Betta Lemme Talks to Noor Tagouri About Loving 'GIRLS'

Betta Lemme Talks to Noor Tagouri About Loving 'GIRLS'

Betta Lemme is the pop artist we need, right now. Whether she's playing or crying, her music delivers on high-energy bops with hooks that repeat until they're permanently etched into our memories by the final round. Through all the gloss and crisp electronic catharsis, the Canadian still manages to tackle important topics that resonate even deeper than an earworm.

Her sophomore EP, Ready For The Weekend, brings to light themes of loneliness, identity and mental health — all addressed with a playfulness that suggests the possibilities of a life lived with more freedom and fluidity. As she sings on "GIRLS," a track that spotlights her sexuality for the first time, "Why can’t we just love who we are and have a good time?"

For PAPER, Betta Lemme recently sat down with her "chosen family" Noor Tagouri, the esteemed Libyan American journalist, to talk more about "GIRLS," and the coming out story that helped inspire her new queer anthem. Below, the two dive into all things labels, sexuality and privilege in celebration of Lemme's latest release.

Noor Tagouri: Woo! Okay, Betta. My dearest...

Betta Lemme: My darling!

Noor: What is your intention with this [release]?

Betta: I literally just want to make this mini statement, put it out there and continue going. My intention and hope is that someone else, no matter what age, can either relate to this or seek comfort in it.

Noor: You say “mini statement...” Most people would do this as a very big statement and, in many cases, it is a very big statement. But you have mentioned that you want it to be something that isn't a big deal. So for you, what weight does [publicly coming out on your EP] carry?

Betta: The weight is whatever weight people essentially give it. I wish it didn't have so much weight for people, but it does. You know what I mean?

Noor: Yeah.

Betta: I'm just sharing a childhood story. One that's the most, and I mean, the most honest. That's how the song [“GIRLS”] came about. And for some people it's a super big shock, but it was far scarier as a kid to do that than now.

Noor: Yes, tell me about that childhood story.

Betta: I remember going on the computer and, just to show you how much of a meticulous child I was, I printed my mom a letter. I typed out this beautiful letter, printed it out and I said–

Noor: How old were you?

Betta: Nine, eight, something like that. So my mom went into my room and I slammed the door behind her. I swiftly put this letter underneath the door and I held onto the door handle for dear life — truly, for dear life. I hear her grab the piece of paper and she's reading it. And in those moments, the silence, I mean the silence. I felt like I could literally hear her eyeballs scan across the paper.

Noor: [Laughs] Do you remember what you wrote?

Betta: I do. Basically, it was something along the lines of, “Hey mom, I just want to let you know that I like Princess Diana, David Bowie and Dr. Frank-N-Furter of Rocky Horror just the same. I understand that this could make a complicated future for me and I understand if maybe you’d want to kick me out of the house, so I just wanted to give you a heads up because I think my future might be a little more complicated than you had initially anticipated.”

Noor: I can't believe you knew how to articulate that at such a young age.

Betta: I pictured... You know, in cartoons when the kid leaves home, they take a stick and tie a handkerchief around it and put food in it?

Noor: Yes [laughs].

Betta: I was like, “Well, this is my life now. I’m just going to leave the house because clearly my mom is going to want to disown me.” And then I heard the words, "Elizabeth beep Lemme!” (That beep signifies my middle name because it's going to stay a secret.) So my mom sternly says, “Elizabeth Lemme, you open up this door right now.” And I remember thinking, “That’s it. Today's the day I die. Literally. Today is the day I'm going to go to Jesus and he's not even going to accept me. Great!”

Noor: Oh my gosh [laughs].

Betta: Suddenly, she opens the door while holding this piece of paper, my letter to her. She looks at me dead in the eyes and says, “You know, my best friend is gay. Plus, I’d even date Ellen. So why would you waste my time with this paper? I have to go make dinner!” She threw the paper behind her and walked down the stairs, like nothing happened. This is my mother in a nutshell. I was like, “That’s that? I guess I will just go out and play with my friends now. Bye.” That was it, so anticlimactic [laughs].

Noor: Why did you think she would react in such a negative way? At that young age, what do you remember?

