“LGBT+ representation” is a term that is constantly thrown around, with some people in the LGBT+ community calling for more representation, others questioning the importance of representation over more radical action, and of course some people claiming there’s already enough representation and LGBT+ people should be happy with what they’ve got.
The importance of visibility is often not recognised by people who don’t understand how empowering, freeing and validating it can be to see media figures who you can relate to. Within the music industry, more and more queer artists are coming out and being unapologetically themselves in their music and public lives. Synth-pop singer/songwriter Hayley Kiyoko is one such act who deserves their time in the spotlight to be recognised for the revolution it is.
I first heard of Hayley Kiyoko a few years ago when her music video for ‘Girls Like Girls’ was released and Gay Twitter sent it viral. The video, which she directed, shows two female best friends hanging out, with one of the girl’s boyfriends always around interrupting their clear moments of attraction and lingering eye contact. The video climaxes with the girls finally being able to express their feelings and kiss – but not until after the girl’s boyfriend attacks the other girl. For heterosexual love stories, this violence isn’t often seen when a new couple wants to kiss for the first time, but Hayley shows the stark reality of violence against LGBT+ people, ending in a positive lesbian romance to show how this can be overcome. This music video, and the song with lyrics like “girls like girls like boys do, nothing new” centres the experience of being a girl who likes girls in a way that is still so rare in music.
Hayley Kiyoko is a lesbian who has spoken about her own struggles coming to terms with her identity growing up and her desire to depict WLW (women who love women) through her music. As a bisexual woman, seeing music videos that normalise girl-girl relationships and emotions goes a long way towards feeling accepted in a society that appears to struggle more with normalising healthy lesbian and WLW relationships than gay male relationships.
Hayley Kiyoko released her debut album Expectations last year, which I immediately loved and gave a glowing five-star review in my university’s student newspaper. Listening to it again as I write this, I realise again how great it is, not just musically (it sounds excellent, of course) but socially, culturally and emotionally. When you consume a lot of media, it can turn into white noise in your head and only the dominant messages stick. With music, I think this happens with the normalisation of love songs directed only at opposite genders to the musician; pronouns are always carefully selected, with ambiguous “you” used only in more upbeat pop songs to ensure any heartfelt ballads don’t cause rumours about what gender the artist is singing to. Hayley uses “she” and “her” throughout her songs, normalising the very idea that a woman can sing a love song about wanting, needing and loving other women. This might seem like a small step in the grand scheme of things, but its importance cannot be understated.
Visibility and feeling represented can be as simple as connecting to a song about having a crush on your best friend who also happens to be a girl, something you can’t get if you’re gay and only ever hear songs about “him” on the radio. Expectations captures deep emotions, longing and the unique pain LGBT+ people feel knowing they can’t be with the one they love out of fear or knowing the one they love is straight. Although this may sound like the makings of a pretty depressing album, I admire how Hayley can turn these topics into beautiful songs, often with catchy choruses and a backdrop of fun, energetic synth-pop song – listen to ‘Curious’ and ‘He’ll Never Love You (HNLY)’ to get a taste.
The space that Hayley Kiyoko occupies now is revolutionary. Maybe that sounds exaggerated – she’s just a singer who happens to be gay, right? It’s more than that, in my opinion anyway. Here we have a young Asian-American woman who has reached number 12 in the US Billboard charts, written and produced a full-length album and multiple music videos, and is using her platform to push for progress. She is a huge advocate for LGBT+ rights and recognises the intersections in the community, dedicating her MTV Music Awards win to queer LGBT+ women of colour; as one herself, Kiyoko uses her privileged position of fame and success to speak out about the added difficulties of being a person of colour within the LGBT+ community, an experience often ignored in the media. Kiyoko uses her music videos to tell queer stories, with her ‘What I Need’ video showing a lesbian relationship with herself and featured fellow queer artist Kehlani, validating her queer identity and showing her fans how to take up space as an LGBT+ person.
Hayley Kiyoko is such an inspirational artist because she is so completely and utterly herself and isn’t afraid to make her sexuality visible and significant. It’s what young LGBT+ people need, someone who can make their own journeys that bit easier by providing support and solidarity, even through a song or a music video celebrating queerness and particularly the queer woman experience. She is a shining example of how important shining a spotlight on equality is, just as Voice’s theme is promoting through giving writers opportunities to talk about LGBT+ artists in this concentrated way. I think she’s great and deserving of even more success.
So, if you fancy hearing more of this talented, politically active queer woman this Pride season, give Expectations a listen and continue to explore LGBT+ artists across all mediums to bring their voices to the forefront too.