The song "does more harm than good for the LGBTQ community," singer Hayley Kiyoko said on twitter.
Marilyn Drew Necci | May 15, 2018
We told you last week about the just released Rita Ora single “Girls,” featuring Cardi B, Charli XCX, and Bebe Rexha, which is not only a total dancefloor banger but also celebrates the wondrousness of girl-on-girl makeouts. However, the surface-level awesomeness couldn’t hide some less-than-perfect elements of this queer-baiting party jam, and artists including Hayley Kiyoko and Kehlani have been critical of the track on social media. Now, Rita Ora has issued an apology to the LGBTQ community that attempts to clarify what the song meant in relation to her “personal journey.”
Unlike all of the artists appearing on “Girls,” Hayley Kiyoko is an open lesbian who has worked to normalize the idea of gay relationships in her music. “If you see two girls falling in love and normalizing that, then [people] can go, ‘I can fall in love, too. I can be that person,” she told Steven J. Horowitz of Billboard earlier this year. She’s gotten this message across through songs like “Girls Like Girls” and “Sleepover” — and especially through their accompanying videos.
It hasn’t been easy to do so in the mainstream music world, either, as she explained to Elle‘s Estelle Tang last year. “When I did my last music video for “Sleepover,” I had pitched the concept and someone said, “Is it gonna be another music video about two girls?” And I was like, “Well, yeah, it is, because that’s my life!” There’s only allowed to be one?”
“Why can’t I sing about girls more than once?” she continued. “That’s a great example of me having to drive my point of trying to normalize girl-on-girl relationships, because people just think that’s obscene. Literally, they go, “That’s obscene.” It’s not obscene! It’s my life!”
The pop music industry is apparently uncomfortable with Kiyoko’s straightforward depiction of lesbian romance. However, no-strings-attached girl-on-girl makeouts have become somewhat of a recurring theme in 21st century pop songs. But as The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber points out, “music’s most famous depictions of same-sex female romance typically treat it as a dare, a dalliance, a performance—rather than an expression of real desire.”
Real talk ???? pic.twitter.com/9EbZd5dYZq
— Hayley Kiyoko (@HayleyKiyoko) May 11, 2018
This is the aspect of Rita Ora’s “Girls” that Kiyoko points out in her tactful twitter post from last Friday. “Every so often there come certain songs with messaging that is just downright tone-deaf, which does more harm than good for the LGBTQ community,” she wrote. “A song like this just fuels the male gaze while marginalizing the idea of women loving women.”
Kiyoko went on to point out the fact that all of the girl-on-girl makeouts described in “Girls” are associated with intoxication, as in the song’s chorus: “I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls/Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls.”
“I don’t need to drink wine to kiss girls; I’ve loved women all my life,” she wrote. “This type of message is dangerous because it completely invalidates and belittles the very pure feelings of an entire community. I feel I have a responsibility to protect that whenever possible.”
Singer Kehlani, who identifies as queer, echoed Kiyoko’s concerns with some tweets of her own last Friday. “Hate to be THAT guy but there were many awkward slurs, quotes, and moments that were like “word? Word,” she tweeted, later adding, “And don’t make this personal, I have an incredible song out with one of the artists, and would love to work with the other three as well. & have met them all and respect them. There. were. harmful. lyrics. Period. Love y’all.”
hate to be THAT guy but there were many awkward slurs, quotes, and moments that were like “word? word”
— Kehlani (@Kehlani) May 11, 2018
and don’t make this personal. i have an incredible song out with one of the artists, and would love to work with the other three as well. & have met them all and respect them. there. were. harmful. lyrics. period. love y’all. ????
— Kehlani (@Kehlani) May 11, 2018
Though she wasn’t specific, Kehlani seems to be referring to lines like Cardi B’s “I steal your bitch, have her down with the scissor,” or Charli XCX’s line, “Last night we got with the dude/I saw him, he was looking at you, so I said hey…” The latter certainly implies the same idea of girl-on-girl hookups as a performance for male attention that was present in Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl.”
More instructive, though, is the fact that Kehlani felt the need to offer an extensive disclaimer about how she had no personal problems with any of the singers on the song. Kiyoko also expressed trepidation about speaking out in her tweeted message, saying, “I literally have a knot in my stomach right now. To be clear, I fully support other artists who freely express themselves and applaud male and female artists who are opening up more and more about their sexual identities.”
If anything proves that the pop music mainstream still has quite a ways to go before it has achieved true acceptance of the LGBTQ community, it’s the fact that both of these artists — who, again, are members of the LGBTQ community themselves — still have to worry about facing career repercussions for speaking up.
Eventually, after controversy built around the song over the weekend, Ora took to social media herself, both apologizing and offering some needed clarification about what the song “Girls” means for her personally. “‘Girls’ was written to express my truth and is an accurate account of a very real and honest experience in my life,” she wrote. “I have had romantic relationships with women and men throughout my life and this is my personal journey.”
— Rita Ora (@RitaOra) May 14, 2018
She then pivoted to address the way the more problematic aspects of the song’s lyrics affected the LGBTQ community. “I am sorry how I expressed myself in my song has hurt anyone,” she wrote. “I would never intentionally cause harm to other LGBTQ+ people or anyone. Looking forward, I hope that continuing to express myself through my art will empower my fans to feel as proud of themselves as I’m learning to feel about who I am.”
And after reacting poorly to People magazine’s questions about her sexual identity, she seems to have reconsidered and chosen to embrace a more open understanding of her own status. “I have strived to be a contributor to the LGBTQ+ community throughout my entire career and always will be,” she writes in closing.
As mainstream representations of LGBTQ experiences go, “Girls” isn’t the worst — despite the problematic aspects, we really do kinda dig it — and it’s certainly less damaging than the notorious Katy Perry song that Ora mentioned had been an inspiration in its creation. And it’s nice to finally know, after some dodges in the media last week, that Rita Ora really does mean what she says in the song’s lyrics about her own sexuality. However, as Kiyoko pointed out at the end of her tweeted message, “We can and should do better.”
Top image: Rita Ora/Hayley Kiyoko (photos via facebook)