In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Katy Perry was not the first woman to record a hit song called “I Kissed A Girl.” In 1995, Jill Sobule, a singer-songwriter from Denver, came out with a shy and vulnerable story-song with that same title. Sobule’s “I Kissed A Girl” is all about personal discovery, about finding something in life that might actually make you happy. That song’s kiss is a private moment, and the memory seems to make Sobule’s voice glow. Jill Sobule’s “I Kissed A Girl” started out on alt-rock radio and eventually crossed over to the Hot 100, where it peaked at #67. Jill Sobule has kept working ever since, but she’s never been back on the Hot 100.
Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” is a very different song. Where Sobule’s track is a warm fuzz-pop chug, Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” is a blaring clarion-call, a thing that refuses to fade into the background. Katy Perry doesn’t sing about kissing a girl as a moment of internal revelation. Instead, it’s sheer theater. Jill Sobule and Katy Perry both seem happy about having kissed a girl, but Perry sings about it with exhibitionist thirst. There’s a whole lot of faux-naivety on the line “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it.” Katy Perry’s narrator knows that her boyfriend won’t mind it. She knows he’s into it. That’s part of the game.
When Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” was new, the song annoyed the fuck out of me. As someone who’d been charmed by Jill Sobule’s “I Kissed A Girl” as a teenager, the Katy Perry song seemed crass and pandering and obnoxious — a forced attempt at titillation that treated same-sex attraction like it was a party trick. I wasn’t the only one, either. I don’t remember any music critics admitting to liking Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl.” Idolator called it the worst song of 2008. Fifteen years later, though, the outrage has faded, and so have the Jill Sobule memories. Now, Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” sounds like a platinum-plated steamroller, an unstoppable engine of glam-pop dominance. It also sounds like effective marketing.
It’s not easy for an unknown pop singer to cut through the noise and capture the public imagination. Katy Perry knew that better than most. By the time she broke through, Perry was a 23-year-old veteran with multiple false starts and failed record deals on her resume. With “I Kissed A Girl,” Katy Perry made her mark. Pretty soon, she’d become one of the signature pop stars of the next decade or so. I didn’t like “I Kissed A Girl” because the song made me feel like Perry was grabbing me by the collar and screaming in my face, demanding my attention. With that song, though, Perry really did grab people attention, and then she didn’t let go.
Katy Perry is a California girl; it’s undeniable. Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson, the daughter of two Pentecostal preachers, was born in Santa Barbara. (When Katy was born, Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You” was the #1 song in America.) The future Katy Perry’s family had show-business connections; Katy’s uncle Frank Perry was the Oscar-nominated director of The Swimmer and Diary Of A Mad Housewife and Mommie Dearest. Katy’s parents were ex-hippies, but they’d become full-blown Evangelicals by the time she was born. Katy learned to sing in church, and the only Hollywood movie allowed in her house was Sister Act 2. Katy didn’t get to listen to any secular music.
Katy Hudson’s family moved around a lot when she was a kid, and she later said that her parents sent her to “pray the gay away at Jesus camp.” Katy had a eureka moment when a friend played her Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” and I can hear some of Alanis in Katy’s cutting, vaguely harsh howl. But Katy wasn’t a rebellious kid, and when she first started making music, that music was Christian pop.
Katy Hudson got her GED at 15, and she left high school to start her career in music. That career would take time. A couple of Christian rock musicians heard Katy’s singing, and they invited her out to Nashville to cut demos. Those demos got Katy singed to the Christian label Red Hill Music, and her debut album Katy Hudson came out in 2001. That album was full of love songs, but they were love songs to Jesus. Katy toured churches, and the album sold all of 200 copies. The Christian-pop thing just wasn’t working out, so Katy tried something else. She moved to Los Angeles at 17, and she started using the name Katy Perry. There was already a Kate Hudson in LA, and Perry is her mother’s maiden name.
