her lipstick stain is a work of art: songs secretly about my queer heart

It is a different kind of thing, being a girl in love with a girl. I have been very in love with girls and I have been very in love with boys and it is different. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that but it is. I used to make a lot of tragic mixtapes for the girls I was in love with and now I make them a lot of tragic Spotify playlists instead because it’s 2k15 and that is how I roll now. Sometimes you find songs that are perfect in the strangest places and it evokes in me a constant sense of wonder, a constant sense of strange, loving bemusement, the way that songs by men about loving women can speak directly to my over-emotional gay little heart.

People talk a lot about the “do her or be her” dilemma, that thing where you’re incapable of separating attraction from admiration, being into girls from being into the way girls perform their girlhood. It is a very true and very real paradigm and I am fascinated by it. The first time I heard 5 Seconds of Summer’s “She Looks So Perfect” I thought, instantaneously, THIS IS MY LESBIAN ANTHEM. And I mean, “She Looks So Perfect” is, like, perfect. Right? We all love this song. “She Looks So Perfect” is  a beautiful pop-punk anthem reincarnation that miraculously, somehow, entered the world in the year of our lord 2014. “She Looks So Perfect” is a lyrical masterpiece: your lipstick stain is a work of art / I got your name tattooed in an arrow heart […] made a mixtape straight out of ’94 / got your ripped skinny jeans lying on the floor. 

I am obsessed with this line about the lipstick, I think about it to a probably unnecessary extent. When I notice girls I usually notice their clothes first, their lipstick: the deeply intertwined acts of noticing a girl and noticing how she is engaging with being a girl. You do that with a guy and there isn’t usually the same mutuality in it. “She has such a good aesthetic” is a statement of admiration but also a statement of fascination: how does she do it? What does she think about? Can we talk about it? “She Looks So Perfect” has “your lipstick stain is a work of art” and what it means from 5 Seconds of Summer is a kind of boy-awe at the wearing of lipstick but in my head it turns into something different. Your lipstick stain is a work of art, kiss me with your stupid lipstick smile, let me put that lipstick on tomorrow.

There are a lot of good girl covers of this song but so many of them do elaborate contortions with the pronouns, changing the perspective entirely, framing themselves as the girl with the lipstick stain like a work of art. There is something magical in that, too, in taking a song called “She Looks So Perfect” and making it explicitly about the self, taking ownership. Still, there is this version, by the stunning Lauren Bonnell, who has a beautiful throaty hiccup-voice and who sings your lipstick stain is a work of art / I got your name  tattooed in an arrow heart very beautifully.

What “She Looks So Perfect” does well is not just girlhood but a weird, giddy devotion: you look so perfect standing there in my American Apparel underwear, which is also a line that is very different when sung by a girl, in a way that I can’t articulate except to gesture towards the lending of clothes and the mutuality of the space of girlness and the absolute unimportance of American Apparel in brief moment of hyper-mutuality that gives way to adoration.

I look for this devotion everywhere, am a little bit fiendish about it.  I have listened to Tal Bachman’s “She’s So High” so many times and that is an awful song about a strange kind of  adulation and the beginning of it is really gross (“no tucks or silicone”? Really, Tal?) but if I selfishly decide that this song is actually from my perspective I am capable of ignoring that. She’s so high above me / like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, or Aphrodite. Same. Same. There are beautiful covers of this, too. When I was younger, especially, I also really loved Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” in a way that seemed right and whole and true. It’s not that good a song but it does know a little bit about devotion: She acts like summer and walks like rain. Just, that: she acts like summer. I do not like this band but I love that. It’s absurd and it means nothing and the girls I have been in love with are made of summer in the way that no boy can ever ever ever be to me. This song is new-age nonsense but in some ways it is perfect. When I was in junior high my best friend had chocolate colored hair that she liked to dip-dye purple with Kool-aid packets and so she smelled like Kool-aid all the time, this thick layer of juicyfruit sugar on her skin. We were dumb sweaty teenagers and she was my best friend and I wanted to kiss her very much, thought of her in terms this immense, this ridiculous:  Since her return from her stay on the moon / she listens like spring and she talks like June. I wrote her poetry! She wrote me poetry too, and I think about it sometimes, the awful childish ridiculousness of it. A real excerpt: If you were bread, I’d be honey. If I were smoke, you’d be the rain to put me out. We haven’t really spoken in more than a year but I think about her sometimes, this keeper of my summer heart.

I am not suggesting that queer girls have a monopoly on metaphor, but I recognize this particular devotion and I am claiming it as mine. It belongs to me now. I don’t ever care about songs sung by men about women but I decided long ago that this was mine. Taylor Swift covered “Drops of Jupiter” in concert and she changed the pronouns from “she” to “he” and it is a crying shame. Despite the pronoun change, though, we have this video:

All of that light catching on Taylor Swift’s eyelashes back when her hair was still long. This era of Taylor Swift is not the Life Aesthetic but it is the Romance Aesthetic, maybe – the light catching on her eyelashes, the red of her mouth, the gold of her hair, the deep fervent devotion I feel when I look at her face. That helps. This is maybe not a girl singing “she acts like summer and walks like rain” but it is a girl singing about five hour phone conversations all the same, her eyes very very soft. In my head I am synthesizing this and the Train version, I am making a perfect version of it where it is sung by a girl about a girl and it is finally correct. There is something about finding a truth about yourself in unexpected places, y’know? Spaces that are not for you and not about you but you stretch the tips of your fingers into them anyway. It is a silly thing to feel so many things about  a song by Train, but I do.

Anyway what I am saying is this: I used to listen to “Riptide”, that Vance Joy song, the single Vance Joy song I’ve ever heard: I was scared of dentists and the dark. I was scared of  pretty girls and starting conversations. This is a line which makes me fall apart. I was scared of pretty girls and starting conversations. I used to listen to this song but now I just listen to the Taylor Swift cover which has seven million views on Youtube and keeps that line entirely intact, right at the beginning of the song: I was scared of pretty girls and starting conversations. Lady, running down to the riptide, taken away to the dark side, I wanna be your left hand man. The first time I heard Taylor Swift sing this I started to cry and even  listening to it now to write about it is almost too much, the truth of it. I swear she’s destined for the screen, closest thing to Michelle Pfeiffer that you’ve ever seen. Sometimes you have to find truths for yourself in places where they don’t belong and sometimes they are given to you, like lipstick stains: accidentally and incidentally perfect.

About Sophia

Sophia was raised (but not born) in small-town Missouri and now she lives in Chicago. She is interested in: lipstick, geographical narratives in Midwestern pop-punk, the close relationship between intimacy and mythical scale in contemporary pop, and cats.

Leave a Reply