On May 11, 2018, Rita Ora released her song “Girls,” featuring Cardi B, Charli XCX, and Bebe Rexha. “Girls” is splashy and sexy, filled with descriptions of weed-infused flirtations, and hints at threesomes, topped off by the chorus of Rita and Charli chanting, “Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls.”
This isn’t my first exposure to the genre of gay-for-pay, though it’s a particularly clumsy execution. Rita Ora has said that “Girls” was “inspired” by the very-straight Katy Perry’s early career hit “I Kissed a Girl.” But even if the borderline homophobic “I Kissed a Girl” aged into an embarrassment, it at least had the decency to be a bop. “Girls” makes more sense as a piece of sponsored content for the California Office of Tourism than it does as an honest recounting of queer experiences. It’s a fun song, yeah, but it’s not exactly memorable, let alone validating.
The same day that “Girls” came out, queer pop star Hayley Kiyoko tweeted her cautious disapproval. “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,” she said. But still, she was deeply uncomfortable with what she saw as a commodification and trivialization of queer relationships. “I don’t need to drink wine to kiss girls; I’ve loved women my entire life,” said Kiyoko, adding that she found the song’s message “completely belittles and invalidates the very pure feelings of an entire community.”
Hayley Kiyoko was not the only queer woman with a verified account to feel this way. Shura, Kehlani, and Katie Gavin all tweeted their discomfort. “I remember being a young confused bisexual kissing girls at slumber parties and getting shamed by other girls for seeming like I was enjoying it too much,” said Gavin. “I hear those girls in this song. I hear the familiar choirs that women’s sexuality is something to be looked at instead of authentically felt.”
Though society may have embraced the concept of women sleeping together—at least in a pornographic sense—people are still scandalized by the idea of women loving each other without needing to include men or alcohol in the process.
It became a bit of a back and forth. The reaction prompted Rita Ora to take to the notes app and tweet her thoughts. “I have had romantic relationships with women and men throughout my life,” she said, adding that she saw the song as an expression of her truth.
Cardi B, who featured on the song, also took to Twitter to acknowledge that some people may justifiably feel a way about her verse, but clarified that she too considered it to be a reflection of her experiences. Before Cardi shacked up with Offset (who rapped “I don’t vibe with queers” earlier this year), the rapper has been open about her sexual experiences with women. In 2016, Cardi B talked on The Breakfast Club about her experiences hooking up with girls.
What stuck out to me was how careful she was to clarify that it didn’t go beyond that—she could sleep with girls, but she wouldn’t catch feelings for them. This was the same language I used back in the day, the same language I would always fall back on when I was first wrestling with my own queerness: “maybe I could sleep with them, but I could never love them.”
It made me sad. It’s difficult to watch someone who has such undeniably queer experiences dismiss them as queer. Then, as now, I don’t know if I believe it. For a song that is so bi-curious, none of its artists actually claim that label—or any, for that matter. In an interview with People, when asked directly if she’s bisexual, Ora says, “I don’t think that that even matters.” When asked if she hopes the song will “become a bisexual anthem,” Ora says, “I definitely want it to feel like it’s an anthem to somebody.”
I’ll admit that I instantly related to the song’s sunny descriptions of boozy bi-curiosity, taking me back to when I was a confused 18-year-old getting head in the back of boys’ cars, all the while swearing to everyone that I wasn’t really gay. Maybe “Girls” can be an anthem for that kid, the one who was ready to dance with my friends at Pride but not ready to actually say the words required to come out, least of all to myself. Maybe that kid deserves an anthem.
But this is 2018, and these are grown women who have had the benefit of contemporaries like Hayley Kiyoko, Azealia Banks, and Demi Lovato to show them that being out isn’t such a bad thing. Even if you can’t bring yourself to take on a label like gay, bi, or pan, there are ways of acknowledging one’s queerness beyond sketching the rough outlines of a vague past.
Janelle Monae just came out as pansexual a few weeks ago with two gorgeous music videos and a full-length album, though she’s been the focus of rumours regarding her sexuality since at least 2010. Lady Gaga has been out as bisexual for almost a decade, after hitting us all in the face with the “Poker Face” music video, and shedding the innuendo entirely for Born This Way.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no doubt that Rita Ora is being authentic in expressing her truth. Even if neither she nor Cardi B ascribe to a label, I still wouldn’t hesitate to recognize their experiences as fundamentally queer experiences. So I’ll happily make space for complexity and ambiguity—after all, not everyone needs a label. But the decision to avoid a label is just as much of a choice as is picking one. It says something that people can make money off of singing about queerness, without actually calling it what it is.
Hayley Kiyoko makes an important point. If we’re telling ourselves that loving girls is something to do when feeling drunk and frisky, then it doesn’t exactly celebrate the idea of women loving other women. Though society may have embraced the concept of women sleeping together—at least in a pornographic sense—people are still scandalized by the idea of women loving each other without needing to include men or alcohol in the process. Authentic or not, “Girls” reminds us that we still have a long way to go.