I remember when I was sixteen years old, I heard “I Kissed a Girl” on the radio for the first time. As I danced around my room, I felt confused. Katy Perry sings, “I kissed a girl and I liked it, I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it.” Katy’s voice was a little raspy, a little deep. It could potentially pass as a male’s voice. I tried to piece together this love triangle between the singer, the boyfriend, and the girl who had been kissed. I instinctively tried to neatly fit the song into a heteronormative storyline. I eventually gave up and thought, maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’ve heard the lyrics wrong. Maybe it’s like that time I thought generic viagra cheap Wyclef was singing, “she make a man wanna see spandex” to Shakira, when he was actually singing, “she make a man wanna speak Spanish.”
Looking back now, well – what in the actual fuck? The fact that I had a very liberal family, that I was quite open-minded, that I hated when people said, “that’s so gay,” that I had gone to the Toronto pride parade since I was a little girl – none of this meant anything in that moment of truth when the song came on. I did not resist, nor was I even aware of, the sheer oppressiveness of heteronormative culture that still permeates pop music.
I can now recognize this grossly problematic oversight on my part, but I am no less confused about “I Kissed a Girl.”
On the one hand, it does offer something alternative to the love stories of mainstream music. Most of the he’s sing about the she’s and most of the she’s sing about the he’s. And even when people do covers of different songs, they’ll be thoroughly committed to every last note of the original song – except for those pesky pronouns. They’ll adjust them so that the he’s and the she’s still “match up.”
But the song describes an extremely sexualized encounter. It is sensual and erotic and focused entirely on her lips and her soft skin and her cherry chap stick. There is no depth, she even admits that she doesn’t know her name and it doesn’t even matter. She describes their kiss as wrong and naughty and dirty. Was this just Katy’s attempt to tantalize a male fantasy? Does this then just perpetuate the eroticization or exoticisation of queer relationships? Was it just an attention stunt on Katy’s part?
And yet – can we ignore or discount the broad and blurred spectrum of human sexuality? Maybe Katy simply does prefer a long-term relationship with her boyfriend, and just likes feeling up other girls. Should we deny her the right to feel this way and express this perspective? Is it helpful in a broader cultural context that eliminates, and subjugates queer identities? Or does the song just propagate stereotypes? And does it make any difference that the song is fun and catchy and I still like dancing around to it in my room?
And if we move away from the content of the lyrics – what about the singer? A white, presumably “straight,” Katy Perry playfully singing about a lesbian experience – is that okay?
And to that end – what position do I have in this discourse, as someone who has never kissed a girl – do I have any position at all?
This idea of who can speak for whom only gets more complicated as we move forwards a few years in the pop music timeline and think about Macklemore. I firmly believe that “Same Love” is a beautiful song and I find it more moving every time I listen to it, but it still begs the question: what does it mean to have three white people (Amy lambert, Macklemore, and Ryan Lewis) – two of whom are straight – be the voice and the rallying point of gay rights in hip-hop? Is it unfair that white people get mainstream recognition for talking about homophobia in hip-hop, when queer hip-hop artists of colour are routinely ignored? And all that being said, is it still nonetheless helpful that these ideas are actually present in the billboard charts?
Maybe all these things can be true at the same time. Maybe we can answer ‘yes’ to all these questions even when the answers directly contradict each other. Either way, I’m still waiting for a pop song that somehow manages to address all these issues.