Music » Music Stories & Interviews

Hayley Kiyoko brings a vital new voice – and perspective – to pop music



"You wanna be friends forever?/I can think of something better," Hayley Kiyoko sings on "Sleepover," the first single from her debut album, Expectations. "Sleeping here right next to me/But will you ever mess with me? No."

When I listened to "Sleepover" for the first time, after months of tuning out Kiyoko-related social media buzz, the song hit me like a ton of bricks.

When I was in high school, I'd completely fallen for my best friend. We went to different schools and had only just gotten our learner's permits. At the mercy of moms' work schedules and Orlando's suburban sprawl, the only time we could really spend together were every-so-often sleepovers.

It was there and then, in the sacred space of the sleepover, that I felt myself aching under the weight of possibility: the opportunity to be alone together, to sleep inches away from each other. What if?

But nothing ever happened. I never tried to break the barrier, never told her how I felt. We grew up, and grew apart – but it's not like the what-ifs you feel when you're 15 ever totally disappear. Listening to "Sleepover," there was my narrative – the narrative of probably every queer girl who's ever lived – documented, all wrapped up in a perfect pop song.

The YouTube comments under the music video for "Sleepover" are a testament to the nerve that it's struck for so many – a few scrolls down, and you'll find countless "relatable"s and recounts of personal experiences much like mine. Kiyoko is willing to be specific, and it has made her a definitive lesbian voice in pop music.

If you've never been to local dance night GIRL the Party, you might not yet be familiar with Kiyoko's solo career – although chances are you've seen her before.

Kiyoko grew up in the spotlight, an honest-to-God show business kid: She acted in TV commercials and booked starring roles in Disney Channel and Cartoon Network movies.

Her music industry break came when she was tapped to be a member of bubblegum girl group the Stunners (this isn't hyperbolic – their first single was quite literally titled "Bubblegum"), but despite the promise of a major label deal and a run of dates supporting Justin Bieber, they disbanded before ever recording an album

By 2013, Kiyoko had decided to focus on her own music. But she was starting from square one – unsigned, and without a manager or producers. Her first solo EP, A Belle to Remember, was unremarkable – perhaps in large part because Kiyoko was still publicly closeted. She sang pronoun-ambiguous love songs, kissed a boy in one early video. It didn't get very much attention.

And then: in June 2015, Kiyoko released "Girls Like Girls."

"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," she told NPR last March.

The video for the single, a queer girl love story with an often-unseen queer girl happy ending, went viral. Three years later, the video has nearly 90 million views.

It was a turning point, Kiyoko tells me: "That was the first time people were truly recognizing and listening to my music, and what was great about it was that it was honest to who I was and the story that I wanted to tell."

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