I wanted to be here for Rita Ora’s new single ‘Girls’, I really did. After years of being slut-shamed and underestimated, partly because she kind of became queen of side hustles, the hardworking Londoner has managed to re-establish herself as a viable and reliable pop star. Let’s be honest: lots of bigger, cooler artists probably wish they’d had a run of singles like Ora’s four consecutive Top Ten hits ‘Your Song’, ‘Lonely Together’, ‘Anywhere’ and ‘For You’. She’s pulled off a proper comeback, and ‘Girls’ could have been her victory lap. Not only has she secured features from old pal Charli XCX and the surprisingly versatile Bebe Rexha, but she’s also persuaded woman of the moment Cardi B to join the party.
Sadly, the song’s definite bop credentials are undercut by some tone-deaf lyrics. “Sometimes, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls,” Ora and XCX sing on the chorus. “Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls.” Initially, it seems like a cute if slightly inauthentic rhyme – seriously, doesn’t red wine make most people drowsy, not horny? But the more you hear this chorus, the more you realise it implies that kissing girls is something a girl might do after she’s downed a few drinks and fancies being, like, totally random. References in the song to “kush-loving” and getting with “the dude” add to the sense that ‘Girls’ is really about experimentation, not bisexuality.
Now, it goes without saying that the best people to explain why this song feels damaging and hurtful to queer women are queer women themselves – girls who kiss girls whether they’ve been gulping back Malbec or not. “A song like this just fuels the male gaze while marginalizing the idea of women loving women,” wrote Hayley Kiyoko on Twitter. Kehlani said it has “many awkward slurs, quotes, and moments”. MUNA’s Katie Gavin noted that in ‘Girls’ she hears “the familiar chorus that women’s sexuality is something to be looked at instead of authentically felt”. Shura has seemingly summed up her thoughts on the song with a single telling emoji.
Now, in Ora’s defence, she’s said that ‘Girls’ reflects her own sexuality. When she sings, “I ain’t one-sided, I’m open-minded, I’m fifty-fifty and I’m never gonna hide it,” that’s because she’s bi and proud. But she also told People that her song was “really inspired” by Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’, a problematic banger that’s aged about as well as BlackBerry Messenger since it dropped in 2008. “I kissed a girl just to try it,” Perry sings with a wink. “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it.” Perry has since conceded that “If I had to write that song again, I probably would make an edit on it.”
In 2018, we’re not so starved of songs about queer sexuality that we need to accept ones that kind of miss the mark – even if they’re well-intentioned, and even if we like and respect the artists who make them. Kiyoko’s fantastic debut album ‘Expectations’ is packed with authentic references to queer sexuality. So is Janelle Monáe’s dazzling ‘Dirty Computer’. And Troye Sivan just dropped a song that’s blatantly about bottoming. With a little more thought and nuance, ‘Girls’ could probably have sat alongside them. But for now, it’s an uncommonly catchy lesson in how to make sure your lyrics celebrate a marginalised community instead of alienating them.