In 2015 musician Hayley Kiyoko released the music video for the song Girls Like Girls, which was included on her EP This Side of Paradise in the same year. Both the song and the music video were unapologetically queer, and in a way that centred the often neglected female voice. The song quickly grew in popularity on the micro-blogging website Tumblr – a space often recognised as being a refuge for queer-identifying young adults to connect with each other with an open acknowledgement of their sexuality.
Since the enthusiastic response to Girls Like Girls, Kiyoko has released another EP (Citrine) and now her first full-length album – Expectations. The album was preceded by three singles and debuted on Australian iTunes charts in the #1 position and at the #4 position in the US. Kiyoko’s popularity is largely due to the reputation she has built through being not only open about her sexuality, but by managing to bring this popularity into the mainstream where the attention is based on her music. For many listeners, Kiyoko’s appeal is the normalisation of her queerness in the pop music world.
Though the titles of her tracks are not always suggestive of the queer experience, the overt paradigm shift in the visual representation of Kiyoko’s work has served as a cultural reclamation of what was once a uniquely male gaze. From the theme of the song Pretty Girl, to the consistent presence of female love interests in her music videos, to the deliberate representation of voyeurism on the cover of Expectations that gives Kiyoko herself the role of voyeur – the male gaze – a role so commonly filled by men that there is a term to describe its presence in any and all cultural analysis.
Kiyoko’s earlier work, preceding Girls Like Girls, does not centre around the queer female experience. Kiyoko herself has talked about how finding her own identity helped her establish a brand of authenticity in her music. Though her personal experience has become a significant feature of her artistry, Kiyoko has managed to avoid the potential politicisation of her identity simply by expressing herself honestly and simply through her music. Especially with the shift of pronoun use in her songs from the gender-neutral ‘they’ to the explicit use of ‘she/her’, Kiyoko has normalised the female queer experience simply through being herself.
The enthusiastic response to this shift has led to Kiyoko’s fans nicknaming her ‘Lesbian Jesus’, a name that – if anything – shows the significance of Kiyoko’s approach to music. To her fans, Kiyoko is a saviour because she provides a queer representation that, sadly, hasn’t historically had a place in popular media. Though she is not the first to produce pop music with a queer slant, Kiyoko is a significant figure through the virtue of her honest self-expression and interactions with fellow queer pop artists, such as her album collaboration with artist Kehlani, who has also produced songs that normalise the experiences of queer women.
As for Kiyoko herself, to many audiences she has been a familiar face from childhood media. She has appeared in two popular Disney Channel productions: a four episode run on Wizards of Waverly Place alongside fellow Disney-alumni-turned-pop-star Selena Gomez, and a major role in the Disney Channel Original Movie, Lemonade Mouth, in which she played a rebellious teen musician who encouraged her peers to shake the status quo through music. Though Kiyoko is now aged 27, she continues to embody the spirit of her Lemonade Mouth character, Stella Yamada, as her musician career – and lesbian identity – gain momentum in popular media.
Since the release of Expectations, Kiyoko’s apparent success has only increased as the infectious and unabashedly authentic sound of her music garners new fans. The viral success of Girls Like Girls has shown that not only does the audience for this kind of content exist, but fans – especially queer fans – know that by placing their expectations in artists like Kiyoko, they are able to see the kind of world where the people they are and the people they love do not have to be the footnote in a larger political agenda.