Following female homosexuality and bisexuality throughout popular music, Women of Atlantic host Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy builds to singer-songwriter Hayley Kiyoko as one of the next to carry on this critical viewpoint.
Kiyoko talks growing up as a gay woman, presenting previously unseen stories in her music videos, and reveals how she was finally able to write a song like “He’ll Never Love You (HNLY).”
Women of Atlantic is a special series on What’d I Say. Murphy is the founder of Classic Album Sundays.
Colleen Murphy: Music allows us to come to terms with our identity and reveal our inner self. This is true whether we are the musician or the listener. For many of us, music can help us make sense of who we are, how we see the world, and how the world sees us. It can also break through social barriers.
I’m Colleen Cosmo Murphy, founder of Classic Album Sundays and host of “Respect: The Women of Atlantic,” a special series here on What I’d Say. On this episode, I’m going to take a look at how female homosexuality has been expressed, and in some cases not expressed in popular music and I’ll bring it up to the present with an artist who has addressed her own sexual orientation as a gay woman in her music, Hayley Kiyoko.
Sexuality and music have always gone hand-in-hand. Sexual lyrics, whether explicit or masked, have been a trademark of blues, rock and pop from its birth until now. However, if we were to look at popular music from the last century, sexuality and music has been predominantly heterosexual. And if we were to look for lyrics about same sex female relationships, you would have to look in more earnest. But that’s not to say it’s not there.
In 1928, blues artists, Ma Rainey sang, “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must have been women because I don’t like no men,” on “Prove It To Me Blues.”
Ma Rainey — “Prove It To Me Blues”
Colleen Murphy: For the most part, 1950s and 60s female pop artists who identified as gay or bisexual felt more restricted. The pop sensation discovered by Quincy Jones, Lesley Gore was known for her number one single, It’s My Party. She also had a hit with You Don’t Own Me, which was definitely a feminist song, but it was centered around a heterosexual relationship even though she had already discovered she was gay. And similarly, Janis Joplin was bisexual amongst her peers, but not publicly. And the sexuality and longing in the songs she sang were seemingly directed at men.
Janis Joplin — “I Need A Man To Love”
Colleen Murphy: Female pop singers in the 1960s felt they didn’t have the freedom to truly express their sexual orientation if it was aimed at other women. And a case in point is the late and great, Dusty Springfield. She was one of the most successful singers in Britain in the 1960s. And in 1966 alone, she had four hits more than any other musical act, including The Beatles. At her peak, Dusty fronted four seasons of our own Dusty TV show and guests presented one of Britain’s most popular prime time music programs “Ready, Steady Go.” She also introduced Motown artists such as Stevie Wonder and the Supremes and also Jimmy Hendrix to a British audience. Her friend and fellow singer, Kiki Dee called her, “One of the first female artists at a very chauvinistic time who knew what she wanted and went for it.”
While she was signed to Phillips, Dusty not only performed her own music, but also produced it. Her recording manager, Johnny Franz allowed her to take control of her sessions, but she was too uncomfortable to publicly take the credit. She recalled in an interview with Mojo Magazine, “He’d sit in the control room while I’d go out and scowl at the musicians. It was very difficult for them because they’d never heard this stuff before. I’m asking somebody with a standup bass to play Motown baselines and it was a shock.”
Asked why she didn’t take the credit, Dusty replied, “For one, Franz deserved it and I was grateful. And then there was the calculating part of me that thought it looked too slick for me to produce and sing because women didn’t do that and that remains in the British audience though less so that attitude of don’t get too slick on us, don’t be too smart, or we won’t love you. And I wanted to be loved.”
In Karen Bartletts’s fantastic biography, “Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend,” she revealed Dusty would push and push the session musicians to get the sound she wanted, and when one called her a bitch, Dusty shot back with some bitterness that there were a lot of men who had called her names behind her back, but were quite happy to live off the money they earn from her.
Colleen Murphy: After her contract with Phillips ended, she signed with Atlantic records and her first album was the classic, “Dusty in Memphis.”
