Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” Isn’t The Gal Pal Anthem Homophobes Seem To Think It Is

If you’re anything like our staff here at Autostraddle, you rushed to listen to Little Big Town‘s “Girl Crush” when you heard about the controversy surrounding the Grammy Award-winning country band’s latest single. And, like us, you probably thought you’d hear a Katy Perry-style cherry chapstick ode to fauxmosexuality at worst and a real life lesbian love ballad at best. The latter is actually what it sounds like when the song kicks off — “I got a girl crush, hate to admit it but/I got a hard rush, it’s slowing down/I got it real bad, want everything she has” — but then the song takes a turn in a different direction. The singer confesses she wants all those things because she loves a man who loves a woman who is those things. “I want to taste her lips, yeah, ’cause they taste like you,” is what Karen Fairchild croons (beautifully, by the way) before hoping to drown herself in a bottle of her girl crush’s perfume.

Go ahead and have a listen.

You could call it “provocative,” I guess, but there has never been a genre of music as awesomely overwrought as country music when it comes to singing about jealousy and longing. It manifests itself in so many amazing ways. Tears! Getting drunk on beers! Getting drunk on whiskey! Beating up cars with bats! Shooting people during thunderstorms! Stomping on people with cowboy boots! Pleading and bleeding, and there’s even this one song by SHeDAISY called “Night to Remember” where the woman is sitting in the car with her cheating husband, a letter he wrote to his mistress tucked away in her coat pocket, and she decides to just go on ahead and drive them right off a cliff.

Conway Twitty, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline: Country music’s history is stacked with musicians who knew how talk about the agony and ecstasy of wanting what you can’t have. And country music fans love it. I love it. I spent my entire closeted youth holed up in my tiny bedroom in rural Georgia singing “Jolene” and switching out the pronouns: “And I can easily understand, how you could easily take my woman, but you don’t know what she means to me, Jolene!”

But “Girl Crush” is a step too far for some country music fans. Earlier this week, The Washington Post published a story called “Why stations are pulling Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush’ — and what that says about country radio.” In it, a country radio morning show host explains that she’s been fielding furious calls from listeners threatening to boycott the station if it plays “Girl Crush” again because they believe the song “promotes the gay agenda.”

Lynn doesn’t play the song in the morning anymore after parents complained they didn’t want their kids hearing it. But it’s not just in Idaho: In recent weeks, multiple radio stations from coast to coast have been inundated with similar complaints about “Girl Crush,” forcing several to take it out of a regular rotation.

It’s not surprising that there’s pushback against “Girl Crush,” even though you have to completely, deliberately misinterpret the lyrics to think it’s a song about being gay.

The country music community has been a bastion of right wing political fervor for decades. And it’s not just big names like The Dixie Chicks getting blacklisted for speaking out against President Bush. Kacey Musgraves‘ “Follow Your Arrow” was shunned by country music radio because of the lyrics: “kiss lots of boys/or kiss lots of girls/if that’s what you’re into.” Chely Wright has basically been cold-shouldered since she came out. “Welcome to New York,” the first song on Taylor Swift‘s 1989 album (which is widely accepted to be her forever leap from the arms of the country music industry) talks about how New York (as opposed to Nashville) is great because “you can want who you want: boys and boys, and girls and girls.”

The conversation surrounding the radio-play backlash, however, is taking a brand new shape. When country radio stopped playing “Follow Your Arrow,” no musicians really spoke out in support of Musgraves, but they did collectively, anonymously vote the single as Song of the Year at the CMA Awards. With “Girl Crush,” musicians and radio personalities are going a step further. On his show this week, Bobby Bones interviewed the band.

“It shouldn’t even matter if it’s a lesbian song, is the first thing,” Bones said. “Is it frustrating to you that here is your song — that is one of the Top 10 sellers for weeks and weeks and weeks — and people on the radio are still afraid to play it because they think it’s a ‘lesbian song?'”

And Kimberly Schlapman replied, “Just the fact that we’re still discussing that, number one, there’s so many problems with that whole issue.”

