In the 13 years since Jill Sobule’s "I Kissed a Girl", homosexuality has shed some of its taboo -- but Katy Perry’s song is, at best, a reminder that there’s still a long way to go.
The staggering differences between Katy Perry’s new radio-friendly “I Kissed a Girl” and Jill Sobule’s 1995 song of the same name have been touched upon recently by the likes of Idolator and Entertainment Weekly’s Hollywood Insider. Obviously, they cry out for comparison: both songs document the kissing of a girl by another girl for the first time, but from there, the songs wildly diverge. Sobule’s song, while problematic in its own right -- the girls in the song kiss after commiserating about their men -- was in some ways liberating, which makes Perry’s recent and blatantly homophobic song all the more troubling. While Sobule’s song was one of many mainstream milestones in pop-culture representations of homosexuality in the 1990s, Perry’s song is a giant tumble backwards.
The chorus of Perry’s song, an arena rocker with crunching guitars and dance-floor hysterics, begins with the title hook, “I kissed a girl and I liked it", but ends with Perry reminding us all that her actions “don’t mean I’m in love tonight". Between those sentiments, Perry hopes “her boyfriend won’t mind it", and says the best thing about the kiss is that the other girl’s lips tasted like cherry Chapstick -- which invites the question, Is she kissing another woman or a 10-year-old? Perry’s kiss is transgressive, but pointedly so: It's consciously done for attention and shock.
What she likes about it is precisely the taboo nature of the kiss. She kissed the girl “just to try it", and then points out “it’s not what good girls do". It’s the sort of kiss designed to titillate the onlooking men and cater to a heterosexual male fantasy. By underlining the stereotypically girlish aspects of her kissing partner, Perry only makes kissing girls seem more transgressive, rather than more commonplace. The song goes out of its way to make excuses for the kiss, reminding us that it was done solely out of curiosity, a one-time thing, and doesn’t mean anything.
By contrast, Sobule’s song wants to make the first kiss meaningful. The cheery folk-pop chorus begins with a loaded pause, and the delivery of the line “I kissed a girl” is infused with a very audible feeling of glee. Sobule’s song, like Perry’s, plays off of the novelty of girl-girl kiss, but Sobule seems more surprised herself than calculating the shock value of her deed. The kiss isn't purposefully transgressive. Instead Sobule does something that, in the context of a still far too homophobic society, is perhaps more shocking: She actually enjoys it.
Rather than point out all of the stereotypically female aspects of the girl she kisses, Sobule says only that “her lips were sweet, she was just like kissing me". This is a little strange from a psychological standpoint, but at least Sobule isn’t objectifying her kisser, as Perry does, reducing her to “soft skin, red lips... so touchable", as if she was a plush blow-up doll. When Sobule sings, “We laughed at the world -- they can have their diamonds and we’ll have our pearls,” it feels like an embrace of something different, a metaphor for breaking free from heteronormative boundaries and living a lifestyle unlike the one in Perry’s song, in which only bad girls kiss other girls, and it's only to please boys.
Sobule’s song depicts the dawning of healthy self-awareness. It ends with the recognition that her act “won’t change the world, but I’m so glad I kissed a girl". This straightforward realization is far more empowering than Perry’s proclamations that “It doesn’t matter, you’re my experimental game” and “Ain’t no big deal, it’s innocent", which suggest more how out of touch she is with the true power dynamics of her situation. Perry's denials seem designed to reinforce homosexuality's supposed scariness and otherness.
And then there’s Perry’s other song, “UR So Gay”, which chastises boys for acting “gay” when they are not. “You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys,” sings Perry, “I wish you would just be real with me.” The sentiment at the heart of the song is that the boy in question is not behaving as a real hetero boy should. Or, if we follow the logic of Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl", as a good boy should. “I can’t believe I fell in love with someone who wears more makeup,” sings Perry. Accusing the said boy of being gay because of this plays into homosexual stereotypes. After all, what is so wrong with a hetero male wearing makeup? What that actually does is undermine performative gender norms, something Perry seems completely uncomfortable with. In “I Kissed a Girl", Perry’s kiss makes her more stereotypically feminine -- it’s theatrical girliness performed solely to uphold her status as a girl. It seems in Perry’s world, homosexuality is just another way to reinforce her much more comfortable heterosexuality.
In the 13 years since Sobule’s song, homosexuality has become more acceptable in entertainment media –- homosexual kisses on television, at least, are becoming more and more common -- but Perry’s song is a reminder that there’s still a long way to go. The song is even more dangerous because it seems to be empowering while actually being powerfully oppressive: young girls these days who hear Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” are being sent a much different message than the young girls who heard Sobule’s “I Kissed a Girl". If Perry’s song is what comes through after 13 years of progress, it’s terrifying to think of what the next “I Kissed a Girl” we’ll hear 13 years from now will sound like.