The Trouble With 'Girls'
Rita Ora’s latest is ill-advised and jarringly tone-deaf
efore being digitally released last Friday, “Girls,” a Rita Ora single featuring Charli XCX, Bebe Rexha, and Cardi B, was widely expected to be the “Lady Marmalade” of 2018. Although the women involved are undoubtedly less culturally omnipresent than Pink, Mýa, Lil’ Kim, and Christina Aguilera were in 2001, there was still enough of a reason to expect greatness.
With the exception of the forever-C-listed Ora, these artists are in
vogue. Rexha’s chintzy collaboration with Florida Georgia Line has proven itself a Hot-100 mainstay. Charli XCX recently redefined herself as a pop aesthete via two excellent mixtape projects. Cardi B’s recent debut, Invasion of Privacy, has become a surprisingly indelible victory lap.
But upon listening to “Girls” for the first time, two things struck me. One was that this slightly downtempo, nostalgia-baiting, ‘80s pastiche was hardly the song of the summer it was anticipated to be; it’s the track you play when the party starts slowing down. Another was that the song was reminiscent of Katy Perry’s obtuse single “I Kissed a Girl,” which has, since its 2008 release, become a go-to example of popular media’s tendency to characterize female same-sex attraction as sexy experimentation that comes with a few too many drinks rather than as a valid sexual identity.
“Girls” isn’t quite as offensive as “I Kissed a Girl.” It doesn’t as unabashedly cater to the straight male gaze as the lurid latter does, and the song doubtlessly was intended to be anthemic rather than edgy. But the song, as pointed out by queer pop stars Hayley Kiyoko and Kehlani, contains harmful lyrics that ignorantly belie the LGBTQIA+ community. (Though it has validly been argued that Kiyoko’s denunciations are slightly one-dimensional in themselves, as there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all understanding of one’s sexuality.)
Regardless of the criticism and the intentions of the artists attached to the single, the song overarchingly does treat bisexuality as something that comes after too much “red wine” and “kush.” It’s something that happens just “sometimes,” as the chorus gratingly repeats. Cardi’s verse is particularly cockeyed: it suggests that bisexuality is usually experienced for “just one night,” with additional lyrics like “I steal your bitch, have her down with the scissor,” and “Tonight, I don’t want a dog, I want a kitten (eoooaaawww),” especially off.
So much else about the song feels imprudent. Out of the nine (!) people who wrote the song (Ora, Cardi, and Charli among them), five are men. Cardi has said transphobic things, defended her fiance Offset’s homophobia, and claimed that old flings with women were “just for fun” in the past. Ora has said that “Girls” itself was inspired by “I Kissed a Girl,” apparently unaware of the misgivings that continue to surround its name. And while Ora and Cardi identify as bisexual, neither seem to understand why the song is so tone-deaf (both have issued apologies). It’s also disappointing that Charli, whose Pop 2 mixtape heavily features LGBTQIA+ artists, didn’t notice the way the song unwittingly trivializes same-sex attraction.
Entertainment media has barely taken a stance itself. Though queer artists like the aforementioned Kiyoko and Kehlani, as well as MUNA’s Katie Gavin and the singer-songwriter Shura, have voiced their uneasiness on Twitter, few publications have published pieces directly addressing the controversy. I’ve mostly seen headlines that flaunt Kiyoko and Kehlani’s alleged “outrage.” While most publications are willing to aggregate click-baity headlines, they aren’t as quick to start conversations about how big of problems queer-baiting and notions of bisexuality-as-experimentation are in the industry (and in society) as a whole.
It’s clear that no one involved with “Girls” meant to cause harm. But it’s important that popular artists understand that you can celebrate underrepresented communities without accidentally undercutting very real identities in the process. Based on the fact that “Girls”’ initially promising chart presence slipped shortly after the single unofficially received the “problematic” honorific on social media, audiences fortunately appear to be getting to a place where they can consume forms of entertainment thoughtfully. But it’s important that the media holds the artists responsible for creating poorly judged media accountable in the process too.
- MAY 18, 2018
This piece also appeared in The Daily.