Feministing Jamz: Cool for the Summer

Me and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” came out the same summer.

I know, fuck me, right?

The non-Perry catalyst of this particular revelation was a graduating high school senior — I was a mere freshman — and we made out one night in my childhood bed after only semi-ironically going to the rolling rink. I was wearing Perry-level pink sparkles. I was wet for weeks.

Like legions of little queer girls who came of age circa 2008, my relationship to “I Kissed a Girl” is complicated.

For those of you who haven’t had the ambivalent pleasure, revisit the video, if you can bear it.

In the video, Perry, who is sleeping next to her totally straight boyfriend, has a super naughty lezzy dream in which a group of lingerie-clad ladies at a slumber party apparently sponsored by Victoria’s Secret™…don’t actually make out with each other. Rather, they preen and have pillow fights. Then Perry, presumably titillated, wakes with a start to realize — phew! — that she is still sleeping next to her totally straight boyfriend. In case we missed the point, lines like “it’s no big deal, it’s innocent” and “you’re my experimental game” remind us that there is totally nothing even remotely gay here.

Which is…ambivalent, right? I mean, as a fifteen year old high off hormones, Perry’s hit was a revelation. Yes! I thought. I am not the only one who has locked lips with a woman and not immediately melted in disgust! Also women having sexy pillow fights at a slumber party!

At the same time, of course, the song’s constant disavowal of its own lesbianism — jk lol, nothing gay here — is wounding. As someone who has been called an experiment by many a straight woman, including the roller-rink vixen herself (pro-tip: this is not nice), the refusal of the song to actually admit to liking girls really fucked with me. It’s okay to dabble, the song said. But don’t be a dyke.

Which brings us to Demi Lovato.

It’s 2015, we’ve won marriage, straight people think queer people are cuter and less worthy of hellfire than ever, and the lez-be-curious summer anthem is back.

This season’s culprit is Demi Lovato’s bouncy pop romp “Cool for the Summer,” which is the bicurious version of mixing cotton candy with ecstasy.

In the song, a crowded pool of sun-slobbered youths catapult into giant watermelons while Lovato mouths lyrics like “take me down into your paradise” and “got a taste for the cherry.” These are obviously all vagina references, since:

1) Vulvas taste like watermelon,

2) Vulvas are paradisal,

3) And…well, I’m a little stuck on the cherry reference. I know it’s about pussy, but what part of the anatomy is referred to in the word “cherry?” The phrase “to pop one’s cherry,” as in, “as a masturbating seventeen-year-old I popped my own goddamn cherry” refers, mysteriously, to hymens. When hymens are a thing of the past, as presumably they must be for most attendees of Lovato’s inexplicably lesbian pool party, to what does “cherry” refer? The clit? The g-spot? Some generalized yonic vibe?

No matter. The point is, when my queer soulmate/roommate/bisexual partner in crime brought my attention to this song (I believe “DEMI’S A LESBIAN” was the text in question), it was trepidation all around.

Oh no! We felt. Another gay-for-boys party anthem whose supposed acceptance of us makes us feel sad!

When I finally got the courage to listen to the song, the answer was — well, yes and no.

On one hand, the song replays some of the old “I Kissed a Girl” tropes — temptation, the temporary fling, the need for secrecy (“Shhh…don’t tell your mother,” because that’s not a bizarrely infantilizing line at all), the experiment (“just something that we wanna try”).

On the other hand, it’s sexy. There are watermelons. There’s ribald desire, which some critics feel differentiates the song substantially from “I Kissed a Girl.” The video is not couched as a dream.

So what’s the deal?

Necessary disclaimer: Demi Lovato, who hasn’t said much one way or another about her own sexuality, can and should sing about whatever she damn well pleases, can date whoever she wants, can fuck whoever she wants, and can identify sexually however she wants without any of it being our goddamn business.

But here’s my real concern: I think sometimes our trepidation about representations of this kind — our need to see ourselves in culture, and our sense of betrayal when representations that promise recognition are alienating in some way — causes us to ask the wrong questions entirely.

Asking “is this representation feminist” or “is this representation queerphobic” is simplistic. Yes, and no, and I don’t give a fuck. I don’t care whether we can play Born This Way Bingo with every music video that proposes to be a “gay anthem.” What I care about is what queer people do with music. How queer people experience it. How we are hurt by it. How we use it for pleasure. How we use it to navigate pain.

So here’s what I think. I think “Cool for the Summer” plays on the sexiness of first lesbian feelings, whether youth or experimentation (shudder at the word). That moment I was fifteen in a sequined minidress on a bed with a girl’s hair tickling my collarbones. The slow blossom, sweeping like a fever over the flesh (“a match burning in a clover/an inner meaning almost expressed”). Equal parts panic and perfume.

I don’t think that’s a bad representation, I don’t think that’s enough representation, and I don’t think it has to be enough.

Because what I really crave is so many songs about lesbianism that the pressure is off individual artists or individual queer role models or individual songs. I want songs about grownup queer love and sort-of grownup queer love and I want songs about breaking up with your girlfriend and cheating on your boyfriend with a girl and dating three people at once and gay marriage and gay divorce and transitioning and eating people out when they’re on their periods and shopping for strap-ons.

And I want to write these songs.

No, I’m not coming out as a pop princess (though now that you mention it…). What I mean is, criticism is an important mode to operate in, and as feminists it is the foundation of what we do. We know the world is fucked up, and we wield that knowledge like a hammer and a scalpel and a laser gun and an x-ray all in one, as a tool to steel ourselves, as a weapon to vindicate our exclusion, as a mobilized ache.

But in all of this critique, in all of our impulse toward critique, we can’t forget that feminism is also a productive endeavor. It is about critique in the service of making things, building things. Feminists are artists. Queer people have long been good — very, very good, because we’ve had to be good, because we’ve had to survive — at reshuffling the material of worlds that are inhospitable to us, worlds where we are unauthored, and authoring ourselves.

We perform ourselves to songs that cannot imagine us. We create ourselves from grounds hostile to us. We play.

And there are lots of artists out there who are playing exactly in this way, writing exactly these songs. I don’t want to spend my time feeling guilty or sheepish for enjoying things that exclude me — most cultural objects do. I also don’t want to spend all my time critiquing these cultural objects when I could be making my own, or supporting the rad queer artists out there doing just that.

When we stop thinking of feminist culturemaking as a search for ideological perfection, and instead think of it as a daily navigation of solidarity, complexity, and pleasure, we free ourselves to be our contradictory, creative selves.

The other day my lover came out to the place I grew up — the site of that Katy Perry summer, of the roller rink sequins and the ambivalence — and she and I drove around giddy with each other, blasting music, kissing at all the red lights.

The music was about us, our breasts and our asses, how wet we get and whether or not our personal grooming habits are acceptable, about our rivalries and feuds, about how we kiss girls and like it but not too much.

The music was about us but was not meant for us. Not for our personal economy of pleasure, not for the ways we mug at each other in bathroom mirrors or walk like on runways over city blocks, and not for the makeup we put on for each other and not for how we dance when we are alone and drunk.

But we drove, like queer people do and like queer people have long done, in pleasure, a pleasure of self-creation colored always with layers of pain, singing and riffing and editing and rewriting, transforming the pieces with our own irrepressible selves.

If “Cool for the Summer” had come on, I bet we would have turned the volume up. The song may or may not be for us, but it is ours.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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