In LA, the newly rechristened Katy Perry basically demanded to work with the songwriter and producer Glen Ballard. Ballard has been in this column a couple of times for his work on Michael Jackson and Wilson Phillips songs, but that’s not why Perry wanted to work with him. She knew him as the guy who made Jagged Little Pill with Alanis, and she wanted to work with that guy. She got what she wanted. Katy’s music-business contacts got her a meeting with Ballard. Ballard heard potential in Perry, and he signed her to Java Records, his imprint at Def Jam. It didn’t last.
While Katy Perry was working on her debut album for Java, Def Jam severed ties with the label, which left Katy without a deal. Katy signed a new deal with Columbia and got back to work on her debut, which was supposed to be called Fingerprints. For that record, Katy worked with big-deal producers and songwriters: Butch Walker, Desmond Child, Max Martin, Dr. Luke. Around that time, the Matrix, the songwriting team who’d worked with Avril Lavigne on a bunch of her early hits, decided that they wanted to become a band, and they recruited Katy to become one of their two singers. Katy recorded an album and made a video with the Matrix, but that album didn’t come out until after she was famous.
Katy Perry’s solo album didn’t come out, either. She was almost done recording Fingerprints when Columbia dropped her. Artists like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, both of whom will eventually appear in this column, recorded their own versions of the songs that were supposed to appear on Katy’s record. Kelly Clarkson, a former Number Ones artist who will soon reappear in this column, got to #20 with “I Do Not Hook Up,” one of the songs that had been slated for Fingerprints. Katy got a co-writing credit on that one.
After she lost her Columbia deal, Katy Perry got a job listening to other people’s demos at an A&R company. She bounced around the business, taking whatever work she could. She sang backup on records from Mick Jagger and the Christian nü-metal band P.O.D. She had a song on the Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants soundtrack. The first time that I ever saw Katy Perry was in 2006, when she was one of the love interests in a video from Gym Class Heroes, the weird Fall Out Boy-affiliated rap/pop-punk hybrid group. At the time, Katy was dating Gym Class Heroes leader Travie McCoy, and she’s in the clip for “Cupid’s Chokehold,” the group’s collaboration with FOB’s Patrick Stump. (“Cupid’s Chokehold” peaked at #4. It’s a 3.)
After all her previous attempts at pop stardom went nowhere, Katy Perry finally landed another label deal at Capitol. A former Columbia PR rep tipped Capitol off about Perry, and Capitol made a deal for the masters of the unreleased songs that Perry had already recorded for Columbia. The label also put her to work with the team of Max Martin and Dr. Luke, who’d already worked with Perry on unreleased Fingerprints tracks and who were about to become her most important collaborators.
This column has already looked at the backstories of Max Martin, the Swedish pop master behind Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” and *NSYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and at Dr. Luke, who produced and co-wrote Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend.” Martin came to New York once the teen-pop boom died down, and he started working with Luke, who was then a guitarist in the Saturday Night Live studio band. Together, they reinvented Martin’s mathematically perfect Swedish pop into something vaguely more rock-oriented, and they wrote and produced Kelly Clarkson’s epoch-defining 2004 hit “Since U Been Gone.” (“Since U Been Gone” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)
Max Martin and Dr. Luke also worked together on hits from Pink, the Veronicas, and Daughtry. They co-wrote two of the songs that eventually appeared on Katy Perry’s 2008 album One Of The Boys, and both of those songs became hits. Before releasing either of those tracks, though, Capitol built up Katy Perry’s name with a buzz single called “Ur So Gay.” Perry co-wrote that song with producer Greg Wells. On “Ur So Gay,” Perry mocks a guy for seeming gay even though he’s not: “You’re so gay, and you don’t even like boys.” “Ur So Gay” was never a good song, and it’s aged horribly, but it did get Katy Perry some attention. At that stage of her career, getting attention was the whole point.
You can see that same strategy at work on “I Kissed A Girl,” the song that would finally introduce Katy Perry to the world. Katy has said that she had the original idea for “I Kissed A Girl.” She told the BBC, “The chorus actually popped into my head when I woke up. It was one of those moments where you hear artists talking about songs they get in dreams or in the middle of the night.”
