Katy Perry’s popular song, “I Kissed a Girl,” came out (ha) in 2008. It was a favorite of mine and my friend in eighth grade. We belted it as loudly as we could because it was catchy and fun to sing. But more than that, it represented our identity in a way other songs on the radio, songs by men about women, and songs by women about men, didn’t.
But it was not without fault. Even then, we were aware of the homophobic undertones. We changed a few of the more problematic lyrics, and the ones we couldn’t figure out how to change, we sang in exaggerated voices to make it clear that we weren’t serious.
“I Kissed a Girl” is problematic in how it represents wlw (woman-loving-woman) identity. An article on Feministing said it best: “Perry’s lyrics reflect the trivialization of queer female sexuality and the cultural norms which state that female sexuality exists for the pleasure of men.” The lyrics trivialize female sexuality by implying that the speaker doesn’t actually like women, and that she’s just kissing girls for fun. The result is that the song invalidates queer women.
The chorus is a great place to start. It goes, “I kissed a girl and I liked it/ The taste of her cherry chapstick/ I kissed a girl just to try it/ I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it.” The chorus, especially the last line, dismisses female sexuality by implying that the girl Perry is kissing couldn’t be a threat to her boyfriend. For the speaker, kissing women is a thing she does to be crazy at a party, and she would never actually like women or date one. The reality is that girls kissing other girls is not a party trick!
Another problematic lyric was “Ain’t no big deal, it’s innocent” (referring to kissing girls). When she says that this is ‘innocent’ she means that it isn’t a big deal because she isn’t actually lesbian or bisexual, and wouldn’t date another women. It defends her image as a good girl. Perry holds on to the ‘sexiness’ of being a girl kissing other girls but doesn’t take on the label. She actively rejects it.
This invalidates actual bisexual or lesbian women. I re-wrote the lyric to say, “Ain’t no big deal, it’s natural.” The new lyric says, ‘yes, I like women, and that’s fine. It’s fine, not because I’m actually straight, it’s fine because being lgbt+ is normal, ok, and valid!’ The one word shift makes a big difference. It completely changed the verse into a celebration of women who like women and the role that lgbt+ people actually play in the song.
Other lyrics with homophobic undertones include:
“It felt so wrong, it felt so right/ Don’t mean I’m in love tonight”
“No, I don’t even know your name/ It doesn’t matter/ You’re my experimental game”
This song pushes negative stereotypes about queer women, and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Millions of people have heard it. For example, the official music video on Youtube has 214 million views. Her target audience of young women, some of whom are queer, had to hear a message invalidating their identity.
On the other side of things, there are not enough songs about lgbt+ experiences on the radio, and if Katy Perry could edit her lyrics and re-record, it could be a really positive thing! It could also be good for her career, to reboot an old song of hers that was popular.
In my mind, there’s a big difference between an lgbt+ person writing a song with homophobic undertones and a straight and cisgender person writing a song with homophobic undertones. Because of that, it’s important for us to talk about what her sexuality is.
She has never definitively shared her sexuality, but in her 2017 acceptance speech for the Human Rights Campaign’s National Equality Award, she said she “prayed the gay away,” as a kid and referenced a fluid sexuality, so my assumption is that she likes women, is bisexual or pansexual, and is part of the lgbt+ community.
This gives context to the song. A straight girl kissing her friend for fun and then writing a song about it at the expense of actual lesbian and bisexual women is very different from a closeted queer woman writing a song showing a part of her identity that is informed by internalized homophobia and therefore has homophobic undertones.
In this case, Katy Perry was part of the community that was hurt by the fetishization of lesbians and wlw people. What she wrote in “I Kissed a Girl” did harm, but those stereotypes also harmed her, and it’s hard to expect her to know better on the first try.
Her family growing up clearly affected her relationship with her identity as an lgbt+ person. She said, in her 2017 speech mentioned above, “When I was growing up, homosexuality was synonymous with the word ‘abomination’ and ‘hell.’” This greatly affected her understanding of what it means to be part of the lgbt+ community.
My childhood was very different than hers in this aspect; I have the luxury of accepting parents. Me hating her for taking longer to understand lgbt+ issues won’t help anything. I don’t think that she’s a bad person and I don’t think she knew any better when these songs were written. I don’t expect artists to be perfect, and I especially don’t expect an artist to have been perfect 13 years ago. But being able to take ownership of mistakes is super important.
She has not yet done that in the case of her songs, “I Kissed a Girl” and “Ur So Gay.”
“Ur So Gay” is another song Perry wrote around the same time that also uses stereotypes of lgbt+ people in the lyrics. The idea of the song is that she’s talking to her ex-boyfriend and calling him gay (though she specifically acknowledges that he does not like guys).
It opens, “I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf /while jacking off to Mozart.” The opening trivializes suicide. I don’t think it’s acceptable for songs to tell people to kill themselves, and that does not change at all if the person says they’re ‘joking’. But that’s beside the point.
As the song goes on, it continues to stereotype, make fun of, and insult gay men. She sings, “You bitch and moan about LA/ Wishing you were in the rain reading Hemingway/ You don’t eat meat/ And drive electric cars/ you’re so indie rock it’s almost art/ you need SPF 45 just to stay alive.” She later said that this song was a joke, but it very blatantly stereotypes gay men, a community she is not part of. This is not ok.
I was disappointed to see that this song is still alive and well on Youtube and Spotify. Hearing the lyrics of “Ur So Gay” shows that Perry has a consistent problem with how she represented lgbt+ people and issues in her songs. “Ur So Gay” is much more obviously offensive in my opinion, and the pattern makes it feel much more menacing, especially since the stereotypes in “I Kissed a Girl” are arguably more subtle.
The closest she has come to taking responsibility for the problematic lyrics in “I Kissed a Girl” was in a 2018 interview with Glamour. “If I had to write that song again I probably would make an edit on it,” she said. She continued that the song “has a couple of stereotypes in it.”
I was surprised that Perry was so blasé. She has a perfect opportunity to take responsibility for how problematic it was, and instead she glossed over it.
It’s frustrating that she only said she would ‘probably make an edit on it” if she had to write it again when I, a random girl in Oregon, who bears no responsibility for the content of the song, made edits on it just because singing it to myself with the original lyrics felt wrong.
You might be thinking, ‘Why does her one song really matter that much?’ I have two answers. One, her songs are really popular and are heard by many people, and for people who listen to them, they reinforce negative stereotypes about lgbt+ people. And secondly, pressuring an artist to change an offensive lyric communicates to everybody else involved that that behavior is unacceptable.
The way we treat celebrities who do offensive things isn’t important just on an individual basis, it’s also important because it’s a way that we set expectations in our society. If a celebrity in the media is harshly criticized for something offensive they said, other people are hopefully less likely to do it. The behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum; celebrities getting away with harmful things communicates that the behavior is acceptable
In 8th grade, my favorite part of the song was the first part of the bridge. It went, “Us girls, we are so magical/soft skin, red lips, so kissable/ hard to resist, so touchable/ too good to deny it.” Instead of referencing the male gaze like she does in other parts of the song, Perry admires how amazing women are from her perspective, without feeling the need to talk about how bad and hot that is.
If I can re-write parts of Perry’s song, as a very un-musical person, she certainly can. I want to scream this song while driving around downtown as the sun is setting and have it be free of homophobic lyrics. I want to scream it as a celebration of women loving women, which I know it can be.