Queer women are having a moment in pop music. After much anticipation, Janelle Monáe officially came out as queer in a Rolling Stone interview. Kehlani also confirmed on Twitter that she considers herself queer, after making headlines kissing Demi Lovato onstage in April. In the video for “I Need A Woman to Love,” from a compilation album of reimagined wedding songs, Kesha officiates a lesbian wedding. In the videos for “Make Me Feel” and “PYNK,” Janelle Monáe and Tessa Thompson play a couple (amidst speculations that they are a couple in real life, too). On her 2017 album Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, Halsey sang the duet-style love song “Strangers” with Lauren Jauregui, which was called a “long overdue bisexual milestone in mainstream music” by Billboard.
One new face on the scene who’s been making headlines is Hayley Kiyoko, a Californian singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who released her debut studio album Expectations on March 30th. Affectionately dubbed “Lesbian Jesus” by her fans, Kiyoko's music is pure dreamy, breezy, synth-based pop. She sings of LA, of partying, of feelings, of relationships, of girls.
It’s still a rarity to hear even openly queer pop stars use same-sex pronouns in their lyrics—the references are usually more coy, a la Demi Lovato’s “Cool for the Summer.” That’s why it feels like such a delightful anomaly that Kiyoko burst onto the scene fully open about her sexuality, with the videos for her singles starring herself with female love interests. She made headlines for this reason after angering Taylor Swift fans with a comment about her music videos. In an interview with Refinery29, she said: “I’ve had several music industry execs say ‘You’re doing another music video about girls?’ I literally looked at them and was like, um, yeah...Taylor Swift sings about men in every single song and video, and no one complains that she’s unoriginal. I’m not over-sexualizing my music. 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.” And women love her back: as if her status as a heartthrob for her fans needed cementing, a video emerged on Twitter of her onstage in Denver, laughing while holding up at least a dozen bras that had been flung at her and laughing. She was dubbed an (or perhaps the) “American Teen Lesbian Heartthrob” on the June cover of Nylon.
Kiyoko’s videos are cinematic. Each tells a different story. She first garnered widespread attention on the internet for her music in 2015, when her video for her single “Girls Like Girls” became a viral hit. The video, directed by Kiyoko, portrays two girls, one of whom has a boyfriend, realizing their feelings for each other. Clocking in at five minutes, the video captures the slow burn of realizing romantic and physical attraction over time. It accomplishes this with shots that capture the quiet intimacy of sharing a cigarette, of painting each other’s nails and lips, of swimming in the pool together, and lots and lots of looking at each other. The video turns violent at the end when the boyfriend catches the girls about to kiss while sitting poolside, and he grabs his rival by her hair and throws her to the ground, causing her to cut her face on a rock. She gets up and starts beating him. It ends with the girls kissing each other to the lyrics “girls like girls like boys do.”
In her newer videos, Kiyoko herself plays the protagonist. In her newest video, “What I Need,” she and Kehlani play lovers who run away together, walking together on an open road with no real destination, and fighting and making up along the way. In the video for “Curious,” she grapples with having mutual feelings for a girl who has a boyfriend. Shots of their faces while looking at each other from across rooms make it clear they have feelings for each other, and flashbacks show that they’d been involved in the past. “Sleepover's" video is a fantasy sequence about feeling alone while you’re in the same room as someone you have feelings for. Kiyoko alternates a sensual vision of being together with reality, singing “at least I got you in my head.” “Feelings” is a lighthearted video in which Kiyoko follows and dances with a girl who alternately dances back, and coyly turns away, while she sings, “I’m sorry that I care, care.” Kiyoko poses her videos as both honest depictions of her experiences, and as positive representations of queer women: In an interview with MTV News, Meredith Graves asked Kiyoko about LGBTQ narratives from pop culture that affected her positively growing up. Kiyoko answered, "To be honest, there are none. I don’t have any. So that’s what I’m doing, with my work. I’m trying to create hope.“ She went on to say she wanted to depart from the depressing representations she was exposed to growing up that left her feeling “terrible” about who she is.