Betta: We come from a very traditional Italian family. Everything is very linear. I also have one side of my family that's wildly religious. From a young age, I remember I had an aunt tell me I couldn't listen to Queen because the lead singer was gay. I remember secretly thinking, “How dare you? The audacity?” Their effortless ability to disregard such a remarkable human due to their bigotry left a huge impression on me at a very early age and filled me with such disappointment. I checked my aunt off of my life list then and there. However, I still felt more concerned for my mom than I did for myself. As accepting as she was, I wondered if she would no longer be accepted by her family for having accepted me. I didn't want her to feel bad or be ostracized, especially from an Italian family. I didn’t want her to hear the whispers.

Noor: Exactly.

Betta: I don't know if you're familiar with Frank-N-Furter, but in 1975, the incredible Tim Curry was playing Frank-N-Furter, a self proclaimed “Sweet Transvestite” (which by today's language is a highly problematic term. However, this is an attestation to how long this music has been relevant within today’s queer culture.) Anyway, Frank's gender creativity was something I found very appealing. That, alongside the attitude of “Don’t dream it, be it,” was the catalyst of my development. This was the first time I had a crush on someone who didn’t conform to the gender binary. So I told my mom, “I’m going to marry Frank-N-Furter,” and mom was great about it.

Noor: You were very blessed to be in a situation where your parents did react that way. So many people don't get to have that grace and that love in a confession that way. So now you’ve decided to release this song that is telling your truth. Why now? Why do you think this is the perfect time to do so? And also, is there any particular reason it didn't happen earlier?

Betta: This song was actually written nearly three years ago. Essentially I really wanted to share the song over the years, but the final choice was not always up to me and it didn't always pan out or get released. Luckily, it’s finally made its way out.

Noor: What was the inspiration behind “GIRLS”?

Betta: I asked both [my co-writers] Jenn Decilveo and Jordan Riley who their first crushes were. Then the question came back to me, I thought, “Princess Diana!” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to kiss her, marry her or be her. I just remember being in absolute awe of her. The lyric, “I used to draw you in the notebook of my mind's eye,” was about this. I couldn't tell anyone about this crush, so the safe place was to write it in the diary of my mind. I remember the first time I saw her, she was wearing this beautiful Versace gown. I had butterflies in my little stomach. I remember thinking, “I’m going to throw up, what is this feeling? Is this guilt? Or pure infatuation?” I guess it was both. That’s how the song came about. It was elaborating on how people say, “Maybe it's just a phase." We're always told that. Women are questioned for everything.

Noor: That’s the ultimate gaslighting!

Betta: We are still fighting for control of our own bodies. Can we catch a fucking break? At the very least, with who we decide to kiss or have an interest in or want to be with? It is exhausting.

Noor: It's just projecting your own insights onto someone and being like, “It's just a phase because I want it to just be a phase.” But it’s not. Do you remember when you showed me the song the first time?

Betta: Were we in LA? The Airbnb with the piano?

Noor: You were staying at that Airbnb with that gorgeous piano and you were playing us the song. I literally gasped. You are truly the next Britney spears.

Betta: While showing you that song, your face came so alive that it gave me more juice to want to release [“GIRLS”]. It gave me confidence. I showed it to really key people in my life: My grandmother, my brother, you. I was like, “I'm so excited to put this out,” but I also felt like the death threats were going to trickle in. I hope they don't trickle, I hope they come in abundance Because that means a conversation is about to happen.

Noor: I do not wish death threats upon anyone, that would be a terrible experience. At the same time, I hope people are and will have conversations. I can literally see eight or nine-year-old Betta slipping that letter under the door and holding the door really tight. I think it’s so special that you are allowing the rest of the world to experience little Betta, the same way you are. Even the song itself is so fun. It feels young and that it channels a young spirit in ourselves when we dance to it. I'm still thinking about what you said around it being this “mini statement.” It gets my gears going for the concepts of identity and labels. So for you Betta, what do identity and labels mean or not mean to you?

Betta: Everyone puts everything in a box, and I love it. I love organizing, but for something like this, I really stress the importance of fluidity. It's a celebration of fluidity and having that conversation freely. First, not everyone can choose how they identify or have the privilege.