Later on, Jill Sobule, who was dealing with the fact that a new song called “I Kissed A Girl” had eclipsed her own, took issue with Perry’s whole “Girls Gone Wild thing” and with her story about writing the song. In a 2009 interview with the Rumpus, Sobule said, “In truth, she wrote it with a team of professional writers and was signed by the very same guy that signed me in 1995.” She also called Perry a “fucking little slut.” She was probably joking, but it’s hard to convey sarcasm in a print interview.
In any case, Katy Perry and Jill Sobule can both be right about “I Kissed A Girl.” Someone had to have the original idea for that song, and maybe it really was Katy Perry, waking up from a dream. But Perry also had access to a team of professional writers, and she shared “I Kissed A Girl” writing credits with Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Cathy Dennis, the onetime British dance-pop star. Cathy Dennis scored a string of hits on both sides of the Atlantic in the early ’90s, and she made it to #2 on the Hot 100 with 1991’s “Touch Me (All Night Long).” (It’s a 7.) Later on, Dennis transitioned into writing songs for other artists, and she’s got credits on bangers like Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” (“Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” peaked at #7. It’s a 10. “Toxic” peaked at #9. It’s a 9.) Cathy Dennis has had a really cool career.
You don’t really need me to explain the lyrics of “I Kissed A Girl,” do you? You probably have the broad outline embedded deep in your memory: Katy Perry kissed a girl and she liked it, the taste of her cherry chapstick, etc. Perry has said that she wrote the song — or, sure, co-wrote the song — based on an experience that she had with a friend when she first moved to LA at 17. But Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” doesn’t sound like a personal story, the way the Jill Sobule song of the same title does. Instead, the song is pure knowing provocation, which doesn’t mean that it’s not a personal story.
When Katy Perry sings about kissing a girl, she makes it clear that she knows she’s breaking some kind of taboo: “It’s not what good girls do, not how they should behave.” That taboo is clearly part of the appeal: “It felt so wrong, it felt so right.” That line about the boyfriend suggests that she’s kissing a girl to get a rise out of someone else, but that’s pure extrapolation. There’s not really enough story in the lyrics for anyone to know why Katy liked kissing a girl. The main thing that stands out isn’t the narrative; it’s the brassy intensity of the track.
On paper, “I Kissed A Girl” is a playful song. The whole presentation, however, is purposeful to a fault. The backbeat is a rumbling, synthetic glam-rock stomp — a booming take on the old Gary Glitter stadium shuffle. Guitars and keyboards blare forcefully throughout. Katy Perry herself sings with a laser-focused bleat-growl. The whole things sounds strangely martial, like a platinum-plated neon-pink tank crashing through your front door. When it was new, I found the hammering hardness of “I Kissed A Girl” grating and oppressive. Years later, though, I can only say that it’s effective. “I Kissed A Girl” is simply far too catchy to be denied.
Time has a strange way with things. In 2008, there was this widespread idea that girls kissed each other at parties as a tactic to make men horny. The whole practice was both celebrated and demonized for exactly that reason. In 2007, a white rapper named Pittsburgh Slim released a clubby and awful Def Jam single called “Girls Kiss Girls“; it’s about Pittsburgh Slim liking when girls kiss girls. The infamous Girls Gone Wild commercials were full of girls kissing girls, and something similar was happening on the hipster internet. Websites like Last Night’s Party and the Cobrasnake were full of photos of girls kissing girls in nightclubs — the whole aesthetic now known as “indie sleaze.” Simian Mobile Disco’s video for the blog-house hit “Hustler” amounted to a girls-kissing-girls party. Internet porn was becoming more popular and normalized. At the time, Katy Perry seemed like she was capitalizing on the moment, and maybe she was.
