Hayley Kiyoko leads queer girl church at Great American Music Hall

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Aslesha Kumar/Staff

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A young woman wearing a red flannel marched up and down the line to the Great American Music Hall, working her way to the intersection of O’Farrell and Larkin streets, where the line turned. “I have an extra ticket,” she exclaimed. “Does anyone need one?” She tried twice before returning to her spot in line, ending with a final offer, “Also, I’m a single queer woman!”

The surrounding crowd cheered in acknowledgement, setting the stage for Hayley Kiyoko’s “One Bad Night” Tour. Kiyoko, 25, is known as a messiah for young queer women. Her audience at the tour’s second leg in San Francisco largely consisted of women ages 16 to 26, clad in either rainbow garb or fan merchandise. Many women arrived in pairs; they held hands, kissed cheeks and drunkenly embraced. Some held signs. One sign read, “We Heart Hayley,” with a large, rainbow-striped heart. Others simply waved gay pride flags.

The description of Kiyoko as a queer messiah is far from a stretch. With the frescoes and columns of the Great American Music Hall, the small concert venue resembled an older, European church. Kiyoko was its preacher; colored lights resembling stained glass flashed behind her sermon. As she sang the soulful lyrics of “This Side of Paradise,” she promised a paradise of her own creation for her followers. At the song’s end, a fan exclaimed, “Your music is like queer gospel music,” which Kiyoko repeated into her mic with a laugh of incredulousness.

Yet her concert’s religiosity was undeniable. When Kiyoko called for fans to wave their hands, no hand was left unraised. Nearly every voice in the audience sang along throughout the show, no lyric missed or mumbled. This held true even for “Sleepover,” Kiyoko’s most recent single released only five days prior to the March 7 show. Kiyoko’s voice turned gravelly, her tone mournful as she sang of falling for her straight best friend. Too new for any added musical interludes or lyrical modifications, she ended the song with a brief summary, “It’s kinda sad, but comforting,” before launching into her next song’s introduction.

At a time when upbeat, explicitly queer music is rare, Kiyoko marches to the beat of her own drum. She also spent energetic segments on stage beating her own drum, literally, with bright green drumsticks. After her passionate drum solo intro to “Girls Like Girls,” the last song of the night, she threw her drumsticks into the crowd. This resulted in two fans wrestling on the ground for one of the sticks, a scuffle that ended with one girl triumphantly waving the drumstick and the other yelling, “She bit me!”

“Girls Like Girls” was a catalyst for Kiyoko’s career; with more than 61 million views on YouTube, the upbeat queer love anthem was many fans’ first introduction to the artist. With an adorably queer music video released just two days before Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage in the United States, the song became an instant, celebratory hit. With its simple lyrics of “girls like girls like boys do, nothing new” easily translated into mantra, it latched onto the imaginations of queer women everywhere and secured Kiyoko a near-instant fan base.

With the similarly queer-women focused videos for “Gravel to Tempo,” “Cliffs Edge” and “Sleepover” (Kiyoko’s fifth-, third- and second-most recently popular on Spotify, respectively), the singer made a name for herself by representing the media-starved queer women community, a community within which she self-identifies.

Though she has yet to release her debut album, the artist has already amassed a devoted following. Toward her show’s end, Kiyoko and band mock-exited the stage with two of her most popular songs left unplayed. The audience was more than happy to play along, chanting for an encore for the two minutes Kiyoko took to oblige and launch into an acoustic version of “Gravel to Tempo,” followed by its regular version and then “Girls Like Girls.”

“You’re a great crowd,” she called out. “It’s ‘cause we’re gay” a fan yelled in reply. “It’s ‘cause you’re gay,” Kiyoko echoed. “Just kidding!”

Contact Caroline Smith at [email protected].