POPTOPIA: Asbjørn in conversation with GIRLI – “I want them to hear that this song is also me saying ‘fuck you body dysmorphia'”
Last Wednesday, Asbjørn has interviewed the British pop sensation GIRLI as part of his interview series called POPTOPIA. Milly Toomey, AKA GIRLI is a singer, songwriter and rapper based in London. She has released a number of critically acclaimed singles and albums, including the 2019 album Odd One Out via PMR Records. GIRLI’s is about feminism, sexuality, queer culture, and mental health, which she also discusses in her interview with Asbjørn. Watch the full interview here or read the q&a below.
Asbjørn: So GIRLI, you are a punk rebel with a course, any normative parent’s worst nightmare and a Gen Z teenage dream. Since 2015, you’ve mixed music, genres, politics and fashion into an identity playground of a brand… And somewhere on the way, you managed to redefine the colour pink. Today’s guest is the one and only GIRLI.
GIRLI: Oh, I love that intro. (laughs) […]
Asbjørn: So, tell me what’s happening in your life right now?
GIRLI: I am getting ready to release another song this Friday, which I’m super excited about.
GIRLI: Yeah, and this is probably one of my favourite songs I’ve ever released. Because not only is it my opinion, a bop, but it’s also about something really important to me. It’s about my struggles with body dysmorphia, which I’ve kind of experienced since I was a teenager, but I’ve never written a song about it because I never really knew how to put it into words. And this song will surprise a lot of people because it’s not an emotional ballad, it’s kind of a dance track. It kind of felt appropriate to make it that pace, because the song is sort of about me trying to figure out what’s going on in my head when I have these intrusive negative thoughts. It’s also kind of me screaming out being like, stop telling me to just love myself because it’s not as simple as that. And I’ve made a music video, which is me fighting with a monster who is also pink and fluffy. That was kind of my interpretation of how to show it in a video.
Asbjørn: Wow! Would you say that the energy of that song makes you forget about those thoughts while you perform it? I imagined that that energy, especially while being on a stage performing a song like that, will kind of just make you get past all those inhibitions.
GIRLI: Yeah. What I wanted to do for people listening to, I want them to hear that this song is also me saying fuck you body dysmorphia. I fucking hate you. You make me hate myself when I should love myself and just fuck off. So. I want people to feel that too when they listen to it be like, hell yeah, fuck that.
Asbjørn: I can’t wait to hear that and to watch the video too, it sounds amazing. Is the video dropping on Friday as well?
GIRLI: Yeah, midnight Friday everywhere.
Asbjørn: Perfect, I can’t wait. I just want to make a quick introduction to the general theme of what we’re going to talk about today. So here’s a small write up of what POPTOPIA is about.
So pop culture is a complex space. It has the power to make you feel seen and accepted and to encourage individuality and freedom. It also can do the opposite, to uphold norms and stereotypes. Throughout my career. I’ve experienced both sides. And in this series, I want to explore how different people from in and outside of the music industry experienced this space. Is pop culture a free or a restrictive space when it comes to finding your own identity?
Before we get into the real big questions, I want to do a small warm-up with you. I want you to close your eyes and I just want you to listen to my voice. Imagine that you are floating completely weightless in an open space, it’s a place of peace. I’m now going to say five things and I want you to tell me whatever comes to you. Pink.
Asbjørn: Spice Girls.
GIRLI: Frickin’ awesome. (laughs)
Asbjørn: Perfect, you can open your eyes. Now, let’s ease into the real questions. What is your current relationship with pop culture? Is it a friend? Is it a foe? What do you think about it?
GIRLI: I go between feeling positive about it and feeling hateful towards it. I think that sometimes It’s an open space where people can do whatever they want and it’s changing loads and reflecting the world more. There’s loads more queer representation, there’s more representation of people of colour like gender expression is changing in it. So, sometimes I feel positive about it. And then other times I feel on the sidelines, like trying to get in like I’m locked out of it and trying to chase something. And not knowing what that is you’re trying to chase, like what’s trending, and not knowing where I fit in that world.
Asbjørn: Did you ever feel like you fit in?
