved were all straight. While Charli XCX and Bebe Rexha haven’t publicly discussed being queer, in the wake the controversy surrounding “Girls,” both Rita Ora and Cardi B confirmed that they have indeed had relationships with both men and women. Cardi B tweeted that she had been with “a lot” women; in a note posted on her Twitter, Ora didn’t use a particular label but wrote: “Girls was written to respect my truth and is an accurate account a very real and honest experience in my life. I have had romantic relationships with women and men throughout my life and this is my personal journey. I am sorry how I expressed myself in my song has hurt anyone. I would never intentionally cause harm to other LGBTQ+ people or anyone.”
But even if they hadn’t posted those explanations, “Girls” still wouldn’t be the queer-baiting horror show that it’s being made out to be. Rather, the song is a playful celebration the fluidity that exists on the spectrum human sexuality — and to discount that could amount to its own a form queer erasure.
From the opening verse, Ora makes it clear that she falls somewhere in the middle the Kinsey scale by singing, “I’m fifty-fifty and I’m never gonna hide it.” And while the song shares a few parallels with Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” — the kissing girls, the drinks providing some social lubrication — beyond the alcohol reference, they differ wildly: Perry makes it clear the other woman is “an experimental game” she just wants to “try on,” possibly to provoke a reaction from her onlooking boyfriend; the woman's name “doesn’t matter.” Ora, meanwhile, references her love interest by name and alludes to, you know, actually having a human connection beyond just a fantasy. It’s worth wondering if the uproar surrounding the song would exist without the shout-out to red wine, because without it, the message is almost unimpeachable in its directness: Sometimes, Ora really does want to kiss girls.
And Ora’s admissions same-sex desire shouldn’t necessarily be discounted as “harmful” or “bullshit” just because it looks different. Sexuality exists on a spectrum; music should be able to explore that too. By negating her experiences, there’s another form erasure occurring, one that ignores the in-betweens, the gray-areas, and the identities that don’t neatly fit into preconceptions about the LGBTQ community. It’s important to note again that much the criticism against the song arrived before Ora’s and Cardi’s clarifications, but going forward, it’d be a blunder for queer artists, who have long existed on the fringes pop music, to police someone for the ways they express their own queerness, however clumsily.
Examples queer representation in pop have long been few and far between, and in the past, the options weren’t always great; they catered to straight audiences and used queerness for comedic effect or pure titillation. (Remember t.A.T.u.?) But in the year #20GAYTEEN — Kiyoko’s nickname for the wave LGBTQ artists releasing great music this year — the knee-jerk reaction to “Girls” and its presumed fetishization same-sex female sexuality is understandable; the calls to do better and be more thoughtful have never had so many attentive ears.
But the reaction to “Girls” signals that the world may not be as ready for queer artists to be messy or ambiguous as we perhaps thought: There may be a greater understanding the fluidity sexuality, but pop music that explores that is still very much a place binaries: If the “Girls” conversation is any indication, a song is either 100% acceptable or 100% problematic — and that’s a faulty premise, considering there is no right or wrong way to be queer. Labels are useful, sure, but they don’t work for everyone. Sometimes girls just want to kiss girls, that, on its own, should be enough.