On Hayley Kiyoko, Queerness and Mainstream Pop
What does the megastar mean to young queer fans today, and why is she so significant?
Lead image courtesy of PR
“Before she came along, I definitely felt as if pop music was missing somebody being as loud and proud about being gay,” says Chia, a 20-year-old fan from Vancouver. She’s speaking to me over Twitter DM about Hayley Kiyoko, the artist behind viral smash hit “Girls Like Girls,” who has also become an LGBTQ trailblazer in recent years. While Kiyoko’s music mirrors the conventional pop tropes that we’re used to, that we’ve always been used to—desire, love and heartbreak through the lens of glossy, snappy songwriting—she’s one of few figures in the world of mainstream pop to openly identify as a lesbian, ever. Flippantly deploying female pronouns without pause, making out with women in her neon-lit music videos and being consistently vocal about her sexuality, Kiyoko is refreshing for those of us looking to escape heteronormative narratives in music.
“There’s a new wave of queer artists taking over,” Chia adds. “Because of these women, we’re breaking heteronormative barriers.” And she’s right. While no one should be defined by who they sleep with or fancy—cishet people aren’t—it’s worth celebrating that our reality is finally being reflected in the music young people consume. Whether it’s Muna, Janelle Monáe, and St Vincent, who embody a fluid, all-encompassing queerness in the world of leftfield pop, or Halsey, Demi Lovato, and Kehlani, who are injecting some much-needed bisexual bops into the mainstream, Hayley Kiyoko is part of a newer, more visible generation of women queering up the charts. But, unlike those other names, the 27 year-old Californian is also somewhat of an outlier.
For the uninitiated, Kiyoko sprung out of Disney channel and Nickelodeon as a young protege. Like Britney, Christina and Ariana before her, she is in many ways an embodiment of the cookie-cutter American mainstream. Her early career trajectory can be characterized by commercials for Cinnamon Toast Crunch, appearances on a Scooby-Doo film and a world tour with Justin Bieber. None of this is interesting in and of itself—but when you consider that she exists within that framework, with a slew of young, dedicated fans, it’s meaningful that she is also an out and proud lesbian. Sure, as mentioned earlier, pop stars frequently express their own fluidity and queerness in their output. And there are plenty of vocal gay women in the worlds of punk, rap, and guitar music. But it’s rare to see a gay woman—particularly a woman of color—take up real space in straight-laced, Disney-fied America. The same America that voted for Trump. The same America that only legalized gay marriage across all 50 states in 2015. The significance of those two worlds colliding, for young pop fans today, is monumental.
Kiyoko’s long-awaited debut album, Expectations, arrived earlier this year in March, and as the title suggests, it is a masterclass in subverting what you thought you knew. One stand-out, “Curious,” has a knowingly loaded title; you almost expect an experimentation pop bop that treats lesbianism as a bit of harmless dabbling. Instead, it’s a Britney Spears-flavored slab revolving around a more universal scandal: “You say you wanted me, but you're sleeping with him.” “Sleepover” meanwhile explores the familiar pain of an unrequited crush on a straight best friend. And then there are her videos, which are a swerve away from more traditional tragic depictions of lesbian desire. Instead, her world deals in finding the dream girl and Disneyfied happily ever after endings. This is basic mainstream pop, for and about gay girls, which shouldn’t be a revelation in 2018, but it is. “From day one Hayley has been very vocal about her love for girls,” Sommer, an 18-year-old fan from Cleveland, USA tells me over Twitter. “It normalises queerness, which I believe is something we need very much.”
Of course, Kiyoko is simply writing monumental pop songs about the nuances of her own experience. But it’s worth acknowledging the positive impact relatability can have on young queer fans. Jessa, 18, from South Africa, tells me that Kiyoko’s openness made her feel much more relaxed about her own identity. “Her confidence in her sexuality is one of the biggest inspirations for me to be proud of who I am,” she says, adding that Kiyoko's casual pronoun use and unambiguous music videos strikes her as honest—and that alone is empowering. For Chia, the fact Kiyoko is a queer woman of Asian descent is also meaningful. “To see an Asian-American in the music industry, let alone [a] queer [Asian-American woman], is very rare,” she says, “A younger version of myself needed someone like Hayley.” Saddy, 19, who lives in Turkey, echoes a similar sentiment. “She became an immortal Lesbian Jesus to bless our gay asses with her gayconic music,” she informs me. “'Girls like Girls' is the national lesbian anthem. Two days [after it was released], same-sex marriage was legalized, you know? Lesbian Jesus is real.”
Many fans have also found a global community through loving Hayley Kiyoko's music. Despite living on different continents, a number of young women I spoke to for this piece keep in touch via dedicated Twitter fan accounts like @LesbiHayely and WhatsApp groups with creative names such as 'Hayley's Hoes™ (PUSSYHEADS)'. As well as trading pictures of Kiyoko and plotting their next moves in the year “20gayteen,” these outlets provide young fans with an online LGBTQ haven. It starts with Hayley Kiyoko, sure, but while stanning Janelle Monáe, Kristen Stewart and a multitude of other visible queer women at the same time, they often also function as an all-encompassing safe space to explore and express mutual interests. Fandom’s like this are clearly hugely beneficial to teenagers who might be feeling isolated in their respective hometowns, friendship groups, or families.
Last Friday, Rita Ora released a new song “Girls”, alongside Charli XCX, Bebe Rexha and Cardi B. It should have been a triumph—another song in the charts making queer lives more visible—but instead it felt kind of tone deaf, particularly when Ora claimed, in an interview, that it was inspired by Katy Perry's “I Kissed a Girl,” a song which we can now look back on as pretty trivializing. Hayley Kiyoko's response was perfect: “I don’t need to drink wine to kiss girls; I’ve loved women my entire life,” she wrote on Twitter. “This type of message is dangerous because it completely invalidates and belittles the pure feelings of an entire community. I feel I have a responsibility to protect that whenever possible. We can and should do better.”
As someone now in their mid-20s, the visibility of an artist like Kiyoko seems like welcome progress from the days when the only mainstream star I identified with was Alex Parks from Fame Academy (who has now apparently vanished without a trace). While I don't regret the hours spent annotating the lyrics to her song “Maybe That's What It Takes” (still a banger, FYI) by hand and scouring the whole thing for angsty gay morsels, it's encouraging to speak to young people today who feel lifted up by seeing themselves represented more widely, and finding fans across the world who feel the same. “Hayley's a game changer,” Chia summarises. “There are many love songs out there; however, maybe 95% of those songs are directed towards the heterosexual demographic. It's been way overdue for someone like her in the industry to finally make it huge.”
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.