From Katy Perry To Rita Ora: A Very Short History of Pop-Music Lesbianism and What It Says About Social Progress

The distance traveled from 2008's "I Kissed a Girl" to today's "Girls" can't be measured in years alone.


What a difference a decade makes when it comes to representing alternative sexuality.

These days, even National Review conservatives who only a few years ago were sending their prayers to Bruce Jenner (they'd never call her Caitlyn without scare quotes) have practically sued for peace when it comes to transgender issues.

Two pop songs with lesbian motifs, one released in 2008 and one released earlier today, measure the immense distance we've traveled as a society when it comes to chilling out love and sex.

In 2008, pop star Katy Perry released the song "I Kissed a Girl," the video for which boasts more than 142 million views, an amazing number. Racy for its day, the singer/protagonist coyly recounts that she "lost her discretion," kissed a girl, and "liked it." But this is not an ode to a love that dare not speak its name or even the beginning of ribald experimentation. And it's definitely not a farewell to heterosexuality. Indeed, Perry mentions in passing a boyfriend, strongly implying only the weakest sort of L.U.G. (lesbian until graduation) experimentation, if that.

From the lyrics:

No I don't even know your name
It doesn't matter
You're my experimental game
Just human nature

It's not what
Good girls do
Not how they should behave
My head gets
So confused
Hard to obey

The video is vintage Perry, filled with voluptuous, lingering shots of scantily clad female bodies, lots of fluttering hand fans, and ironic winks. The naughtiness stops with a single illicit kiss, too. The video is very much about what's called "the male gaze," under which a woman performs for an unseen, heterosexual man who is titillated by the girl-on-girl action but remains figuratively in charge of the situation. Whatever slight transgression might take place, its point is ultimately to re-inscribe conventional sexual mores rather than challenge them.

Firdaus Latif, FMFA 2013. Creative Commons.

Then there's today's new release from British singer Rita Ora, featuring Cardi B (last seen at Reason demanding from Uncle Sam an accounting of where her "fucking tax money" goes), Bebe Rexha, and Charli XCX. On one level, "Girls" is, like a Perry song, basically a conventional, upbeat pop tune, but its treatment of sexuality is radically different. The singer/protagonist talks about enjoying having sex with men, but she's emphatic that she's unabashedly bisexual ("fifty-fifty and never gonna hide it").

Sometimes, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls
Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls
Sometimes, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls
Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls
Girls, girls, girls, girls, girls

Cardi B's raps this verse:

Now I could be your lipstick just for one night (one night)
Girls just wanna have fun and have their funds right (yeah)
I mean, say my name, say my name, say my name (say my name)
It tastes good just rolling off your tongue, right? (hurrr)…
I'm too sexy, I seduce myself (Bardi)…
I steal your bitch, have her down with the scissor
Tonight, I don't want a dog, I want a kitten (Eoooaaawww)
I might French a girl from Great Britain

Full lyrics here.

More interestingly, and despite the explicit lyrics, there are no images of the performers or any women in the video, which is all text. Far from being a visual spectacle that plays to male fantasies, sex in "Girls" is a private matter that happens behind closed doors, or at least offscreen. Effectively, there's no gaze, male or otherwise. There are only individuals doing what they want.

This is what empowerment looks like, and pluralism too. Individuals have more choices to express themselves than ever before and, as important, we are all more at ease with people having more choices. The speed with which society becomes more accepting of consensual activity between (or, for polyamorists, among) consenting adults can be agonizingly slow or be blazingly fast. Gallup started asking Americans about marriages between whites and blacks in 1959, when only 4 percent approved. It took another 35 years before a simple majority approved (the number today is around 90 percent). In 2004, just 31 percent of Americans favored same-sex marriage, but by 2017 more than six out of 10 respondents did.

Like "I Kissed a Girl," "Girls" is a short pop song and we should be careful not to hang too many heavy thoughts on it, lest it collapse altogether. But especially in an era of apocalyptic rhetoric and fears about "the suicide of the West" on the one hand and dire warnings about the resurgence of fascism on the other, it's worth stopping every once in a while to acknowledge that our ability to live our lives as we see fit is moving in the right direction.

HT: Sarah Rose Siskind