Dusty Springfield — “Son of a Preacher Man”
Colleen Murphy: Dusty fans didn’t know she would have rather been singing about a woman. She had known she was attracted to girls from the time she was at convent school where she had a crush on one of the nuns. But, she had to publicly conceal her sexual identity at all costs and the cost was high.
One of her former backing singers, Jean Westwood revealed, “She was terrified. If it came out, it would ruin her career and her fans would leave, so she refused to talk about it.”
But this closeted behavior had its consequences for Dusty, a singer who always had a touch of sadness in her voice and was unable to allude to her feelings toward women and her music. Her shame at her sexual orientation led to her depression, dependence on drink and drugs and suicide attempts.
Dusty Springfield — “I Can’t Make it Alone”
Colleen Murphy: In the 70s, thanks to artists like David Bowie who claimed to be bisexual, other musicians were inspired to explore non-hetero relationships in music from art, pop to folk. Women like singer songwriter Holly Near led the way in helping change public views by openly identifying as gay women. These women encouraged the next generation of artists like KD Lang, Ani DiFranco, Melissa Etheridge, Indigo girls and Tegan and Sara who all publicly came out. But, it’s worth noting these artists had and have a more focused sound and audience rather than pure pop for the masses. Many of them were already preaching to the converted.
Attitudes toward the LGBT community have changed considerably in this century. Gender fluidity and sexuality are now hot topics in mainstream media. It’s certainly not a perfect world as of yet, but it’s important to recognize that we have come a long way and they’re beginning to enjoy a more tolerant society even if it’s just with baby steps. These attitudes have welcomed a new generation of female artists like Beth Ditto and St. Vincent to be more confident, vocal and unashamed at expressing their sexual orientation. Hayley Kiyoko is another case in point.
Hayley Kiyoko — “Girls Like Girls”
Colleen Murphy: With her single “Girls Like Girls,” Hayley openly expressed her sexual identity as a lesbian and also attempted to normalize same sex relationships as they should be seen as just as ordinary as heterosexual relationships. But, she hasn’t always felt comfortable and being outspoken about her sexuality, especially as a team member of the bubblegum pop girl group, The Stunners. It was after she debuted as a solo artist that Hayley decided she would reveal the inner self that was struggling to come out.
Alongside her musical career, Hayley is also a recognized figure in the acting world and has had lead roles and high-profile television series like CSI Cyber, Disney film Lemonade Mouth, and the film XOXO created for Netflix. Through her roles as both musician and actress, she has a large mainstream audience rather than a niche audience who is more familiar with what’s often regarded as alternative lifestyles. And it’s because of her bold expression of her sexual identity through her music that she has garnered a supportive and devoted fan base who are inspired by her message and feel empowered by her songs.
We caught up with Hayley both in person and also at the Samsung Doers Defying Barriers Event around the release of her album, “Expectations.” Continuing the trajectory of her 2015 single “Girls Like Girls,” Hayley’s new album features, more songs hinged upon her own personal experience as a lesbian, including the singles, “Sleepover” and “Curious.” She told us why she feels compelled to repeatedly express her sexuality in her work.
Hayley Kiyoko: It’s important to address my sexuality in my music because that’s a part of my life. It’s a huge part of my life. And if I didn’t address that in my music, then I don’t know what I would sing about because that’s probably 80% of my life is complaining about girls who are looking at a cute girl walking down the street or that just affects me every two seconds. So, if I didn’t sing about that then I feel like I wouldn’t be being true to who I am.
And I think that’s why it’s important too for me to want to be a pop artist and to be in the mainstream is because I want to showcase that. Well, I want to prove that I can be on the radio and that that option is there and that can happen for people.
Colleen Murphy: Hayley didn’t always feel this freedom, especially in her younger years as she revealed at the Samsung event.
Hayley Kiyoko: In middle school and high school, I never hung out at the promenade with the cute girls because I felt uncomfortable because the girls wanted to hang out with the guys. But I was there with, for the girls. And it was this whole thing, ripple effect. And it always made me feel depressed when I would go to these promenades, or go do what all the other straight girls would do. It just made me feel sad, so I would stay at home and watch movies with my mom, which was great. She’s great company. And so, that was me growing up. I knew who I was, but it was hard because I didn’t know anyone like me. And if I did, they were ridiculed or judged.