The mainstream music industry has a history of festishizing queerness, with depictions of queer women often catering to a straight, male gaze. Most recently, Rita Ora’s new single “Girls”—an “anthem of empowerment” with a long list of male co-writers that felt carefully constructed to capitalized on the current moment—was criticized by Kiyoko herself (among others, including Kehlani) for its “harmful” and “tone deaf” lyrics that treat kissing girls as a temporary, wild, wine-fueled endeavor. This criticism is perhaps complicated by the fact that Ora and Cardi B both revealed that the song was based on their past relationships with women—but Kiyoko was reacting to a trend that has clear precedent in the music industry. “Girls's" inspiration, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” became a hit in 2008 for its concoction of catchiness and shock value (and a music video in which she never actually kisses a girl). The Russian duo t.A.T.u. gained notoriety for their 2002 video for “All the Things She Said,” which featured the two making out in the rain, wearing schoolgirl uniforms. They were teens at the time. Years later, it was reported that they were never lesbians at all, with one of the duo telling the Sun that it “wasn’t fun playing lesbians anymore.” Considering the members of t.A.T.u. were so young at the time, the poor optics of this are more a reflection of a music industry climate that could forward a sexualized and exploitative depiction of “lesbians” as a marketing tool.
These videos, in contrast with Kiyoko’s, raise the question of how we understand the gendered gaze. The concept of the male gaze first emerged in a 1975 essay by Laura Mulvey. Mulvey coined the term to refer to depictions of women on-screen from a male, heterosexual point of view. In the Nation, Alina Cohen documents how a “female gaze” as the opposite of Mulvey’s “male gaze” has come into popular usage: “When women direct films, take photographs, make sculpture, and even write books or articles, they’re often said to be harnessing the ‘female gaze.’” According to Cohen, Jill Soloway (who is nonbinary) has offered the best definition of the murky idea of the female gaze as the anti-male gaze: “[Soloway] suggested that the female gaze reclaims the body to evoke feeling, uses the camera to show how it feels to be the object of the gaze, and returns the gaze onto cis males.” But implicit in this definition is the assumption that, like the male gaze, the female gaze is inherently heterosexual. Kiyoko’s videos exist outside of, or at least aside from, this heteronormative paradigm of gazing.
At times, it does feel like Kiyoko is playing with and flipping the prototypical male gaze by placing herself in the on-camera positions one might typically see a man in. The cover of her album features Kiyoko sitting in a chair, looking down at a naked woman who is posed laying on her side with her elbow propping her head, looking back at Kiyoko. It’s an image that conjures both renaissance art and modern album imagery. In the music video for “Curious,” Kiyoko sings laying on her back, surrounded by women who are running their hands sensually across her body. Yet Kiyoko’s music videos aren’t free of men. In what feels like a deliberate choice, her backup dancers are all men, in both her videos and her live performances. In her videos, men are the obstacles, preventing Kiyoko’s love interests from fully being able to admit their feelings to themselves. In “Girls like Girls,” men are violent. Of the video, Kiyoko told Us Weekly, "I loved the idea of how all these guys always are stealing other guys’ girls and I was like, ‘There’s no female anthem for a girl stealing another guy's girl,' and that is the coolest thing ever.” To this end, Kiyoko’s images and use of a queer gaze reclaim the sexualized gaze as something that is not inherently oppressive to women.
Kiyoko’s videos are a bastion of positive representation and visibility for queer women in an industry with a limited precedent for this because of of her persistent creative control over her work. She writes her own lyrics and directs many of her videos—each of her videos begins with a message like “directed by Hayley Kiyoko” or “Hayley Kiyoko presents.” As the star of her own videos, she takes direct ownership over their message. In response to a question about how she feels about being asked about her sexuality, Kiyoko told Refinery29, “Over time, my existence alone will help people see that a lesbian singer is just a singer. So while I might not want to constantly be asked about my sexuality and just be me, a big part of me is my love of women. So I guess I’m talking about it until it’s no longer seen as something to talk about.” By her initiative to both control the camera and appear in front of it in her videos, Kiyoko’s storytelling is a reflection of her own gaze—one that happens to be queer.
top photo: Hayley Kiyoko, "Sleepover"
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Katie O'Brien works in communications, writes & thinks about pop culture, and lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @katie_0brien.