Hayley Kiyoko and the rise of queer pop

The openly gay pop star places female sexuality front and centre. 

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In many ways, Hayley Kiyoko is anything but radical. The 27-year-old LA pop star started her career as a child star on Disney and Nickelodeon (mirroring the career trajectory of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and more recently Ariana Grande). She toured with Justin Bieber on his first world tour in a girl group called The Stunners that later disbanded. The music she creates is firmly in the mainstream of pop. Her songs are catchy, her lyrics are simple and her motifs are love and flirtation. She is just like so many other American female pop stars.

Except no one is doing what Hayley Kiyoko is doing.

Kiyoko is openly gay and the fact alone that she writes, sings and performs songs about being a girl who is attracted to girls, using female pronouns and featuring fun, flirtatious relationships between women is enough to make what she is doing almost unheard of. Plenty of artists co-opt lesbian desire when it suits them, like in Katy Perry's “I Kissed a Girl” or t.A.T.u's “All the Things She Said”. When the music video came out in 2002 showing the two Russian singers kissing in the rain it was met with widespread outrage (campaigners against showing the music video said they were concerned about the sexualisation of girls in school uniforms). 

Kiyoko has not always been so open about her sexuality in her work. It was her 2015 single “Girls like Girls” that marked a turning point both in her feeling comfortable singing about her sexuality, and the success of her music. In the song she sings: “Girls like girls like boys do, nothing new… I’m real and I don’t feel like boys.” The accompanying music video received over 94 million views on YouTube.

Kiyoko released her debut album Expectations in March of this year and singles from the album quickly racked up views in the millions: the video for “Curious” has 13.7 million views, “Sleepover” 14 million and “Feelings” 12 million. She has 1.4 million followers on Instagram and 514,000 followers on Twitter. She is currently finishing up the sold out North American leg of her tour before heading to Europe in the autumn. Tickets for her European tour went on sale last week and sold out in minutes.

It is clear from her recent success that Kiyoko is filling a major gap in the market with her representation of queer love and female sexuality.

Girls kissing girls in music videos is nothing new – it's just that the women tend to actually be straight. There is a world of difference between Katy Perry’s "I Kissed a Girl" and Kiyoko’s "Sleepover". This comes down in part to Perry’s heterosexuality and in part to the intended audience of the videos. Kiyoko is transparent in the fact she writes and sings for and about queer girls. This is unusual because in pop music we are used to seeing lesbianism performed, at times in order to shock, often for a male audience.

This has been happening forever: from Madonna and Britney Spears kissing at the VMA’s in 2003 to last May when Rita Ora’s single “Girls” came under attack for its reductive representation of bisexuality. In the chorus of the song, which was written by a mostly male team of writers, Ora sings: “Sometimes, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls. Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls.”

Kiyoko responded publicly to the song, describing it as tone-deaf. “A song like this just fuels the male gaze while marginalizing the idea of women loving women,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “I don’t need to drink wine to kiss girls; I’ve loved women my entire life.” Katie Gavin from the band MUNA also tweeted that “Girls” sounded like “the familiar chorus that women’s sexuality is something to be looked at instead of authentically felt”.

This is the context that queer female artists currently have to negotiate. In calling her single “Curious”, Kiyoko playfully sets up expectations of a song about bicuriosity, which in pop music is often code for something performative and provocative that straight girls “try out,” usually for the benefit of men. But in the song itself our expectations are undercut and “Curious” is really about her flirtation with a girl who has a boyfriend. Kiyoko questions her love interest wryly: “I’m just curious, is it serious?”

Kiyoko’s music videos are as unambiguous and bold as her lyrics in their expression of lesbian desire and she makes no attempt to cater to heterosexual demographics. When Will Young came out as gay back in 2002, the news coverage focused on how the revelation would affect his career. A decade and a half later, Hayley Kiyoko has been able to build a career around the fact she is out and proud.

She has directed many of her own music videos including “Girls like Girls”, “Cliff’s Edge” and three singles from the new album: “Curious”, “Sleepover” and “Feelings”. Her three most recent videos in particular are explicitly about female sexuality. She is an expert at creating aesthetically engaging videos with simple narratives that centre around queer desire. The “Feelings” video consists of one single shot that follows her as she dances and flirts shamelessly with a girl she sees whilst out with friends. The focus of the video is the way that Kiyoko looks at the girl, and we end up watching Kiyoko as she watches her. The lack of male gaze is palpable. The narrative revolves entirely around women and Kiyoko's direction puts female sexuality front and centre.

She is of course not the only queer woman creating pop music right now. Janelle Monáe, Kehlani (who collaborates with Kiyoko on “What I Need”) and Halsey have all been open in discussing their sexuality in the work they put out. But no one else so consistently and unapologetically releases songs with female pronouns, and videos with female protagonists, as Kiyoko. As Kehlani said to Kiyoko in a joint interview: “Low-key, you're the biggest queer woman doing what you're doing right now in music.”

What differentiates Hayley Kiyoko from gay icons like Lady Gaga and Madonna is that she belongs to a new wave of queer pop stars who are even more open in the expression of their sexual identities. You can see this in Kiyoko's unflinching use of female pronouns and the depictions of queer love in her videos. This is not something you see in Lady Gaga or Madonna's work although they both have identified in the past as bisexual.

Kiyoko is not coy about her sexuality. She loves girls and that's what she sings about. In her own words: “I make out with women because I love women, not because I’m trying to be sexy. That’s not to turn heads — that’s my life.” What she offers to young queer women is normalization – she removes the stigma and acts as an example.

It’s obvious from online support that Kiyoko’s honest expression of her sexual identity resonates with a lot of people. Her fans affectionately refer to her as “lesbian Jesus” and have jumped on a hashtag she once used #20gayteen to celebrate LGBTQ pride this year. Her listeners are dedicated and numerous and hungry for representation in the mainstream. And finally, thanks to Hayley, they have it.