It sounded like the perfect idea: four up-and-coming stars of the pop music industry collaborating: Rita Ora, Cardi B, Bebe Rexa and Charli XCX. On a song called “Girls”, with the lead up to the song’s premiere seeming to insinuate that some kind of feminist anthem was incoming.
What the song ended up actually being was a tone deaf and hollow exploitation of our desire to see some famous women join together for a cause – even if that cause was just making a great song.
Much like the addition of Cardi B to this song was surely because of her popularity explosion after her recent album, the current rise in popularity for popular culture relating to feminist themes and LGBT issues is high in demand- this song was created to appeal to both. Case in point – The songwriting credits are overwhelmingly male, along with the production, and the lyrics caused openly LGBT pop stars like Hayley Kiyoko and Kehlani to question the ability of this song to empower as had previously been hinted at. What could have been a hit and an inspiration was instead a controversy.
“Girls” could’ve been this generation’s “Lady Marmalade.” A cover featuring some of the hottest pop stars of the time, Christina Aguliera, P!nk, Mýa and Lil’ Kim, it was a celebration not only of sex worker Lady Marmalade herself, but of the collaborators themselves with a thematic tie-in to Moulin Rouge. “Girls” instead bears striking resemblance to the controversial lyricism in “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry. While being sex-positive it also implies that the women in this song are only interested in having it with girls while they’re intoxicated (“Sometimes I just wanna kiss girls/Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls) or because they’re alone and bored (“All summer we’ve been in the ‘bu//68 Chevy with nothin’ to do”) which reeks of a male-gaze idea of what lesbianism/bisexuality actually is.
But really – in today’s music industry, is it even possible to create an “anthem”? In the past few years we have seen the industry try to blatantly profit off this type of song in different ways. Sometimes it works, sometimes it falls flat thematically but most of the time still ends up being a hit due to incessant over-promotion. “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten, commonly known as the campaign song for Hillary Clinton and seemingly written for that purpose, doesn’t really seem to be fighting anything. “All About that Bass” by Meghan Trainor, presented as a body-positive anthem but sounds more like a body-shaming forced hit marketed to the most vulnerable – young girls with low self-esteem.
There’s a few hit songs that break this mold. “***Flawless” by Beyoncé which includes the all-inclusive body positive “I Woke Up Like This” instant catchphrase of self-confidence and even a lengthy spoken word interlude by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s possible to create an anthem for women on a major label, but the often-unaddressed issue is behind the scenes. Why can’t a women’s anthem not only be sung by women, but written and produced by them too? Unfortunately, “***Flawless” doesn’t fit this standard, with the only female credits on the song belonging to Beyoncé and Adichie. Not to discredit either of their contributions, but it is a bit disheartening to look up a song’s credits and find the gender ratio of the songwriters to be a measly 2:6 female to male.
Change is possible, we just have to be conscious of what we want and who to support. The aforementioned Hayley Kiyoko released an album that bears a more even gender ratio in the songwriting, along with upfront proclamation in her lyricism of her orientation as a lesbian- and the music videos for her singles do the same.
The controversy “Girls” created seems to be a marketing strategy in itself – which leads me to wonder if writing about this song and giving it more attention is even worth doing. But in the end, I think it’s a conversation that needs to be had – to call out people trying to co-opt a movement, even if they don’t understand what they’ve done. It’s about education and supporting the artists who actually are fighting for the acceptance of their identity: as women, LGBT+ people, sex workers- anyone whose identity has been misconstrued for decades. To not support those voices is to dismiss the movement.