Hayley Kiyoko — “Curious”
Colleen Murphy: There have been so many gay female musicians who never felt empowered enough to come out as a lesbian in their professional life. I’m thinking of icons like the aforementioned, Dusty Springfield who didn’t even feel she had a choice given the stigma attached to homosexuality in the ’60s. Fast forward to half of a century, and even though we’re in a more tolerant society, there are still stigmas attached, which Hayley certainly felt in the early days of her musical career.
Hayley Kiyoko: I think in the beginning of my career when I was in a girl group in the beginning before I got into my solo music, if we’re going to be really honest, I felt very uncomfortable because I felt like I had to sell sex and even though we were very young, but I felt like I had to be very feminine and I had to attract men to be successful in the music industry. And that was really hard for me because that wasn’t an interest of mine. And two, it’s just something that wasn’t comfortable with who I was. And so that was a battle.
And then when I got out of that and finally was able to focus on my solo music, which is what I’ve always wanted to do, I realized the confidences within and I could wear a tee shirt and pants and look like a boy, but feel and but still look like a girl and feel confident and love myself as long as it came within, and that takes time. That just takes maturity and time.
“Girls like Girls” was a turning point where I released this video. I didn’t put myself in the video. I wanted to really focus on the story and the topic and the conversation. And then after that I was like, Oh, I’m not being judged. This is cool. And then I released another music video and I’m making out with a girl. And then I released it and I wasn’t judged and I was like, “Okay, I’ll do that again,” and share more and more of my life. So, it’s really been a gradual thing where I released a music video and I pushed the boundaries a little bit more and I pushed the boundaries a little bit more. And then every time I just, I start to love myself even more and feel really comfortable with who I am.
Colleen Murphy: Hayley’s story has also had a big impact on her fans and it seems that not only does she inspire them, but her followers also inspire her.
Hayley Kiyoko: It’s been overwhelming when I go on tour, I’m just sobbing. I need like a sponsorship for tissues because I just am buying boxes of them. I’m crying all the time. It’s just so wonderful. I’ll never forget, there was this one girl who came up to me and she was telling me how when she came to my concert she was really depressed and she couldn’t understand why she was so depressed. She didn’t have any friends. She couldn’t get a job. Her grades were terrible in school. And then she said she went to my concert on a whim. Her friend had brought me to her, my concert. And all of a sudden, she made friends at my concert and she felt like she found herself and she loved herself after my concert, and she felt, found her community of people.
And after she went to my concert everything switched for her. And as soon as she learned to love herself, which was at my concert, she said everything changed for her life. Her grades went up. She got a job. She was happy. She was healthy. She started working out. And she was crying and thanking me for basically, I get emotional thinking about it, but saving her life. And it really hit me hard because it’s true. It really starts with loving yourself and the ripple effect of just everything around you, the way you act with people and work and school. It’s all affected by how you treat yourself.
Colleen Murphy: These are very positive and powerful messages that Hayley transmits, not only through her music, but also through her videos.
Hayley Kiyoko: I’ve directed eight music videos now. And someone was like, “Oh, you’re doing another music video about girls.” And I was like, “Yeah, I am and it’s a story you’ve never heard. You know, it’s something completely… You’re not complaining about hearing about heterosexual relationships, which we’ve heard about for generations and centuries, but this is my sixth video. You’ve seen six videos and now you’re complaining.” And that’s the whole problem.
It’s like trying to normalize it and being like, this is not, it’s this, these are stories. These are about feelings. There’s all shades and colors and times of different relationships before the relationship, after the relationships. I think that’s why my fans and I connect on such a deep level because they need and want that content because that content isn’t out there because people complain about it.
They’re like, “We’ve already seen this.” And I’m like, “Well, I’ve already seen all of this stuff my whole life and I’m not complaining about it because it’s about emotion and we all connect, we all feel.” I’m crying about stuff that I’ve never felt about a man, but I’m crying about it and I’m connecting, so it’s about really connecting as a human race and having human compassion for each other. That’s why I do the music videos that I do and that’s why I’m driving it. I’m putting out more, I’m putting out more. I’m like, yeah, of course I can do music about it and videos about everything, anything. I could tell other stories. Sure, I could. But the point is, is that I’m trying to make a point and trying to put out a lot of content that we’re missing.