What’s fascinating to me is that this controversy is a microcosm of the world of conservative politics in the United States right now. There’s a small, vocal minority lashing out at radio stations for playing the song. (A vocal minority, it should be noted, that is very likely familiar with Fox News’ brand of willfully misunderstanding reality.) But the song is selling super well on iTunes. It was the 4th best-selling single last week, which means country music fans at large — and those crossover fans who exist in the middle of the Venn diagram between country and pop — aren’t bothered by the idea of a girl kissing another girl (and/or wearing another girl’s skin and hair around like a suit so she can make out with the girl’s boyfriend). And radio stations are caught in the middle.

They should talk to Mitt Romney about it. Or John McCain. They’d get it. They know all about running to the far right to appease a small-but-loud group of religious zealots and then trying (and failing) to run back toward the middle to connect with the rest of America. Ten years ago, it was easy, but now it’s impossible because a growing majority of Americans refuse to let politicians or religious leaders or pundits use gay people as scapegoats anymore.

Little Big Town understands the temperature of the whole of America. While they’ve repeatedly pointed out to fans that the song isn’t “lesbian,” they’ve been quick to follow that up by saying that even if it was, it shouldn’t matter.

Big name county singers and songwriters have echoed that sentiment.

The world of country music — much like the actual world — is changing, and fast. The see-saw is tipping, and it’s never going back the other way.

I have a relative who is a real homophobe. A hardcore evangelical Christian and Sean Hannity disciple who has been writing about the gay agenda on his blog for years. Every few months, he learns about another gay character or person on TV, and he writes about how he has blocked that channel on his television so his kids can’t watch it anymore. Two week ago, when Jude and Connor kissed on The Fosters, he wrote that he had cancelled his cable service completely.

“Girl Crush” isn’t the country gal pal anthem we’re looking for, but that anthem will be here soon. And the only way the dwindling population of country music-loving homophobes is going to avoid hearing it is to retreat to an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt-style bunker with their families and hole up there for the rest of time.

In the words of the Once and Future Queen of Country Music Ms. Loretta Lynn — who had 14 songs banned from country radio in her day — “You’ve got to continue to grow, or you’re just like last night’s corn bread: stale and dry.”

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle managing editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 802 articles for us.

39 Comments

  1. I’m so glad you wrote about this song. It sort of infuriates me actually. I didn’t think much about it at all because you know I heard it and listened to the lyrics and appreciated it for what it was. Then the radio station kept talking about it! And explaining it wasn’t a gay song. And I thought no sh*t and explaining how the girl just wants this guy. Then Little big town was on days later again talking about it. What bothers me is that the idea of a girl wanting to kiss another girl is so upsetting for parents, conservatives, god knows who else that they have to explain that this girl just wants to be like this other girl because of a guy. So a genuine attraction that would be horrible but a women wanting to be someone she isn’t because some dude prefers her, that message is somehow totally okay for the world. How empowering for women everywhere. I don’t know if I’m making sense. But for 3 days I’ve been driving around in silence because the radio has aggravated me. Am I just being crazy?

  2. I’m really glad that Idaho is leading the way in not understanding the difference between a woman being jealous of another woman and lesbianism. Makes me real proud of my home state.

    But on the hand, I’m always in favor of more articles talking about Loretta Lynn on this website.

  3. I started to get really excited when I first heard this on the radio, until I had listened long enough to realize what the actual message was–and then, even though I didn’t want to like it, I found it irresistible to listen to because the vocals are just so great. I love this song, and am totally one of those people who deliberately misinterprets the lyrics/only sings along to the parts I want to to make the song into what I wish it was instead.

    After Kasey Musgraves won song of the year last year with “Follow Your Arrow” I hoped things were changing w/r/t country music and homophobia, but this looks to be two steps backwards, considering that’s not even the message of the song to begin with in this case. :/

    At the very least, I think the singer/songwriter and radio host reactions (such as those you posted in the article, and those I’ve seen/heard so far) are promising, but I wish the rest of this country would move forward already.

  4. I don’t know that I agree that Country Music is changing that fast. If it were there wouldn’t even be so much controversy over a song that isn’t even about lesbians to begin with. Country musicians as a whole may be evolving a little but they aren’t going to be vocal about it because they know the kind of backlash they will get. And their is still yet to be a major out Country artist that actually sells a lot of albums. Other genres of music are progressing faster tbh. And every time someone shit talks the hip hop world for being misogynistic and homophobic I remind them that they need to also be talking about the Country industry who have been doing that for a helluva lot longer.

