Happy Pride Month to every guy, gal, and nonbinary pal out there! Whether you’re out, closeted, still exploring, or just an ally, this month is a time to celebrate the many facets of sexuality and gender expression. There’s a lot of great music out there made by and/or for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s thanks to artists like Elton John, Lady Gaga, Lil Nas X, and many other great talents that the world has become more accepting of all forms of love over the years. There is still progress to be made, but it’s empowering to see how far acceptance and inclusion has come for the community with each passing decade.
There are a lot of great songs out there that embody the euphoric feeling of Pride month, that feeling that you’re surrounded by people like you, who get you, and accept you exactly as you are. There are also a lot of songs out there that are loved by the community but don’t always get the attention they deserve. This queer classic from the 90s is one of them.
Most people know the Katy Perry hit, “I Kissed a Girl.” It topped all the charts in 2008, and today, it’s so widely recognized, that a lot of people don’t even know that there’s an older “I Kissed a Girl” track by Jill Sobule.
Let me take you back to 1995. Denver-born singer-songwriter Jill Sobule releases a song titled “I Kissed a Girl.” It was co-written by Robin Eaton. In it, Sobule wanted to capture what it’s like to explore and understand your sexuality, and she does this in a 50s setting. The music video follows a soon-to-be-married woman who kisses her female friend/neighbor. After kissing, the pair started seeing each other in secret, including one hilarious moment with one woman hiding under the bed when the other woman’s husband (played by the model Fabio) returns home.
The 50s setting was likely meant to show how far society had come by the 1990s. Back in the 50s, being anything but straight wasn’t easy. It wasn’t safe to be out or consider anything but heteronormativity. Comparing that to the openness of the 90s at the time, it’s a cool dichotomy. This is why visuals of the men they’re supposed to be interested in pop into their heads. Jill Sobule’s character in the music video is supposed to be content with a guy like Fabio, but she can’t seem to stop thinking about her neighbor.
The model Fabio was intentionally chosen as he represented what women were expected to want at the time. In the 90s, Fabio was everywhere. From billboards to commercials to book covers, you didn’t have to look far to see Fabio and his trademark winning blowing in a breeze that seems to follow him. The woman’s rejection of him in the music video represents her rejection of what society expects of her.
There are a lot of great lines in the song that capture the queer experience. She describes kissing her friend as “like kissing me but better.” The lyrics also say, "They can have their diamonds and we'll have our pearls." This is meant to be a reference to the clitoris and has become a commonly referenced phrase within the community.
It’s interesting to look at the moment in time when “I Kissed a Girl” came out. In 1995, coming out was starting to feel a little safer. As we know now in 2023, the 90s still had some ways to go, but at the time, they were the most accepting they had ever been. The fact that this song was seeing success on the mainstream radio stations showed just how much society was changing and becoming more accepting. The song was still very shocking for the time, but it performed really well amidst the shock.
According to the song’s Wikipedia, it reached “number 20 on the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, number 67 on the Billboard Hot 100, and number 36 on the Australian ARIA Singles Chart. In Canada, it debuted and peaked at number 15 on the newly established RPM Alternative 30 chart.” It’s said that part of the success for the time could have been because of the music video’s inclusion of Fabio, but I think the open nature of the 90s also helped.
When asked about her own coming out and identity, Jill Sobule said,
“We didn’t have the alphabet back then, bisexual was a dirty word, you had to pick a side, but I called myself that because I’d had boyfriends, even though I was in love with my two best friends, not at the same time. But in the last 20, years I’ve leaned towards the gals. I knew what a lesbian was at a young age, I was a smart little kid, plus I had my brother’s Playboys, but though I knew there was nothing wrong with it, like a lot of teens, I was afraid of what my friends would think...[and on a year abroad program] I slept with one of the girls in our group, Ivanita, and that’s how it started. When I went back to Denver, I found my crowd and I was pretty much out from there on.” (Source)
In the same interview, Sobule said that she wanted to put out “I Kissed a Girl” because “it was the kind of song I wish I’d heard when I was young. I knew the only way it was going to get on the Billboard charts was to make it like pulp fiction, so I had the scenario of these suburban wives that get it on.”
Sobule vs Perry
When you look at Katy Perry’s and Jill Sobule’s songs, they have little in common. Sobule’s feels like a ballad while Perry’s is a party track. Perry’s is framed as a drunken adventure for shock value while Sobule’s is a sexuality revelation.
While there have been fans angry on Sobule’s behalf for Perry’s song overshadowing the original, the artist herself told Hollywood Insider that she didn't feel "precious" about the song title and has never been angry about the same song title. She once joked that she was angry and cursed Perry out, but people took it seriously, and she had to remind people that it was said in jest. Sobule did however acknowledge that Perry’s story that the song came to her in a dream feels unlikely. She told The Rumpus how she thinks the song really came into being, "In truth, she wrote it with a team of professional writers and was signed by the very same guy that signed me in 1995. I have not mentioned that in interviews as I don't want to sound bitter or petty… cause, that's not me."
It’s so interesting to me to think of the 90s as a progressive time given how far we’ve come (and how far we still have to go). I just think it’s so cool that a song like this came out in the 90s. This must have changed the lives of so many people. It’s trailblazing artists like Jill Sobule that helped create the space for people to explore their own sexualities after hearing her song. And while Katy Perry’s song was a little more exploitative, there are a number of people who explored their sexuality because of it. It’s the act of saying something out loud, showing a wide audience that something that was once tucked into closets is okay to be said out in the open that makes any song describing the queer experience an important one.
Each time we see this representation, the more we normalize all sexualities and gender presentations. We move one step closer to a world where a song about a girl kissing a girl feels as ordinary as one about a boy kissing a girl; where there isn’t controversy, but acceptance. It’s because of the trailblazers of our past that we can celebrate, that we keep evolving. It’s thanks to songs like “I Kissed a Girl” that we have out and proud artists writing about their experiences without fear.
Give “I Kissed a Girl” by Jill Sobule a stream (or a dozen streams) the rest of the month (and always)! And make sure her track falls on your Pride playlists because her song deserves the spotlight as much as the others. Happy Pride, everyone!
Written by Kristen Petronio