Noor: Yeah, exactly.

Betta: Not everyone has the privilege to even pass. For example, I'm lucky. People look at me and they probably just see a hetero blonde chick — cool.

Noor: Among thought leaders there's this debate around identities and [whether] choosing specific identities serves us or limits us. I'm curious to know what that means to you?

Betta: I think it serves some people and also limits other people. Some people can choose their identity. I think that it really depends, for me. I wouldn't want to be labeled. I feel like that puts you in a super stagnant position.

Noor: I've never even heard you label your sexual identity. Until now, I've never heard you actually say anything.

Betta: I never really thought it was necessary. If I fancied someone, I'd tell that person I liked them and would call it a day. I never really think twice. I just never wanted my love to define me.

Noor: I think it's even more broad than that, when people are struggling with any identity of any art, any sub community, or even a political identity. Especially right now there's this problem that when people proclaim their identities publicly, they have to stay in those identities for a very long time or forever, because they feel like they can't take it back because they've already identified as that. So it’s like, “I'm a Democrat or I'm a Republican. I can never take that back.” It’s part of the internet culture of like, we can find everything that you've ever said. Even though we want people to evolve, we don't really give people grace and space to evolve. What is that idea of categorizing and labeling other people and ourselves, that you believe is limiting for you?

Betta: I grew up seeing friends get kicked out of their homes for simply coming out and being honest with their family. I've had friends that were jumped and attacked on the streets for even looking too gay. I know someone who literally got attacked for wearing glitter. And again, my privilege of passing as a straight white girl allows me to not be harassed or not be in danger at the hands of bigots or homophobes. I'm lucky. What I have to deal with is the debilitating anxiety of entitled misogynists on every corner of the globe, at all hours, of all ages, who think it's cool to sexually harass or cat call on the street at any given moment. I think that sometimes labeling can put a giant target on your back and it shouldn't be that way. For some people it’s really scary to label themselves, but other people literally do not have a choice.

Noor: What do you mean by that? Don't have a choice?

Betta: For instance, trans youth or people who are nonbinary, who don’t necessarily want to transition to any specific passable gender. These people are at risk because people want them to fit in the binary and so they’re at risk for simply being themselves. You also cannot hide how someone perceives you.

Noor: Yes, let’s talk about the main title of the track here, “GIRLS.”

Betta: So much of what frightens people about overall queerness, usually half the time, is femininity.

Noor: Break that down for us.

Betta: I think the world loves hating women or anyone that seems like one. Society is set on a gender binary. I’m so lucky, I had that song released and was able to go about my business. In many other countries, publicly proclaiming those lyrics could be punishable by death. I just hope that people who supported my music before that song will expand their tolerance for not just me, but people within their local communities that identify as fluid and queer or whatever else.

Noor: What are you afraid of? What are you nervous about?

Betta: If I post something on socials with a rainbow or being a vocal LGBTQIA+ ally, I will literally get death threats in my DMs. So now, you know what? I'm going to get them anyway. Have at it, let’s have a fucking conversation. Let's make people uncomfortable because that’s how conversions sometimes have to begin.

Noor: What’s your favorite line from “GIRLS”?

Betta: I hold a special place for the line, “Why can’t we just love who we are and have a good time? Maybe it’s not that hard? So baby let’s try!”

Noor: I love that, it's so fun. And Betta, finally, what is a takeaway that you have for everyone who is listening to this song and wants to do more? If they have the intention to do more?

Betta: I hope that whoever has the privilege of safety stands up for those who don’t.

I hope kids who were my age, at the time of writing my mom that letter, have the courage to sing this song out loud without the fear of losing their families, too. I wish I heard a song like this when I was growing up. I wrote this song for my younger self and I want to celebrate it with my older self, and hopefully other people can do the same. It’s funny, when we’re kids, everyone looks for allies outside of ourselves. And then we spend forever learning how to be an ally for our own selves. This song is my secret little love letter to myself. And if other people can relate to it, wonderful.

Noor: Well Betta, you’re my chosen family and I’m honored that you shared your story, your truth and that we did this together.

Betta: I love you. Merci.

Photos courtesy of Alexis Belhumeur