GIRLI: It’s kind of a theme in my life that I’ve never felt like I fit and I think that’s for several reasons. I didn’t feel like I fit in school. And then in the music industry, I didn’t feel so much about it. I felt like I was pushed in other directions and felt I wasn’t good enough. So I think I have a tough time feeling I’m where I meant to be.
Asbjørn: Who did you look up to growing up? Did you feel like you were represented or mirrored anywhere in the mainstream?
GIRLI: Less so in the mainstream. I looked up to so many bands and there were a lot of queer artists I connected with. Tegan and Sara were a really big one for me. They were one of the first sorts of openly queer pop/indie groups that I was introduced to and was like, Wow, this is so cool, they’re just singing about themselves, and it’s not a big deal, they’re just singing about girls instead. They were outspoken about everything, and I found that inspiring and I connected with that.
Asbjørn: How do you see gender representation now versus back then? Do you feel it’s more representative of you and what’s going in in the world?
GIRLI: I think there are so many more amazing queer artists and so much diversity, in general, is being more pushed into the spotlight, and I do think it’s cool. I mean, it’s been Pride Month, so I’m quite aware of it now that it’s queer everywhere. It mustn’t be just like that during Pride Month, but all the time. But it is cool to see big, queer-friendly playlists on all of the big streaming sites and getting opportunities to talk and do interviews because I’m queer– that’s amazing and wasn’t around when I started making music as GIRLI. So, that’s cool.
Asbjørn: That is cool, but it’s also a double-edged sword for me. Because somehow the void is even bigger than for those other eleven months where that representation isn’t equal. I think it’s strange as well that suddenly all the [coffee] cups to go are rainbow coloured, the kids think it’s pretty and they sell a lot more slush ice, but what is it really about? It’s such a committed commercialised thing.
GIRLI: Yes, so true, this kind of rainbow capitalism.
I found it so hard, because I was making punky pop music, and I was wanting to be super outspoken, and say whatever I wanted to say, and they were – now that I look back – I realised they were censoring me. They were censoring my lyrics, they were asking me to change things to make them less offensive.
Asbjørn: I guess so, that’s a good way to say it. You’ve been very outspoken about these things, and all sorts of other issues ever since you stepped on the scene? How did that work? Because you got signed to a major label and started releasing music, how did you experience that? Rebelling against the mainstream from within the mainstream? Can you tell me about that experience?
GIRLI: It was really hard and weird. I got signed as very young as this artist who was super outspoken, super feminist, super opinionated and that was the whole point – my music was very loud… and then I got signed by a major label. And this happens so much to artists where you get signed to a label, and you think they sign you because they like you as you are. But then so much of the time they try to change you and make you more palatable, more commercial. I found it so hard, because I was making punky pop music, and I was wanting to be super outspoken, and say whatever I wanted to say, and they were – now that I look back – I realised they were censoring me. They were censoring my lyrics, they were asking me to change things to make them less offensive.
Now I realise, I’m with an indie label and have complete creative control and I’ve decided to be as feminist, as queer, as pink as I want and people, people are responding to it. Because that’s authentically me.
Asbjørn: And did you?
GIRLI: At the time, I did. In terms of the visuals, that’s where it affected it the most. I have a very kind of punky aesthetic, I love everything pink. When I look back to the photoshoots I was doing for my album artwork and stuff, I’m like, Whoa, they were trying to make me look like someone else. They tried to make me dress differently and make my hair look glossy, they tried to change my personality. And at the time I went with it because you feel so much pressure to be successful or make them money, you know?
Asbjørn: It does feel like at a certain point feminism became a very marketable thing for major labels for the mainstream industry solely because women have been fighting for so long for equality and have a say. Suddenly it was trendy. And I imagine that stepping into a major label at that time at that age, there was a certain kind of feminism they wanted from you… The one that was already there, does that make sense?
GIRLI: I felt like they tried to make me a bit quirky, a bit outspoken. Now I realise, I’m with an indie label and have complete creative control and I’ve decided to be as feminist, as queer, as pink as I want and people, people are responding to it. Because that’s authentically me. I think it’s all about the fans, it’s all about music fans, these older people in the industry don’t know what’s going on. The ironic thing about it is that my fan base is mostly LGBTQ+, under 25, young, and tuned in and woke. And all of the people who were telling me to do these things were over 50, white cis men, straight white cis men. How do you know what my music fans want when they’re a completely different demographic?
