Only five days after same-sex marriage was legalized last June, Demi Lovato released “Cool for the Summer,” the first single off her latest album Confident. The timing of the song’s release could not have been more appropriate given the Supreme Court’s ruling and the time of year. As summer is the season of warm weather, less clothing, relaxation and freedom for many young people, Lovato’s song quickly became a nationwide anthem for the hottest months of the year. With Lovato’s sultry voice and the heavy electronic beat pulsing in the back, “Cool for the Summer” received lots of air time on the radio to become what blogger Spencer Kornhaber called the potential “The Next Great Gay Anthem.” However, after listening to these lyrics and watching the music video numerous times over the past 7 months, there are aspects of the performance that make me question just how progressive it really is.
The lyrics of the song are not complex; Demi Lovato is clearly addressing a young woman she is attracted to and wants to make advances on as she sings, “I’m a little curious too – I don’t care – I can keep a secret, can you?” At this point, the lyrics point to both women expressing mutual sexual interest, though if you were to watch the music video without sound you would not know this because until halfway through the music video there is very minimal homoerotic interaction between the women. Lovato is filmed driving down a highway in a convertible with 4 other attractive women all dressed up to go for a night out, but there is no clear indication that there will be any filmic evidence of her attraction to females at this point. In the bridge, Lovato sings “Shhh… Don’t tell your mother – We’re cool for the summer.” As Kornhaber states in his article, “the singer’s same-sex smooching is presented as shenanigans—sneaky, rebellious, unapproved.” At this point, though she breaks through the fear of initiating woman-to-woman contact, her lyrics perpetuate the idea that having sexual relations with women is something to be kept secret and only acceptable as a fleeting experience, just like the summer months that pass by so quickly.
In Adrienne Rich’s work Compulsory Heterosexuality, she expands on the idea of the male gaze, which might be partly why the song and the music video both have a sense of caution or restraint, so not to reveal too much overt homoeroticism. Rich states, “However woman-to-woman relationships, female support networks, … are relied on and cherished, indoctrination in male credibility and status can still create synapses in thought, denials of feelings, wishful thinking, a profound sexual and intellectual confusion” (646). Because the idea of compulsory heterosexuality stems largely from the power play of the male gaze, the fear of fully expressing or denying one’s homosexuality is evident in Lovato’s secretiveness of the encounter both lyrically and visually. The furthest extent to which the audience views any act of attraction between women is a poorly lighted shot lasting less than half a second of Lovato kissing another woman in a nightclub. In this way, the music video censors the act of two women kissing from the public eye, which reflects to a certain degree the insecurity of being ostracized by a homophobic public.
In an interview with Alan Carr, Demi Lovato was asked whether or not “Cool for the Summer” was her way of outing herself as a lesbian, to which she answered indirectly. She responded by saying, “I’m not confirming and I’m definitely not denying.” She followed up by explaining that all of her songs are “based off of personal experiences,” and that “there’s nothing wrong with experimentation at all.” Carr’s assumption that because she wrote a song about a sexual encounter with a woman that she is a lesbian is an example of the misconception that sexuality is a two way street: either you are heterosexual or you are homosexual. This plays into the phenomenon of bi-erasure, where people negate the sexual experiences and relationships of someone falling somewhere between and write them off either by their spontaneous encounters or by defining them based on one experience. “Cool for the Summer” does exemplify Rich’s concept of the “lesbian continuum,” which is the range “of woman-identified experience; not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman” (648). Regardless of the way that the lyrics were depicted in the music video, the song embodies the concept of this so-called “lesbian continuum,” and it is clear that Lovato accomplishes a sense of self-assurance through it.
Lovato, Demi. Demi Lovato – Cool for the Summer (Official Video). YouTube. July 23, 2015.
Kornhaber, Spencer. “Demi Lovato’s ‘Cool for the Summer’: The Next Great Gay Anthem?” The Atlantic. July 14, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/07/demi-lovatos-cool-for-the-summer-is-the-anti-i-kissed-a-girl/398426/
Marcus, Stephanie. “Demi Lovato Plays Coy About Her Sexuality While Discussing ‘Cool for the Summer.'” The Huffington Post. Sept. 14, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/demi-lovato-bisexual_us_55f736dee4b00e2cd5e7a3c5
Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence.” Signs5.4 (1980): 631-660.