Lesbian Jesus: Thoughts on Hayley Kiyoko LIVE in a Small Town
Hayley Kiyoko, lovingly nicknamed “lesbian Jesus”, is bringing queer experiences into the mainstream music world – and it was clearly hungry. Kiyoko’s Hawaiian shirt-sports bra, Dream pop femininity has not gone unnoticed. Her new album, Expectations tells a queer coming of age story: Sleepover laments her unrequited love for her teenage best friend, and What I Need (feat. Kehlani by the way), is a confident call for getting what she wants out of a relationship. Lyrics as blatantly queer as, “girls like girls like boys do” and “you wanna be friends forever? I can think of something better” are pretty damn exciting. Kiyoko is currently on tour for her new album, Expectations, and both NYC dates sold out immediately.
I was already planning a trip to LA with my girlfriend, and we noticed a show on the second day of her tour in the little town of San Luis Obispo, so of course we immediately bought tickets. After a hot 5 hours of cows and highway in the passenger seat of a rented car (I can’t drive, so I won’t complain too much), we arrived in town and found the little pink theater with glowing lights. There was no line, and inside there were rainbow-clad teenagers in glittery makeup (and they’re so good at it now with all those tutorials) rushing around. The merch stand was adorned with a rainbow flag reading, “20gayteen Hayley Kiyoko.” Good start.
Starving from the drive, we bought popcorn and a slice of pizza from the little concession stand. A lot of the attendees seemed local, so we were the only ones gawking at the bubblegum pink walls and swirling mermaid carvings, backlit in blue and purple. The atmosphere felt more like a local theater production than someone about to play Coachella – we couldn’t believe our luck.
We got beers and watched the opener from the back, rushing to eat our popcorn. At the end of her set the singer joked that her (male) drummer was “single, ladies!”
“We’re all gay!” Someone shouted from the crowd.
Then the lights went dark. Hazy images of girls dancing glittered over the screens. I hadn’t been so excited since I saw Fallout Boy when I was 13. I tried to keep my cool in front of my girlfriend to distinguish myself from the squealing teenagers, (let’s face it, who else besides teenagers and a vacationing freelancer can make it to a concert in the middle of nowhere on a Thursday night?) - but when Hayley walked on that stage with her blue windbreaker and undercut, I cannot tell a lie, I screamed louder than any of them. She played every song on the new album, smiling and dancing - each sway drawing screams from the crowd.
“My album only came out like a week ago, I can’t even believe you’ve all heard it already!”
She was casual and comfortable with the small crowd, telling us stories about her exes and explaining her lyrics: “Well, I was dating this girl, and well, you know when someone just plays games?” It even got a little deep: “I loved someone, and I thought, hey but I love you. Shouldn’t that be enough? But sometimes it isn’t, and you have to Let It Go.”
I took a break from “singing” and jumping up and down, and really tried to get a good look at the crowd around me. I heard someone giggle that “every queer in the county” was there. And it wasn’t just girls. I noticed fans of all genders mouthing every word and wearing Kiyoko-inspired Hawaiian shirts. I received several airdrops (teenagers use that apparently) of Snapchat accounts, but I did not understand the gesture. My girlfriend assured me they probably sent it to everyone. Why aren’t these teens scared of strangers?
I will admit there was a real sense of community there, and for a performer called, “lesbian Jesus” her fan base seemed to be pretty diverse. Maybe it was all good vibes, and to quote Kiyoko, “I over-communicate and feel too much,” but in that moment I felt that I was witnessing a burgeoning queer community; one of experiences, references, and aesthetics largely built by young people on social media who draw from, but aren’t reliant on, existing gay cultures.
Kiyoko and her band even came back for an encore, and she belted out an early hit, Gravel To Tempo while swirling around one of her rainbow flags. “I’ll do this my way, don’t matter if I break, I gotta be on – my – own” The crowd could hardly contain themselves. Kiyoko’s excitement throughout the whole performance was palpable. She beamed through her dancing (somehow simultaneously awkward and sexy) and laughed with her drummer. It was only the second day of her tour - and since her music videos came out (directed by Kiyoko herself the way) the 27-year-old’s fame has been skyrocketing, winning Push Artist of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards. Hayley Kiyoko is a bit more than a talented singer/songwriter, performer, director (as if that wasn’t enough), she’s a woman of color bringing relatable queer stories into the tangled, pop cultural fabric of America on her own terms, and redefining images of femininity and sexuality along the way. So it may not feel like it all the time, but right under the surface it’s 20gayteen…and it’s catchy.