In case you haven’t heard, it’s no fun being Rita Ora at the moment.
For the past few days the singer has been at the centre of a heated debate about sexuality and queer representation within pop music thanks to the release of her latest single “Girls”, alongside artists Charli XCX, Bebe Rexha and Cardi B. The song, your usual anthemic pop banger, has been accused of trivialising queer women’s experiences and pandering to the male gaze. With lyrics like “Sometimes, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls/Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls”, it’s clear to see why.
American singer Hayley Kiyoko, who identifies as a lesbian, led the charge when she expressed her disappointment in the song in a statement posted on her Twitter account last weekend. Kiyoko said: “This type of message is dangerous because it completely belittles and invalidates the very pure feelings of an entire community.” Criticism soon followed from singer Kehlani, musician Shura and Katie Gavin, one third of the band MUNA, who all accused the song of being tone deaf and delivering a dangerous message.
Their sentiment is understandable, especially given the history of pop stars using the term bisexual as a cloak put on to court attention and secure record sales. Lest we forget singing duo t.A.T.u. and their kissing in the rain antics which nabbed them a number one single or singer Jessie J who deemed her bisexuality as simply a phase.
In a bid to remedy some of the flack she’s received (note that none of her other female collaborators have been pulled up on this song and its message), the singer took to her Twitter account to out herself. In a short statement she admitted to having romantic relationships with both men and women in the past and that the song was never intended to offend the LGBTQ+ community.
But looking at the wider picture here, Rita Ora shouldn’t really have had to resort to proving her sexuality to justify the song. Perhaps this is because I’m a fan, but Rita has always presented herself as sexually fluid. She’s even spoken candidly about her rumoured relationship with model Cara Delavigne in the past, which should at least appease some of the naysayers who accuse the singer of being a straight woman fetishising queerness for her own personal gain.
Furthermore, it’s also very telling that Harry Styles, who sparked rumours about his own bisexuality when he released his song “Medicine” with the lyrics “Here to take my medicine, take my medicine/Treat you like a gentleman”, wasn’t given the same lynch mob treatment as Rita and was allowed to glide through the moment unscathed. If anything, he was hailed as a queer hero with all sections of the media writing think pieces and articles praising the singer for his bravery. What exactly is the difference between the two singers besides the glaringly obvious?
Granted, Rita has never made any grand, deep and thoughtful statements about how she identifies à la Janelle Monae, the singer-songwriter said she was pansexual in her recent interview with Rolling Stone. But with the same token, why are we as queer people questioning and policing how someone presents their sexuality? It goes against the very idea of inclusivity for all to suggest you can only be a part of our community if you look and act a certain way. And if you don’t and still claim your queerness, then you have to prove it.
What this fall out has done is raise an important and often neglected issue that bisexual people, famous or not, are still treated with an air of suspicion from people within our own community. It’s a long-standing problem that sadly seems far from being resolved or even properly addressed head on. But that’s another story for another day.
In her statement, Rita says after all this she looks forward to learning how best to express herself and empower her fans. But really, she’s been doing a good job expressing herself for a while now and it’s us who need to do better.
Yusuf Tamanna is a freelance journalist and pop music connoisseur
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