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Hayley Kiyoko Rules the Screen, the Stage, and Societal ‘Expectations’

The former Disney star is known for wearing a lot of hats—she’s acted in glossy teen dramas like “Lemonade Mouth” and “Jem and the Holograms” and is also a singer-songwriter who just released her synth-pop debut studio album “Expectations.” As if those feats weren’t enough, Hayley Kiyoko can also dance, and getting to see that live is a blessing. It confirms that Kiyoko is a natural performer, spinning around on the stage and rolling her hips with a cool charisma, always smiling slyly at the crowd. At one point in the night, the audience started chanting “Go Hayley, go Hayley,” as if they were cheering on their classmate in a high school gym glitzed up for a homecoming dance, and not at the Paradise Rock Club with dozens of strangers.

That’s part of both Kiyoko’s incredible stage presence and her political power. It’s easy to feel comfortable with her when Kiyoko is actively trying to make everyone in the room feel that way. “Everyone in this room loves you, supports you,” she said, and the crowd of strangers cheered, reaffirming her statement. From the balcony, someone waved a rainbow flag, sending ripples through its stripes. The weight of Kiyoko’s words extend beyond just general statements of well-being—they have social significance too when said by the Internet’s “Lesbian Jesus.” And Kiyoko isn’t coy about her new title. “It’s pride month,” she exclaimed, and the crowd went wild again.

The second song of Kiyoko’s set was “Girls Like Girls,” a risky choice considering it’s one of Kiyoko’s most popular hits, potentially fizzing out the concert with energy early on. “Girls Like Girls” tells the story of a girl stealing another girl away from her boyfriend: “Tell the neighbors I'm not sorry if I'm breaking walls down / Building your girl’s second story / Ripping all your floors out.” It’s an anthem for all the “girls [who] like girls like boys do,” both iconic and revolutionary for being so explicit about being a lesbian love song. There is no coded language, and that’s what makes it so refreshing and necessary. During the song, Kiyoko played the “Girls Like Girls” music video, which starred two Disney actresses—Stefanie Scott and Kelsey Chow—as the romantic duo. In other words, she projected two stars of a company that has a longstanding reputation for being a symbolic American, “family-friendly,” childhood staple kissing as a lesbian couple on screen.

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Playing “Girls Like Girls” early might have seemed like a bad idea—why not save it for an electric finale?—but it was smart. Kiyoko set the tone early on with both the video and song. She made it clear that masks weren’t necessary if you didn’t want to wear them, that the stereotypical relationships seen on your childhood TV screens didn’t need not be followed—especially not in the space she carved out at the Paradise Rock Club.

Because Kiyoko lays her heart out, she makes it easy to forget about the daily stressors of the outside world as you sing along to her music or when she divulges intimate accounts of her own love life. “So when I was writing this song, I was seeing this girl at the time. And she was just so...annoying!” Kiyoko said to the crowd. “She just kept playing with my emotions. Do you guys mind if I go off on her for a second?”

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But of course, for this multi-talented musician, that meant launching into song, her form of a vent-session. “Who are you trying to trick? Why don't you just cut the shit?” Kiyoko yelled into the microphone, a cathartic act that the audience happily joined. “...Girl, why can't you just be honest—with yourself?”

That’s when Kiyoko pulls back the “one-of-us” veil and casually reminds us that she’s “Lesbian Jesus” not just because of the content of her songs, but also because she’s just brilliant at performing them. Kiyoko used to act in Cinnamon Toast Crunch commercials and play in a garage band called Hede. Now, she’s a LGBTQ messiah who can go wild on the drums if she wants to, who can bounce around the stage with endless energy, who can sing immaculately as if her voice were coming straight from an environmentally-controlled studio. “Watching from above the endless party / California, just a bad dream / I won't hang around until you want me,” she sang, a video of palm trees blooming in a kaleidoscope pattern behind her, her voice dreamy, effortless, smooth.

—Staff writer Grace Z. Li can be reached at grace.li@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

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