When Hayley Kiyoko dropped her “Girls Like Girls” music video in 2015, no one could have predicted the massive cult following she would accrue within the LGBTQ+ community. She was immediately adopted as a queer icon, with the nickname “Lesbian Jesus” bestowed upon her by fans and accepted by the artist herself. She was what the anti-heteronormative world was waiting for: an unabashed, dazzling, women-loving-woman pop star sensation.
Three years later, Kiyoko remains dedicated to providing her fans with representation that has been a long time coming.
Despite the scarcity of music videos that portray lesbian relationships, no one doubted that Kiyoko would deliver — the video is completely in line with the image that Kiyoko has cultivated over the past few years. In anticipation for her new album, Kiyoko dubbed 2018 “20GAYTEEN” via a Twitter hashtag earlier this year. The video for “What I Need,” a track off Kiyoko’s debut album Expectations, is just one part of her very gay, very unashamed brand.
In collaboration with Oakland-born singer-songwriter Kehlani, Kiyoko directed and co-starred in the music video for “What I Need.” And, in keeping with the expectations that fans have when it comes to Kiyoko’s music videos, it tells a deceptively simple love story between two women of color who are best friends.
Kehlani’s character, having had enough of her homophobic aunt, decides to run off with Kiyoko’s character. The two women dance and drink at a dive bar, their flirtation becoming more intense. After heading back to the open road the next day, their car breaks down, and they are forced to hitchhike.
They are successful and are finally getting close to confronting the unspoken romantic feelings in the room, until a seedy truck driver almost comes in between them. However, Kehlani’s character changes her mind almost immediately, running back and passionately kissing Kiyoko’s character as the song ends.
At 5 1/2 minutes long, the video takes advantage of music video techniques such as pausing the song and inserting action-only scenes that help the story further unfold. With a compelling plot that could very well become a full-length film, Kiyoko and Kehlani’s acting unexpectedly shines, even though the two rarely speak in most of the video.
The story itself may not be all that complicated, but that isn’t the point. With Kiyoko’s insistence on making her image as gay as possible, one can only assume that she is perfectly aware of the video’s clichés. Of course, complexity isn’t the focus here — it’s the visibility that matters.
The tenderness between the characters and the care taken to tell their story are the marks of an artist truly devoted to using her platform for the sake of empowering women who love women. Kiyoko refuses to let queerness be restricted to art house, indie ventures. As she garners more and more recognition, her identity as a gay woman is placed under a brighter spotlight. The whole world isn’t watching yet, but a good deal of it is, and it’s refreshing as hell.
Every time Kiyoko comes out with a new music video, social media platforms go wild with the cheers and praise of queer people who are excited to see themselves represented, this time in a video that gained 2 million views in two days. That the novelty of Kiyoko’s art has yet to wear off, even three years into her career as Lesbian Jesus, goes to show how deeply the queer community responds to these rare but meaningful instances of representation.
With the music video for “What I Need,” Kiyoko once again proved that she and her music are what we — the LGBTQ+ community — need. #20GAYTEEN won’t end with “What I Need.” Lesbian Jesus has heard our prayers and is answering them one beautiful, well-deserved music video at a time.
Alex Jiménez covers LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected].