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In defence of 'Wish You Were Gay' by Billie Eilish, amid the controversy it's causing

The song was described as ‘a slap in the face’ by those accusing Eilish of ‘queer-baiting’.

Billie Eilish Source: Dan Deslover/Rmv

IF YOU HAVEN’T heard of Billie Eilish, here is every single thing you need to know about her, and if you’re too lazy to click that link – here are the basics: She’s a 17-year-old pop-star whose career has been growing at an incredible pace over the last few months. Her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is set to release on the 29th of March, and it is eagerly anticipated by many fans. 

 The first single released from Billie’s debut album was the dark banger bury a friend, and just this week, it was followed by single number two, which is entitled wish you were gay. Here’s a little sample of the lyrics:

I just wanna make you feel okay / But all you do is look the other way / I can’t tell you how much I wish I didn’t wanna stay / I just kinda wish you were gay 

And here’s a recent live performance of the song from BBC Radio One, if you wanna hear the song itself before we move on. 

Source: BBC Radio 1/YouTube

Great. So what’s the issue here? 

Now that you’ve heard the song, or at least read that short excerpt from the lyrics, you get the gist of what the song is about. 

Without any further context or background, it’s very obvious that this is a song about an unrequited crush. Something that virtually every individual on this planet has experienced at some point. Everyone can relate to the frustration of wanting somebody to fancy you, or not understanding why someone doesn’t like you back.

On first listen, or even just from reading the title of the song, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Billie’s unrequited crush was on another girl, but the 17-year-old uploaded a video explaining how she came up with the song when the single was released.

This is something she also did with bury a friend, so it wasn’t preemptive damage control or anything – she just genuinely likes talking about how she makes music with her brother Finneas. 

In this video, Billie explained that this song isn’t about her having a crush on a girl, as many listeners assumed. Instead, it was about her having a crush on a male friend, and wishing he was gay so that his lack of attraction or interest towards her was explained by his sexuality, rather than any of Billie’s shortcomings. As she pointed out herself

That’s so not meant to be offensive in any way. It literally means I wish he was gay so that he didn’t like me for an actual reason. 
It’s kind of a joke. It’s kind of like, “I’m an ass and you don’t love me.” And you don’t love me, because you don’t love me, and that’s the only reason. I wish you didn’t love me because you didn’t love girls.

Yeah, wishing somebody was gay might not be a heterosexual adult’s first port of call when they’re feeling a bit rejected, but you know yourself what it’s like being a teenager, or a tangled fog of pulsating yearning in the shape of a woman (that’s a Bojack Horseman reference, btw, just before you email me to ask if everything’s okay).

In her explainer, which has been viewed more than a million times on Youtube now, Billie says: 

When someone doesn’t love you, it makes you think… Why? Why? Do I smell weird? Your brain goes to all these different places and asks, what’s wrong with me? [I wanted] to give your lack of interest in me an explanation. 

Source: Billie Eilish/YouTube

This explainer has rubbed some fans up the wrong way. 

 Particularly those who listened to the song, believing that it was about Billie’s crush on a straight female. Pride.com accused the 17-year-old of ‘queer-baiting’ her fans and called it ‘cringey’ and ‘antagonistic’, before adding:

Luring in LGBTQ fans with a title like “wish you were gay” then singing about a boy who doesn’t love you back is more than just unsatisfying, it feels like a slap in the face to a marginalised community starving from the sparse array of queer pop music.

NME reported on the backlash Eilish was receiving, and included a tweet in their article, in which one fan said, “Got excited because I thought that wish you were gay song was about fancying women, but it turns out it’s about wishing the boy that rejected you was gay so he had a ‘valid’ reason. I’m so tired.” 

Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival 2018 - Manchester Source: Daniel DeSlover

Okay, as a lesbian, I’ll admit that on my first listen (which was a few months ago, when the demo version was widely available on Youtube), I, too, kinda rolled my eyes at how silly it was. However, my first instinct was not to call a 16-year-old girl (as that’s what age she was at the time – she just recently turned 17) ‘cringey’. In fact, it’s a bit more cringey for a grown adult to call music made by a kid (who’s still young enough to be in Transition Year) ‘cringey and antagonistic’, but whatever. I wasn’t a huge fan of the song, and I wasn’t overly excited to hear it on her new album when I saw it was included in the tracklisting. 

When it was released as a single, and I heard the new version with a much higher production quality I completely changed my mind about the song – partly because I realised that the lyrics are so ambiguous (there are no gendered pronouns in the song) that I could relate to it, as a lesbian, and I know that so many teenagers will likely feel the same way, because growing up, there were, admittedly, a couple of occasions where I wished people in my life were gay. You’d be hard-pressed to find a LGBTQ person who didn’t feel that way at some stage.

The meaning of the song is really open to interpretation. When I was a teenager – there were very few pop-stars singing about same sex relationships, never mind using pronouns referring to people of their gender in songs. 

This is why I fell in love with Robyn’s music when she released Body Talk in 2010. If you’re not a big fan of Robyn, you definitely still know her biggest hits like Call Your Girlfriend or Dancing On My Own, because they’ve been covered by a load of generic men with acoustic guitars. I know I’m certainly not the only lesbian to love Robyn, and I think part of the reason why she’s so popular with my demographic is because of the ambiguity and vagueness of her lyrics.

In Call Your Girlfriend, is she telling a woman to call her girlfriend to ‘have the talk’ or to ‘give your reasons, and say it’s not her fault’, because you ‘just met somebody new’? What about Dancing On My Own?  When Robyn’s standing in the corner, ‘watching you kiss her’ and coming to the realisation that Robyn’s ‘not the girl you’re taking home’, is she talking about having her heart broken by a man or a woman? We don’t know! Because Robyn never specified! And we love it! In both cases, it even works from the perspective of a gay man who is attracted to a straight man with a girlfriend in both cases.

These are all such small things, but they make a big difference to LGBTQ fans. Sure, we’d love actual LGBTQ pop-stars, and more and more are emerging lately, but when I was a teenager I’d take what I could get. 

Source: RobynVEVO/YouTube

Robyn, as far as her fanbase is aware, is straight. She has never publicly said she is bisexual, but she has spoken out in the past about being mistaken for a lesbian – due to the haircut, and the lyrics that rarely mention men, but regularly mention women via pronouns. And Robyn’s seen as bit of a gay icon for doing that (and for all of the pop bangers, of course).

Nobody ever accused Robyn of queer-baiting. And she’s a grown woman. So why do so many people think it’s okay to attack a teenager for doing something fairly similar? If you’re upset by this largely harmless comment, by a teenager, in a song that you still relate to in a big way, it might be time to take a day off. 

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About the author:

Kelly Earley

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