  5. this might not be super relevant but i cant help myself omg SHeDAISY. heather, i had 100% completely forgotten about SHeDAISY and then you mentioned them in this article and i really think i was 13 again for like a full three seconds. (also great article. i read it once i recovered from my nostalgia-induced existential episode)

  6. I like to switch the lyrics around to be about a “boy crush”, especially when I think about the Rachel/Finn/Quinn love triangle (or the old Korra/Mako/Asami triangle). It makes it a lot easier to swallow. Just wish I could find a cover like that on YouTube :/

  7. It’s super weird that homophobes are freaking out over a song that is so incredibly heteronormative.

    Also, I’m pretty sure Little Big Town have no idea what a girl crush actually is. Like, even a straight girl’s definition of it. I mean, isn’t it just supposed to be someone you just genuinely think is awesome and beautiful even if you don’t want to sleep with them? Like how I feel about Cillian Murphy, basically.

      • I completely agree that this does seem to be a misunderstanding of the term but, also, I’ve definitely become kinda weirdly obsessed with the people that the people I like like (does that make any kinda grammatical sense? who knows…) and wonder whether it’s meant in that way.

        But I reckon that’s optimistic of me.

    • I’ve never heard anyone who was actually attracted to women use the term “girl crush.” I have only heard it used by straight women to describe someone who they wish they were like or though they looked attractive. Like in the way that I can appreciate that Lenny Kravitz is one of the best looking men alive while still knowing that I would be totally icked out by the idea of actually having sex with him because that’s just not how my brain works.
      It does annoy me that anyone who listens to this song would think that is a lesbian song. This is an intensely straight song.

      • I have heard queer women talk about girl crushes, but only in the context of the childhood crushes they had before they came out. It’s definitely a term meant to suggest an almost or actually jealous admiration of another woman.
        It’s annoying because it feels like an extension of girls with girlfriends are just gals being pals, but boy crush doesn’t sound terribly based in attraction either, so I don’t mind the term too much.

    • That was my thought exactly: They clearly don’t seem to understand what the term “girl crush” means.

      I personally don’t like the song because I find its message disgusting and disturbing. How cute to glamorize an almost stalkerish level of obsession over an ex AND HIS NEW GIRLFRIEND. It tries to make a totally unbalanced point of view sound almost admirable or at least cutesy. In real life, stalking your ex’s new girlfriend and obsessing over her (and thinking about WEARING HER SKIN?!) is unhealthy and criminal, not sweet.

  8. One of the country radio stations in my area posted a story about this on Facebook asking, “What do you think of this song?? Should we play it?”. I busted out laughing at some of the comments. Everyone seemed to be in favor of them playing the song on the radio, so that’s good…? They mostly just said, “The first time I heard this song I hated it but then I listened again and it’s not even gay at all!!!”

    I think my favorite response has to be: “What ever happened our freedom.if you don’t like a song then don’t listen..but don’t choose for EVERY ONE ELSE!!!!”

  9. I love Little Big Town and love this song! But yeah, it is the brunette babe Karen Fairchild that sings… she has a voice like sex, like whoa. The Kelly Clarkson version is hotter, though. Look it up on YouTube. It is bluesy and soulful and sexy.

  10. An acquaintance on Tumblr had a theory that Jolene was actually about the singer’s major crush on Jolene, and how she’s trying to justify her pining by making it about the boyfriend. Might be a similar thing happening with this song 😉

    • I haven’t listened to Jolene in years, but I like that interpretation. I listened to it at a friend’s house when I was like 13 and I had A LOT of feelings about this song, and none of those feelings had anything to do with the boyfriend, who seemed like an after thought.

      • I went to a Dolly Parton concert a couple of years ago and there were a lot of drag queens there, obviously, and she loved them so much. She sang Jolene and changed the lyrics to “Your beauty is beyond compare, with flaming locks of auburn hair, and I cannot compete with you, drag queens!”

  11. I know this is wilfully misreading but I don’t hear any references to male pronouns/a guy in it. In my head, the ‘girl crush’ of the title is a play on a situation where the singer gal has a thing for a girl in a relationship with another girl, and is channelling it through the girl she isn’t into. And I won’t be convinced otherwise, even by concrete evidence.

  12. I love Little Big Town, but yea I did not even think about this song being about actually liking another woman. If you want gay country music, Brandy Clark is gay and she co-wrote Follow Your Arrow.

