The New Storytellers: Hayley Kiyoko
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Hayley Kiyoko’s epiphany arrived at an NSYNC concert. The pop singer-songwriter says she “came out of the womb wanting to perform,” but often felt a sense of dislocation as a young gay girl growing up in a straight world. Yet seeing the boy band at the age of 10 crystallized her vision: The Los Angeles native, 29, was drawn not only to the artistic side of writing and playing music, but to the thousands of adoring, screaming NSYNC fans who were projecting their fantasies onto the pretty boys on stage. It was exactly what she wanted, in that exact environment. But how could Kiyoko, who knew she liked girls from the age of five, get there in the first place?
Though music made by lesbians has roots in the folky, mainstream-averse women’s movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, it didn’t significantly enter popular culture until the 1980s. Even then it came in waves. In the ‘90s, there was Tracy Chapman and k.d. Lang and the Indigo Girls, none of whom directly addressed same-sex relationships in their songs. In the early 2000s there was t.a.t.u., “I Kissed A Girl,” and celesbian chic. So while the trail to becoming the first “lesbian pop star” may not be clear, Kiyoko, 29, is determined to blaze it, standing on the shoulders of those who came before her by channeling her sexuality through mainstream songwriting.
It began in 2015, when she uploaded the self-directed music video for her single “Girls Like Girls.” The clip, which features one teenage girl yearning for another — and eventually saving her from her douchebag boyfriend — was filled with the urgency and angst of someone who had yet to be truly represented in pop music. It was exhilarating to hear. Never before had the message — “Girls like girls just like boys do,” as Kiyoko sang — been phrased so simply and explicitly. The ability to express herself directly was rooted in years of confusion. As a young girl who saw no alternative, she dreamt of being a male pop star.
“I wanted the validation of women that male superstars get,” says Kiyoko, who grew up “doing everything I did because of girls.” When she reached high school — a fundamentally unrelatable environment for her, where girls grew even more “guy crazy” — she felt bereft of that validation. “I didn’t get to date women, or go on first dates, or go to dances with people I wanted to. I missed out on being asked out.”
She funneled those feelings into her music. “As a musician, you’re able to write songs and validate yourself, and that is a really amazing gift: to be able to write about those moments in time when I felt so crazy, and hated myself, and beat myself up for my own reality.”
Those songs eventually led to the success of her debut album Expectations in 2018, which took her to the upper reaches of Billboard’s Top 200 chart. Not only is Kiyoko now closer to getting an “OK, you were right” from the girls who once denied her, she is offering herself up as a totem for female worship. Earlier this year, in a full circle moment, Lance Bass made a cameo in her music video for “She,” cementing the fact that Hayley has become the NSYNC for women who love women. “It’s not about the attention,” she notes, “it’s about breaking the stereotype of ‘Hey, I’m a girl and I’m just as worthy.’ It’s about inspiring other women to feel sexy and to feel confident and attractive and worthy of attention and love and excitement and options. That’s not something I grew up feeling.”
Nor did some of her fans, who now marvel at the way they feel seen in her music.
“For the first time in my life I was able to genuinely relate to a pop artist,” says 30-year-old Kiyoko superfan Krystal. “I consider her a hero. She has saved so many lives.”
Instead of keeping the adoration for herself, though, Kiyoko chooses to share it with her community. Wthen 78 bras were thrown at her during her 2018 tour, she donated all of them to the homeless charity I Support The Girls. And Kiyokians are just as much a community as they are a fanbase. It’s common for fans to attend her concerts on their own and to leave with lifelong friends.
Kiyoko’s relationship to her listeners is almost symbiotic — as a half-Japanese woman who made her first lesbian friend at the age of 22, they offer her a community she wasn’t able to find before. “I think if I had their support when I was younger, I would have loved myself harder,” she says. “Now, their support gets me through the challenging times.” While at home, she’ll often gloss through her fans’ tour memorabilia, despite finding that period of her life difficult in itself. “Tour was really hard for me — people glamorize it, but no one tells you how to withstand touring for an entire year. You go and then you crash and burn or you make your mistakes and you learn what to do and what not to do. The experience was really hard for me, but my fans got me through it and inspired me to keep going and I dream of those days now.”
Kiyoko is dreaming of the future, too. When she released the music video for “Girls Like Girls,” she established herself as an auteur of the queer gaze. She’s since made a collection of first-rate music videos, which have not only helped open up queer representation, they’ve proven her talents as a director. “I want to create films and TV shows that people can watch over and over again and feel safe with, and feel represented. That’s my ultimate goal in life,” she says.” Does that mean transitioning out of music? “No. I will always make music. If I were to direct a film, I would do the soundtrack. To me, music isn’t excluded, because music is such a massive part of a visual. They go hand in hand.”
In the meantime, Kiyoko has been working on her sophomore followup to Expectations from the studio she recently built at home. While she has no idea when it will be released, the project is nearing its final stages. She says it will take a turn back towards the feel-good comfort music that she wants to be known for. “It won’t be like I’m Too Sensitive For This Shit [Hayley’s latest EP]; that was just a dark moment that I got out of my system,” she confirms. “This is chapter two of the beginning of Hayley Kiyoko, and I’m ready now. I was ready before but now I’ve experienced everything. And while Kiyoko has some idea of her impact, she won’t be content until it reaches a stadium-sized audience. “I feel like I’m only just getting started,” she says. “I’m not selling out arenas, I haven’t accomplished that dream my five year-old self wanted...yet."