Asbjørn: Do you see your fans as a collected group? Would you say they’re a queer community, a collective?
GIRLI: Yeah, I see them like that. I feel like my social media is a beacon point where if people like my music, and they like what I’m talking about, they all probably have similar ideas about the world. I’d be very surprised if anyone who was homophobic, racist or sexist, liked my music – it’s completely the opposite ethos. I think my fans are all pretty switched on and aware and that’s cool. There’s a bunch of group chats that I notice of my fans and in the comments, and I have a Patreon, which is another community.
Asbjørn: That is incredibly cool. It’s the most touching thing to see your fans collect like that. Circle. I read something you said about sometimes having this kind of imposter syndrome, about not being queer enough, or maybe queer in the right way. And that made me think, because do you think that that’s an insecurity that comes from within you solely? Or is it also a set of norms that are present in queer communities? Do you see it like that? Do you think it’s possible to completely get rid of norms? Even in a community that’s supposed to be completely open?
GIRLI: There are still so many issues within the queer community about acceptance and diversity as well. Like, for me, as a bisexual, I have always felt in some queer space.. I’ve dated men and women and gender-nonconforming people and with my previous relationship, I was, I was with a cis guy, and I was open on social media about that relationship and the number of times I had people saying I thought you were gay, I thought you were bi, why are you talking about queerness when with a guy. And it hurt me because it made me feel like my queerness is not valid now that I’m with this man. And now I’m with a girl, I have a girlfriend and I hate to admit this, but it does make me feel more like now I can talk about it because I’m with a girl. Whereas it shouldn’t be like that if you identify as queer, if you’re queer, people should say okay. You can be bisexual, and never have been in a relationship with the opposite sex or with anyone other than a hetero situation, and that’s fine. No, it doesn’t make it any less. I think there’s also a lot of racism in the queer community that needs to change as well. It’s not a perfect community and we need to work on a lot of things.
Asbjørn: For sure. I think hardly anybody can escape right now having to, at times be the stupid one. I think that’s such a beautiful development within pop culture. In the past couple of years, it’s a good thing to admit, you don’t have an opinion about everything. It’s a really good thing to admit that you can get smarter and that you’re willing to learn. And that’s one of the best developments I’ve seen in pop culture for ages. No community is perfect. Every single person and every single community can learn.
GIRLI: Just being able to admit that I have more to learn. That’s why I also really value my fan base because they hold me accountable for things too, you know? You know, if I make a mistake about someone’s pronouns, or you know, there’s a concept I don’t get. My fans always help to educate me. It’s cool.
If I was in charge, I would probably – I don’t know this sounds like censorship – but I’d say stop releasing songs with homophobic and misogynistic lyrics.
Asbjørn: It is so cool. I think we’re getting to the end of this talk. It’s been such a pleasure, I’d like to continue talking to you forever. My last question is a big one. But I’m sure you have a genius plan. So, imagine that you are on top of the music industry, where everybody answers to you. What would you change in pop culture in 2021?
GIRLI: The thing is with pop culture: I feel like it splits because there’s a lot of queer representation and pop culture. But there’s also still this whole other half of it, where there’s still a lot of misogyny, there’s still a lot of homophobia in the charts. Someone, who I think is crossing over and changing this is Lil Nas X. He’s done amazing things for the queer community, for the black queer community. If I was in charge, I would probably – I don’t know this sounds like censorship – but I’d say stop releasing songs with homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. Please stop like this. There are some songs I love but then I’m like, why is this song saying “put my dick in her mouth”?
Asbjørn: I think that’s a brilliant answer. Any last words about your single and video Dysmorphia coming out?
GIRLI: Yes, so tomorrow at midnight, the song comes out and the music video comes out. And anyone who lives in the UK I’m going on tour in November. So go get your tickets now. I’m excited about that. It’s my first tour in two years, because of Miss Corona, so I’m excited about that. And continue supporting LGBTQ+ people even after pride months.
Girli will be going on tour in the UK in November. Tickets can be purchased here.