Hayley Kiyoko takes some time out of her Sunday afternoon to tell a moving story about one of last night's fan encounters. "I used to hide in my bedroom and listen to your music on low because I didn't want my mom to hear me," a young girl told Kiyoko. "And now my mom brought me to your concert and I'm out. And we went to your concert together."
Kiyoko has been hearing a lot of these stories lately on her One Bad Night Tour, and she can relate. Until about two years ago, she also kept her voice down. The young actress of Scooby-Doo and Lemonade Mouth fame had stepped into the electropop world as a solo artist but became frustrated when her early music failed to connect with audiences.
"I wasn't afraid of being who I was in the music industry. I was mainly afraid... no one who would listen."
As she detailed in a powerful Paper magazine essay late last year, a fateful co-writing session changed the course of her career and her life. "When I would write music [before], I'd be like, 'Well, if I'm saying 'she' and 'her,' can the mainstream audience... still connect to my music if maybe they don't feel the way I feel? Or if they're straight?'"
Kiyoko's decision to write personally about her authentic truth led to the song "Girls Like Girls." She also codirected the video, which became a breakout viral hit. The video is a short film about the longing between queer and questioning youth.
It's a theme she's explored often since then, most recently in her video for the song "Sleepover." In the video, Kiyoko wrestles with romantic feelings for a female friend who reciprocates only in Kiyoko's fantasies. "At least I got you in my head," she sings.
The video is a refreshing break from the way in which same-sex female desire has been portrayed in the past in the mainstream pop world, where it's often paid to "play gay" but not necessarily to be gay. "Sleepover" is no "I Kissed a Girl," and it's no coincidence the results are starkly different when a young, queer woman is sitting in the director's chair. Gone is the performative, sorority-girl Betty Boop sexuality played up for the male gaze. The black-lace lingerie has been replaced with comfortable cotton; the oil-slicked skin with stretch marks.
Ironically, it was the same truth Kiyoko feared might prevent her from gaining mainstream acceptance that led her to find a dedicated and growing fan base. "I ended up connecting even more... I have all these fans that come to my shows feeling like they don't have an artist to connect to... I was — just as they were — kind of lost, and as soon as I stepped up, they stepped up for me."
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Though Kiyoko is 26 years old, much of her current work focuses on the feelings of isolation, longing, and insecurity she experienced as a teenager coming to terms with her sexuality. Because she began writing openly about those feelings only a couple of years ago, there's still a lot of territory to cover.
"If you go back to my first EP, I would tell stories about [other] people as opposed to how I felt. Now I'm kind of playing catchup. I'm starting to write about how I actually felt through high school and after high school and all that stuff... Eventually, I'll be able to start writing about my present life."