Hayley Kiyoko On Making Space For Queer Stories In Mainstream Pop Kiyoko speaks with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about her debut album, Expectations, and the importance of songs for and about girls who like girls.
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Hayley Kiyoko On Making Space For Queer Stories In Mainstream Pop

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Hayley Kiyoko On Making Space For Queer Stories In Mainstream Pop

Hayley Kiyoko On Making Space For Queer Stories In Mainstream Pop

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Hayley Kiyoko's fans call her lesbian Jesus. She started out as a child actor appearing on the Disney channel and Nickelodeon. And she got into music with a short-lived group called the Stunners. But she found her true voice in 2015 with the single "Girls Like Girls."


HAYLEY KIYOKO: (Singing) Girls like girls like boys do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now she performs catchy, upbeat pop songs full of same-sex romance and queer desire. Her debut album "Expectations" comes out this week, and she joins us now from Montgomery, Ala. Hayley, thanks so much for joining us.

KIYOKO: Thanks so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you grew up performing on the Disney Channel. Talk to me a little bit about your journey, how you came to be what you are now, the lesbian Jesus, as your fans call you.

KIYOKO: Well, I still am uncomfortable with that title (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fair enough.

KIYOKO: But I - it's a high honor, high honor. I - you know, I've been working on my music for my whole life. And I was unsigned for most of that journey and waking up every day going, how do I do this? And when "Girls Like Girls" came around, that was a time for me in 2015 where I was like, no one's watching my videos. What do I do? I'm just going to make this video because this has been a dream of mine.


KIYOKO: (Singing) Girls like girls...

So I made that video with very little resources and money and put it out. And I was playing for 15 people in Lansing, Mich., the day that that video hit 500,000 views. And it started climbing - a million views - week after week after week.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you say it had always been a dream of yours to make "Girls Like Girls," you've talked about how you always knew that you were gay. When did you decide that this was something that you wanted to make public and sort of own in your music and to the world?

KIYOKO: I had this vision of telling this story between two girls and having them be best friends and showing hope because I grew up - the only films that I saw with girls loving girls always ended in, like, suicide or, like - it was very depressing. And I really wanted to create a story that ended in hope because I didn't really have that growing up. So I was like, why can't I show a story where you do get the girl?


KIYOKO: (Singing) Waves come crashing on in. I'm feeling the rapture cool my skin. Take me under the blue...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A lot of openly queer female musicians have stuck with less mainstream genres. I'm thinking about, you know, the Indigo Girls, Brandi Carlile. Why did you choose shiny pop music?

KIYOKO: I love catchy melodies, and that's been something that I've always had a strength in. Growing up and writing music, I always knew that I could write hooky melodies. And so I didn't really think I was going to land in the pop mainstream. I thought I'd be in a band like Arcade Fire or be like Fiona Apple. And - but pop just made sense to me because I grew up hip-hop dancing. I've always wanted to create music that I could dance to. And my dreams have always been on these big stages and really bringing people together.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's go to something that sounds a little bit different. Let's play a clip of your song "Sleepover."


KIYOKO: (Singing) I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to think about it. I'm just feeling low, feeling low. Even when you're next to me, it's not the way I'm picturing. I'm just feeling low, feeling low. You want to be friends forever. I can think of something better. I was feeling low, feeling low.

I really enjoyed writing that song and also direct that music video because there really is this solemn sadness to it. And it's something that you feel growing up. I think everyone can relate to having a crush on someone or loving someone and not having that be reciprocated and kind of fantasizing about it and finding comfort in that fantasy.


KIYOKO: (Singing) Come on. Let's sleep in my bed. Can I just be in my head with you? Come on. Let's sleep in my bed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think it's taken so long to get to the mainstream? As you mentioned, the stories that we see about women loving women are always really sad, and a lot of the music tends to be alternative.

KIYOKO: I don't know. It's - for me, my journey has really been trying to normalize girls loving girls. And I feel like in the mainstream, it's always not taken seriously or oversexualized. And I think that's also why I decided to really go mainstream with my music and do pop because there hasn't been, in my lifetime, a pop icon that loved women, and it was normalized and something where you just hear on the radio. And you're like, hey, I love that song. And then when you really listen to the lyrics, it's like, oh, that's about a girl. Cool.


KIYOKO: (Singing) If you let him touch you, touch you, touch you, touch you, touch you, touch you the way I used to, used to, used to, used to, used to, used to? Did you take him to the pier in Santa Monica? Forget to bring a jacket, wrap up in him 'cause you wanted to? I'm just curious. Is it serious?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Makes me want to dance. You co-direct your own music videos. And in the song "Curious," you walk through a party, and you're looking at a girl. But the girl is hanging on to a guy. Tell me about the storyline.

KIYOKO: Yeah. I really wanted to show a fun, cheeky story of what happened in my life - you know, dating a girl and having her say all these things. And then her showing up with another guy and kind of being, like, what's going on? And then having her kind of struggle with her sexuality and then only want to make out or love me in private. And so in the music video you see her kind of coming back to me but only in secret. And I'm kind of over it. And I'm just like, hey, you need to respect me 24/7.


KIYOKO: (Singing) I'm just curious. Is it serious?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's your most personal song on the album?

KIYOKO: "Mercy/Gatekeeper." That song tackles depression that I had never experienced before. I have post-concussion syndrome. I hit my head two years ago, and it was a life-altering experience for me.


KIYOKO: (Singing) All I want to do is cry. That's all I want to do.

And so from the beginning of the song, you hear on this person feeling hopeless and helpless and not being able to see and then, by the end, finding that light. And even though they haven't gotten through the depression, and they don't know where they're going, they're still moving forward.


KIYOKO: (Singing) Just give me mercy 'cause I keep hurting, hurting. Just give me mercy 'cause I keep hurting, hurting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think your message is to the fans?

KIYOKO: I think I really tried to focus on inspiring hope and creating validation for them. Being young is so hard. You're surrounded by judgment and fear. Every incident that happens in our life is so intense during that time - in your teens. And so I really try to bring intensity to their life in a positive way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hayley Kiyoko's debut album "Expectations" comes out this week. Thank you so much.

KIYOKO: Thank you so much.


KIYOKO: (Singing) Need you to be sure. Need you to be sure.

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