  13. I grew up listening to country music and my parents HATED it. The 90s-early 2000s were just a good time for really awesome female singers (Shania Twain, Leann Rimes, etc). I also really liked the idea that up and coming artists and big names would do concerts at places like the county fair, so it was completely affordable to go to concerts all summer long.

    I definitely cannot imagine going to a country concert now because there seems to be more to liking country music than just liking the music. I rarely even listen to if on the radio anymore because I can’t stand the DJs and stuff like this.

  14. Ok…I’m going to sound like a jaded Nashvillian, so please bear with my cynicism paired with a bit of optimism and don’t think I’m a total asshole, k? But I gotta say it! I GOTTA!

    The songwriters, LBT, their management/marketing teams, they KNEW this would happen when they released this song. They counted on all this uproar. LBT needed this song, this press, and they totally nailed it by asking the writers to hold this song for them. I’ve read that they (the writers) thought no one else would be interested in cutting it, but I’m pretty sure that’s total bull shit. 🙂

    Lori McKenna, Liz Rose, and Hillary Lindsey are the writers – these are three of the biggest names in the country songwriting world. They’ve written hit upon hit upon hit. They know what to say to strike a chord. ANY artist in this town would hear those three names on a song and jump at the chance to record it. I completely idolize these three, and it’s because they’re fucking geniuses. Side note: do yourself a favor and go listen to Lori McKenna’s version of “Luxury of Knowing” and have yourself a good cry.

    Someone close to me works on LBT’s marketing team, and has said before that they’ve needed something big to catapult them to household name for non-country listeners. Example: for most of us who listen to country, we’ve been listening to Miranda Lambert for awhile – but it hasn’t been until recently that she’s become a true household name. And that’s what LBT needed. They aren’t stupid – they heard this song, knew it would do that for them in so many ways, and were the lucky ones who got to cut it.

    As for the management/marketing teams, they are having a field day with this – any publicity is good publicity.

    ALL THAT CRANKINESS ASIDE (damn you music industry, I’m not usually a cynic!) – I think that besides it being awesome for LBT’s career, I’m going to reiterate what Heather said – country music is changing. This was another chance for them to say, “Hey, we are changing our ways! We are totally LGBT friendly! Even though this song isn’t a lesbian song, it’d be ok if it was! ARE YOU LISTENING?!?! WE LOVE EVERYONE!!!” The haters are those crazy Tea Party lovers who look for shit to be mad about. This is country music’s opportunity to basically flip them the bird. And they are totally flipping them the bird. YAY!

    End rant.

    • I don’t think its LGBT friendly. If there is actually any relationship to LGBT themes that are intentional, I would put it into the category of slight bisexual/lesbian fetishism. Like katy perry’s “I kissed a girl” (which I mentally substitute as “I kissed a girl- no homo”)- she is saying that she kissed a girl, because its sexy and titillating to men, and then quickly assuring us that she isn’t kissing the woman in a gay way. She’s definitely straight; she likes women enough that men find it exciting but not so much that she would rather be with a woman than a man. This is manipulative, and i don’t think that fetishization is the same thing as acceptance or equality. I’m actually hoping that they didn’t mean it to sound like that at all. I’m hoping that they were using “girl crush” to mean admiration.

  15. I guess I live in la-la-gayland sometimes, but I cannot for the life of me see this song as anything other than gay. I thoroughly enjoyed this article, and the points made on it are brilliant and, AND I still think the song is hella gay.

    I grew up in South America, so I’m not sure what it looks like growing up queer in the South of the US, but the second I heard the song I was like “damn, if I had a penny for every time a friend or I used the same excuse to obsess over a girl I’d be oh so rich.” For many of my friends and I, obsessing and spending hours talking about the girl that is with our ex was the excuse to, you know, obsess and spend hours talking about a girl -her hair, the way she talks, how she moves through a room. After all, the new girl was the sole focus of our attention, and not the ex, whoever it was. Do you think there’s any space for that idea in this song?

  16. i can’t believe that this article doesn’t adress the fact that this is a heterosexual love story using lesbian sexuality to express itself, and generating quite a lot of media as a result! the whole “well hey now its actually about heterosexuality!” is so insulting and boring! i’m super sick of straight women and straight people generally having access to lesbian sexuality in this way, and feeling so entitled to use it over and over to titilate and stir – please tell me i’m not the only one who feels like this!!!

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