Hayley Kiyoko Ushers in a New Era of Pop Honesty

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Hayley Kiyoko has garnered a reputation for high-energy live shows, where, in addition to singing and dancing her way through set, she’s known to take a whack or two at the drums. The talent was honed during a string of childhood lessons. However, at this moment right now, she’s a bit sleepy.

“I’m trying to look at the bright side and make it as positive as possible,” she tells CR, referring to a recent nose surgery that has her still in recovery mode. She stifles a tiny yawn, apologizing immediately after. She assures she’ll feel better in a few days. There are friends and family to see, and with any luck, maybe even a stint somewhere quiet—preferably like in a cabin on the edge of a mountain somewhere.

The 27-year-old singer-songwriter just finished a banner year—and not just because of #20gayteen, an incredibly well-timed hashtag created for her by a fan that quickly became a popular phrase in the LGBTQ community. Although she can’t pinpoint how it got started, today the phrase has over 100,000 uses on Instagram and Kiyoko has even added it to her merch, including a line of rainbow flags sold and waved at her shows

After three successful EPs, she released her full-length debut, Expectations, last March. The collection of shiny, high-octane pop songs went on to land her both a set at Coachella, and the fan-voted Rising Star award at the Billboard Music Awards, both which she’s still finds equal parts shocking and exciting. (“I met SZA tonight and she was SO DOWN TO EARTH MY GOD I LOVE HER,” Kiyoko tweeted shortly after the ceremony.)

It isn’t just the musician’s use of female pronouns in songs that has caught listeners’ attention. After all, she’s been out since her 2015 single “Girls Like Girls.” (When the video reached 100 million views at the end of 2018, Kiyoko posted an Instagram Story of her, nose covered in bandages, running around her apartment screaming.) But rather, it’s Kiyoko’s singular ability to capture the feelings that go alongside love. The desire to overshare. (“I over-communicate and feel too much, I just complicate it when I say too much.”) Of defining the relationship. (“Calling me up, so late at night/ Are we just friends? / You say you wanted me, but you’re sleeping with him.“) Or even the fear of being someone else’s experiment. (“Only want a girl who ain’t afraid to love me / Not a metaphor of what we really could be.”) But as Kiyoko explains, this era of honesty would have never been possible if it weren’t for a concussion she suffered shortly before writing her 2016 EP Citrine.

“I don’t like to say that it happened for a reason,” she says pragmatically. “But it’s taught me to slow down. I think that there was always going to be a crash. There was always going to be something that happened that was going to teach me to slow down. Because of it, I’ve learned a good self-care routine. I’ve learned how to function when I’m not feeling well when I don’t know my purpose or what I want in life or when I’m lost. It’s really challenged me mentally to know who I am.”

Although Kiyoko leaned on LGBTQ artists (she name checks Tegan and Sara, and Sia as favorites) long before coming out, there was the lingering fear of her music being placed in a single box. Would defining herself so clearly limit her reach?

“I didn’t feel like my sexuality was other people’s business,” she confesses. “I’ve always felt like that. But growing up I didn’t realize that sometimes you have to own who you are and be bold to change the way people see things. That was a turning point for me. I realized it was hypocritical of me to hide something. Why should I have to hide who I am?”

It’s retrospection set to sharp pop hooks that have earned Kiyoko comparisons to Justin Bieber (who she’s opened for), and the nickname Lesbian Jesus (which she finds funny.) But even though she’s found her audience and has become the kind of performer that commands a fleet of male back-up dancers, Kiyoko been known to tear up before and after sharing her party anthems.

“I’m always crying during tour,” she admits. “It’s emotional to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to someone. It’s really great to get to share that with people…we always have room to go. It’s one thing for people to be kind to anyone in the community, but it’s another to accept your own daughter or son. So, I think that’s another level of acceptance and showing one thing to preach unconditional love, and another to have unconditional love. I’m continuing to work toward making that easier for people to practice in their lives. And apply to their lives.”

Given her enviable work ethic (“It’s a great thing and a curse all at once because you never stop.”) Kiyoko is excited for the start to this new year, particularly since it’ll mean connecting with more fans on tour and releasing more music. (“More content!” she croons) But while the views she’s had on her self-directed videos, the performances she’s given, and the award she won were exciting, she’s well aware she’s working toward something even more important. By carving out a space for herself in the music world, she’s given the LGBTQ community as a whole a better shot at acceptance. And love.

“I think that we want to be loved,” she says. “We deserve to be love, and we’re told to be loved. And then when you don’t have it, it’s a lifetime of heartbreak. You’re looking for a community or you’re looking for friends or people to accept and welcome you. Through my music, I try to create that space for people who are searching for that and need that in their lives.”

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