Colleen Murphy: Unlike her forbearer, Dusty Springfield, a gay female musician who produced her own music, but didn’t feel comfortable admitting to either of those things, Hayley Kiyoko is loudly and proudly in control of her own output. She hopes her role as a female singer who directs her own videos inspires other burgeoning female musicians to do the same.
Hayley Kiyoko: I feel like directing music videos and being a woman has empowered people. If it didn’t empower people, that would suck. I think it’s important. I think that’s why I do what I do and sing about what I sing about it. It’s important to lead by example and to put yourself out there and to show people that anything is possible.
As an artist, I’ve really started from the bottom and slowly have been climbing and I’m very self-made. And so, it’s important to showcase that anything is possible and the best things take time. That’s something that I’ve learned, especially reflecting on, wow, my album is about to come out. I’ve been working on this for over seven years, just developing my solo music and my whole life really.
You go through frustrations and nights of crying and being like, why isn’t it this way? Why isn’t it that way? And then you reflect and you’re like, wow, this is the right way. It’s taking your time and really making sure that it’s right and everything happens for a reason and timing is everything. And it’s all about longevity too. It’s about strength and clarity and focus.
Hayley Kiyoko — “Sleepover”
Colleen Murphy: Hayley Kiyoko’s debut solo album Expectations was released in March 2018 and she clearly set the bar for herself with the album’s title.
Hayley Kiyoko: “Expectations,” the album title is my biggest strength and biggest weakness. So, it’s my biggest strength because I set my expectations so high, so I’m able to succeed in what I want and I’m like, I have to hit my mark for my expectations. But then I’m also extremely disappointed in myself and other people because I set my expectations up so high. Also too, I’ve had to learn throughout the years with health and stuff. Sometimes you have to set your expectations low for yourself. Like today, I’m not feeling well, I need to set my expectations low. I’m only going to do X, Y, and Z and that’s okay, and being comfortable with that and learning to have compassion for yourself.
And so, that was the only word that really connected all of these topics throughout the album where I’m singing about girls, I’m singing about loss, I’m singing about health, I’m singing about all these different things that I’ve been going through and was the red thread throughout it all.
Colleen Murphy: In the footsteps of the album’s first singles, “Sleepover” and “Curious,” there are other songs on the album that also focus on and revolve around Hayley’s queer identity.
Hayley Kiyoko: “He’ll Never Love You,” I’ve been wanting to write that song for my whole life, but I haven’t been able to put it into words, and really articulate it properly. And so, it’s one of my favorite songs on a personal level because it’s something that I feel like most girls that like girls go through. And it’s a song when I listen to it in the car, I’m just like, yes. And then that happened, and then that happened, and then ah. It just, it fuels me in a really aggressive, but good way. But yeah, that was a song about this girl that loved me and is definitely gay, couldn’t come out to herself, but would still hit me up.
Hayley Kiyoko — “He’ll Never Love You”
Colleen Murphy: It’s inspiring to speak with young LGBTQ musicians like Hayley Kiyoko as it wasn’t so long ago when other like-minded voices were silenced. I feel a real sadness when I look back at the careers of gay and bisexual musicians, like Leslie Gore, Janis Joplin, and Dusty Springfield, women who felt they couldn’t express who they really were in their music and to their fans. They must have felt so compromised and repressed.
There is still a long way to go for gay relationships to be viewed in the same light as hetero relationships, as normal as it should be, but our society is taking steps towards being more tolerant, and we have outspoken artists like Hayley Kiyoko to help us inch ever closer and open the doors for other gay musicians to follow suit.
I’m Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, and thank you for listening to “Respect: The Women of Atlantic,” a special series here on What I’d Say. You can listen to Hayley Kiyoko’s full-length album “Expectations” now.
Hayley Kiyoko — “Gravel To Tempo”