For queer kids – and Katy Perry – the only lip balm worth noting from 2008 was cherry flavored. That year, cherry ChapStick symbolized and sensualized bisexuality in a titillating and revolutionary way, as Perry, “so brave, drink in hand,” detailed her fleeting, fruity lip-lock with a girl for a mainstream audience. (She liked it.)
The second single from her Capitol Records debut, One of the Boys, “I Kissed a Girl” was a far cry from the more wholesome fare of Perry’s beginnings as a contemporary Christian singer. Openly bisexual pop singer-songwriter and friend-to-Perry Bonnie McKee, who has co-penned Perry hits such as “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream” and “Roar” (other artists on McKee’s songwriting résumé: Britney Spears, Cher and Adam Lambert), first heard the flirty bop on Perry’s Myspace. McKee was thrown by the song’s bi-curious theme, and says she talked to Perry about its “surprising” content. She tells Billboard the topic is “kind of sensitive.”
“It was on the heels of ‘Ur So Gay,’ and that I thought was a little problematic,” McKee says, referring to the promotional single from One of the Boys, which encourages a metrosexual man who’s “so gay and you don’t even like boys” to “hang yourself with your H&M scarf.”
Perry’s second queer-themed single, “I Kissed a Girl,” followed. “‘I Kissed a Girl’ seemed like a lesbian anthem at first glance,” McKee continues. “I’ve heard it recently and was like, “Oh, man, this really is kind of problematic.”
The song, co-written with Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin and Cathy Dennis, writes off her same-sex kiss as “not what good girls do,” a lyric McKee says is “kind of full of shame.” But, she adds, “knowing that she comes from a really conservative Christian background, it doesn’t surprise me that the angle was, ‘Oh, I’m so rebellious.'”
Seven years after Perry released her eponymous Christian record, 2001’s Katy Hudson (Perry’s birth name), “I Kissed a Girl” had religious-conservatives blushing while bristling the hairs on the backs of a polarized LGBTQ community. Some were ecstatic over Perry’s earworm; others reacted skeptically at what they’d perceived to be a disingenuous, queer-trivializing marketing gimmick. But for a kid raised by evangelical pastor parents known for banishing Lucky Charms cereal from the family’s breakfast table as the term “luck” reminded her mother of Lucifer, a story Perry told Rolling Stone in 2010, drunk-kissing a girl was, for Perry, not exactly in line with her Bible-leaning morals.
“The preacher’s daughter was out in the real world now,” says Cathy Renna, a longtime LGBTQ activist who worked for GLAAD for 14 years, until 2003, “and real life is not as cut and dried as daddy may have told her.”
“I Kissed a Girl” topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart for seven consecutive weeks, significantly raising Perry’s pop-star profile before her next album, 2010’s Teenage Dream, ranked her in the same global hit-making league as Lady Gaga and Kesha (who cameos in the “I Kissed a Girl” music video).
“Funny how just 10 years ago ‘I Kissed a Girl’ was so naughty!” says Elvis Duran, out host of New York radio station Z100. “But, in true Katy fashion, it was a groundbreaking song. Not only was it fun, the lyrics made her new fans curious to know more about her. It was bold. It was confident. It was in your face. Reaction was mixed, but it was refreshing to hear the conversations that followed.”
A wave of heteronormative-defying female pop artists followed, their same-sex desires front and center on mainstream radio: sometimes widening the crack in the door (Christina Aguilera‘s “Not Myself Tonight” and Demi Lovato‘s “Cool for the Summer,” both winky), and more recently, swinging the closet door wide open. But before openly bisexual performer Halsey sang a love song, “Strangers,” with Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui last year – and out singer-songwriter Troye Sivan mined uninhibited gay desire on “My My My!,” and Hayley Kiyoko dropped her new album where she writes and sings about her real-life lesbian experiences – queer kissing in pop music circa 2008 was novelty.
“The reality is that she was in many ways pointing out the fluidity of sexual orientation in a very sugary, pop way,” says Renna. “But you know what, we (didn’t) talk about that at all, and the upside is always when they spark conversation. For young girls to hear something that is affirming and fun and upbeat about who they might be is a positive in my book.”
During an interview in 2012, she didn’t think it “appropriate” to reveal her past gay or straight experiences when asked. Reflecting on “I Kissed a Girl,” Perry explained that bisexuality was “on the tip of everybody’s tongue pop culturally, even on television shows like Gossip Girl. “…It was becoming more of an accepted idea to be bi-curious and to be bisexual. The song just took it over the edge for the public in some ways, but I think that anybody who saw a confusing message in those songs (‘Ur So Gay’ and ‘I Kissed a Girl’) was either looking for a fight or taking it completely out of context.”
In February, Perry noted “a couple of stereotypes in it” – if the song was released today, she told Glamour, “I would probably make an edit” – but ascribed the song’s queer clichés to being written during a less-progressive time for the LGBTQ community.
“So much of it is brilliant,” McKee says. “It’s really just a few little colorful phrases that could’ve been angled just a little differently. I think there was a way to write that song where it didn’t have quite as much shame infused into it, but it got everybody talking about bisexuality, and I think that is very important.”
Renna agrees it blazed a significant trail for queer inclusion: “Even with problemized language here and there, it really did break ground, because at that time we were just starting to see a generation of young people coming out who were less about being put in a box.”
Since the single’s 2008 release, Perry dedicated the video for her 2010 self-empowerment anthem “Firework” to the It Gets Better Project, a global movement against harassment of LGBTQ youth, and has been honored with the Human Rights Campaign’s National Equality Award, in 2017. Last year, she unveiled a more politically engaged – and politically correct – version of herself, heard on “Chained to the Rhythm,” from her latest album, 2017’s Witness. Further, gay Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson sat down with Perry to discuss cultural appropriation.
“She’s absolutely come a million miles and continues to grow, and I think that’s really admirable,” says McKee. “It’s easy for people to stay in the bubble they grew up in, even if they get rich, and she’s chosen to really expand her horizons and become a better person.”
For out artists such as Kiyoko, who told The Guardian in February that pursuing her own pop-music career seemed attainable only after hearing Perry sing about kissing another girl, the song’s most important legacy is the one those very artists are currently living. But, still, “as far as we have advanced in the past 10 years, there are still many miles to go,” Duran says. “The impact we enjoyed from its release back then, we still depend on today.”