“I Kissed A Girl” made a lot of people very angry. Evangelicals felt that Katy Perry had betrayed them. One of those evangelicals was Katy Perry’s own mother, who told the Daily Mirror, “It clearly promotes homosexuality, and its message is shameful and disgusting… Katy is our daughter, and we love her, but we strongly disagree with how she is conducting herself at the moment.” The song also got flack from LGBTQ groups, who felt that it trivialized queerness for attention. With Perry releasing “Ur So Gay” and “I Kissed A Girl” back-to-back, she seemed to have a weird relationship with queerness in general. A decade after the song came out, Perry told Billboard, “If I had to write that song again, I probably would make an edit on it. Lyrically, it has a couple of stereotypes in it.”
These days, though, “I Kissed A Girl” sounds less like a trashy cultural curio and more like a pop song. Katy Perry is now established as a passionate advocate for queer causes, and she’s got a massive gay fanbase, so people don’t worry quite so much about her personal politics anymore. (It was tone-deaf when she endorsed a billionaire for LA mayor, but it wasn’t homophobic.) At this point, I think we’re more comfortable with the idea of same-sex attraction existing on a spectrum, not necessarily being an all-or-nothing proposition. Boys kiss boys and girls kiss girls all the time. Sometimes, it’s an experimental game, the way it is for Katy Perry’s narrator. Sometimes, it’s something more. From what I’ve seen, a whole lot of queer kids love “I Kissed A Girl.” The controversy has died down, and the song’s all-crushing catchiness remains.
The hard-candy sonic ferocity of “I Kissed A Girl” still bothers me a little bit. It’s crazy to think that Max Martin went eight years without a #1 hit. We’ll see so many other Max Martin songs in this column. Only two songwriters have more chart-toppers than Martin, and both of them were Beatles. “I Kissed A Girl” reflects the strange chemical precision of Martin’s songs, but unlike his hits with Britney Spears and *NSYNC, the lyrics aren’t secondary. Instead, the hyper-compressed glam-rock boom-crunch adds a certain vaudeville quality — less of a teasing, flirting burlesque thing, more of a bash-your-head obviousness. Dr. Luke presumably had something to do with that.
Max Martin didn’t produce “I Kissed A Girl.” Instead, Dr. Luke co-produced the track with his own protege Benny Blanco, a Virginia-born beatmaker who moved to New York and named himself after the John Leguizamo character from Carlito’s Way. Blanco got attention for Bangers & Cash, a 2007 booty-bass EP that he made with Baltimore club-rapper Spank Rock. Dr. Luke signed Blanco to his production company, and the two worked together closely for years. When he co-produced “I Kissed A Girl,” Benny Blanco was just 20. We’ll see more Blanco productions in this column. (As lead artist, Benny Blanco’s highest-charting single is the 2018 Halsey/Khalid collab “Eastside,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)
There is absolutely no empty space on “I Kissed A Girl.” Instead, there’s a mix of live and programmed drums, as well as a whole lot of guitar from Dr. Luke himself. Everything sounds louder than everything else. Maybe Katy Perry’s flirtiness doesn’t come through on “I Kissed A Girl” because she’s got to howl so loudly over that gleaming synthetic wall. “I Kissed A Girl” sounds absolutely huge — big enough that pop music almost had to rearrange itself around the success of this one song.
There’s no trace of rap or R&B on “I Kissed A Girl.” There are plenty of traces of rock, but it doesn’t really sound like a rock song. Instead, it’s the kind of down-the-middle pop fastball that wasn’t really on the charts in 2008. Katy Perry didn’t fit into the landscape in any obvious way; maybe that’s why Capitol sent her on the Warped Tour in the summer of 2008. It’s funny to think of Katy playing shows with Every Time I Die and the Dillinger Escape Plan, but that’s what she did. She was probably on a smaller stage than those bands, even after “I Kissed A Girl” hit #1.
Capitol was worried that radio stations wouldn’t play “I Kissed A Girl,” but a trial run in Nashville did way better than anyone expected. It turned out that the song wasn’t too edgy. It was, in fact, exactly what the zeitgeist wanted. Katy Perry filmed an “I Kissed A Girl” video with director Kinga Burza, and the clip goes hard on that moment’s Cobrasnake aesthetic. Katy Perry doesn’t actually kiss any girls in the video, but she and her friends do flounce around a giant bedroom in lacy, strappy outfits. One of the girls in the video is Kesha; she’ll eventually appear in this column. At the end of the clip, Katy Perry wakes up next to her boyfriend. That dream-ending thing sure was popular in music videos at the time.
