“Like a gay Taylor Swift”: Hayley Kiyoko and the Importance of Lesbian Teen Pop

Do you remember your first unrequited crush?

I’m sure most of us do. Even if we don’t remember the specific person, we remember something about them–the way they laughed, the rush we felt whenever they talked to us, and, of course, the inevitable hurt that came when we realized that nothing would come of it.

I had quite a few unrequited crushes. I was the only out lesbian in my high school class of ~85. My high school experience was, overall, unmarred by overt homophobia. My school touted itself as a paragon of acceptance and tolerance, and most of the students in my class were outwardly alright with having a gay classmate. I was an active participant in, and the eventual president of, my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. I was able to be out and I didn’t experience any physical violence for it. However, there were cues that I picked up on from my classmates– both explicit and implicit –that consistently reminded me that I was Different and that my Difference was alright as long as it didn’t step too far out of line.

I think every lesbian in the world, living and dead, has had unrequited feelings for a straight girl. Additionally, I think every straight girl assumes that any and every lesbian they know is going to develop a crush on them. And, of course, if you’re the only lesbian in a small group of teenagers and word gets out that you have developed a crush on a straight girl, the other straight girls start acting weird around you. As an adult, I call the things they did Gay Thoughts Shields. As a teenager, I wasn’t as jaded, and I was hurt by the defense mechanisms that these girls put up around me. I didn’t like to think that I was someone people needed to feel guarded around. I wish I could say that I didn’t let this behavior affect me, that I just brushed it off as them not knowing better, but in reality, I cried about it a lot and listened to a lot of Taylor Swift.

For me, when it comes to easing the pain of unrequited love, listening to Taylor Swift is on par with eating an entire bag of spicy nacho Doritos in one sitting and then taking a sad nap. It isn’t the best coping mechanism, and I’m not proud of doing it, but I’ve done it and I think  anybody who says that they haven’t is lying. My teenage self appreciated having music to listen to that validated the hurt I was feeling, but it didn’t quite satisfy my need. Pretending that “You Belong With Me” was directed towards a woman didn’t feel authentic, and what’s more, I felt bad about applying the song’s message to my feelings towards girls. It felt predatory, somehow, to imagine me telling another woman that I really, really wanted to be with her, to the point where I felt that we belonged together. Most, if not all, of the media I’d absorbed at that point was not specifically oriented towards lesbians, or even created with us in mind. All of the lesbian media I’d seen or listened to was pretty adult-oriented, which left me–a lonely gay teenager without a sophisticated understanding of romance–pretty much in the dark. Applying my feelings about women to straight women’s media felt like I was looking in on a party I wasn’t invited to, but I didn’t have anything else to listen to.

The first time I listened to Hayley Kiyoko’s Citrine EP, my immediate thought was “wow, I wish I’d had something like this to listen to as a teenager.” Citrine is the kind of album that has music you want to sing along to without knowing the words, because you’re already so familiar with the feeling the music creates. It’s truly refreshing to find music that resonates with you so soundly, and even more so when you can so clearly imagine a time in your life when you needed something like it.

What stood out to me the most about Citrine (more than the quality of the music itself, which, by the way, is top-notch) is how effortlessly it was able to speak to my experience of being a girl with unrequited crushes on other girls. Listening to the final song of the EP, “Palace”, took me back to a place emotionally that I hadn’t been in years. Of course, that place I wound up was entirely different than it was when I was a teenager–this time I felt like I had found some solace, like someone had ripped a page from my high school journal and put it into music. Even though I’m not currently in the throes of an unreciprocated crush, listening to Citrine for the first time made me so emotional that I cried as hard as I did when I was.

Having unrequited crushes on straight girls is an overarching theme throughout Citrine. “Gravel to Tempo”, the first song on the EP, has an accompanying music video that features Kiyoko in a high school setting dancing in front of a group of pretty girls. Kiyoko revealed in an interview with Refinery29 that the girls in the video were intended to be representative of the girls she had crushes on in high school. She also spoke about “what it was like to idolize other people and look for validation from them” and how those experiences colored her high school years. She also has high hopes for Citrine and the impact it will have on her fans–she said in the interview that her goal with the EP “is to inspire my fans to find happiness in themselves earlier on, so they don’t have such a tough time growing up.”

Gravel-To-Tempo-Hayley-Kiyoko
from “Gravel to Tempo”

The importance of this intent behind Citrine cannot be overstated. There has been a public push to reassure LGBT kids that they are fine the way they are, but stereotyping and bullying persist. As accepting as straight people like to think they are, many still balk at the idea of a gay person having–gasp!–feelings for them. The predatory lesbian stereotype has colored my interactions with women since I became aware of the stereotype’s existence. The idea of having a crush on a woman who didn’t reciprocate my feelings because of her orientation was a source of guilt and shame for me in my teenage years. Judging by the line from “Gravel to Tempo”, “I don’t feel adequate/Thinking I’m a monster in disguise”, and the intent behind the song discussed in her Refinery29 interview, this was an experience Kiyoko had as well. This feeling, of course, was never present in the Taylor Swift songs I had listened to in high school. The ease and naturalness with which Swift sang about love and heartbreak was never something I felt like I could have because my relationship with romance was always so fraught. Citrine blends that ease with lyrics about loving women and allows girls who never thought they could have it to access it.

After my first listen-through of Citrine, I talked with a friend about all the thoughts I was having about the album. I told her how I wished it had come out sooner so I would have had something to listen to as a teenager. I mentioned how listening to the music made me think that Kiyoko had ripped a page out of my high school journal and how hard I was able to relate to it. She responded, jokingly, that that was how a lot of straight girls felt about Taylor Swift’s music, and that Kiyoko’s music was “like Taylor Swift for gay girls.”

I’m not sure if I agree with the comparison of Kiyoko to Taylor Swift, simply because their music is very different, but the sentiment behind it is something that deserves some mention. It’s important for teenage girls who get crushes on other girls to have media that resonates with them–songs to cry to post-breakup, books to highlight passages of, cheesy movies with corny plotlines that have happy endings for women who love like they do. Allowing teenage girls space to sort out their feelings towards other girls and allowing them to have media that they can find solace in can be, quite literally, life-changing. Reassuring teenage girls that their feelings toward other girls aren’t predatory helps lay down the foundation for these girls to be happy and confident in pursuing relationships with other women. I hope every teenage girl who needs this media can find it, and Hayley Kiyoko deserves serious props for creating it. •


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ruth Ott is a 4th-year political science & women’s and gender studies student living in the Midwest. Her research interests include representations of lesbians and bisexual women in pop culture, LGBT literature, and LGBT activism in the Midwest. Her goals for the future include, but are not limited to, being a lesbrarian and owning a dog.

One thought on ““Like a gay Taylor Swift”: Hayley Kiyoko and the Importance of Lesbian Teen Pop

  1. i love this article! Hayley Kiyoko is near and dear to my heart and it truly is important for young girls to have music/media to relate to regarding loving other girl. I’ve seen her twice in concert and she’s an awesome role model as well!

    Like

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