Once you saw the “I Kissed A Girl” video, it was pretty obvious that Katy Perry was about to be a gigantic star. She was melt-your-face hot, and the camera loved her. Around the time the song reached #1, I left my job at the Village Voice to take a spot at a start-up music website that never actually started up, thanks to the looming financial collapse. Craig Marks, my boss at that site, had been an editor at Blender, the music magazine with the lad-mag Maxim aesthetic. (Shout out to Andy Greenwald, Ryan Dombal, and my other co-workers at Juke, the site that never was.) One day, Craig came into work furious because the new issue of Blender had the Pussycat Dolls on the cover. He thought the magazine’s staff was committing malpractice by picking the Pussycat Dolls over Katy Perry. (Perry would be on the cover of Blender by November — “Kiss ‘n’ tell with pop’s bi-curious babe” — but the magazine would be out of business within a year.)
“I Kissed A Girl” is the kind of gigantically huge debut single that threatens to turn its maker into a one-hit wonder. But Katy Perry had star quality, and she also had bangers. Perry followed “I Kissed A Girl” with “Hot N Cold,” her other Max Martin/Dr. Luke track, and that song is a monster. I’d been skeptical of Katy’s whole deal, but with “Hot N Cold,” everything clicked. She knew what she was doing. A little while back, I took my daughter to see Chicago fuzz-poppers Beach Bunny — her second show ever, and her first in a club — and their “Hot N Cold” cover was the highlight of the night. That song still makes kids go off. (“Hot N Cold” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.)
Katy Perry’s album One Of The Boys eventually went triple platinum, and it spun off one more top-10 hit: “Waking Up In Vegas,” a power-pop gem that Perry co-wrote with Desmond Child and Max Martin’s old Cheiron Studios colleague Andreas Carlsson for what would’ve been her Columbia debut Fingerprints. (“Waking Up In Vegas” peaked at #9. It’s an 8.)
In the year after One Of The Boys, Katy Perry guested on minor hits from Timbaland and the godawful Denver rap-rock act 3OH!3, but she was just getting started. Katy’s next album would make pop-chart history. We’ll see a whole lot more of her in this column.
BONUS BEATS: Sincere Brit-rockers Travis were one of the first rock bands to ironically cover Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,” and they later became one of the first rock bands to ironically cover “I Kissed A Girl.” Those guys really rode that ironic Max Martin appreciation train. Here’s video of Travis covering “I Kissed A Girl” at an Amsterdam show in 2008:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Emo-adjacent pop-punkers Cobra Starship did the obvious thing with “I Kissed A Girl”: They released a parody called “I Kissed A Boy” on a 2008 Fall Out Boy mixtape. Joe Talbot did something similar when he shouted that he kissed a boy and liked it on his band IDLES’ track “Samaritans” a full decade later. Here’s Cobra Starship’s “I Kissed A Boy” video:
(Cobra Starship’s highest-charting single is “Good Girls Go Bad,” their 2009 collaboration with Gossip Girl star Leighton Meester. That song peaked at #7; it’s a 3.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Dancehall star Busy Signal came out with his own obvious toxically masculine version of “I Kissed A Girl” in 2008; his was called “I Fucked Your Girl.” As in: “I fucked your girl, and she liked it.” Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jon Brion covering “I Kissed A Girl” on harpsichord in 2008, with the assistance of Soul Coughing/Fiona Apple upright bassist Sebastian Steinberg:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s video of Phish playing a dogshit-ass “I Kissed A Girl” cover at a 2009 show in Saratoga Springs:
THE 10S: Lil Wayne’s gloriously deranged rap-monster bugout “A Milli” peaked at #6 behind “I Kissed A Girl.” It’s a beast, it’s a dog, it’s a motherfuckin’ 10.
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. I hope your boyfriend don’t mind if you buy it here.