THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


On Desire & Being Desired

King Princess, Hayley Kiyoko, and queer representation in pop music

by Anabelle Johnston

Illustration by Sandra Moore

published September 27, 2019


 

I easily lose myself listening to Mikaela Straus’s (a.k.a. King Princess) “Pussy is God.” Beyond its lyrics (which I know by heart), I’m carried away by the song’s swelling bass and, more acutely, the sound of her smile. It’s only when my phone unexpectedly broadcasts the song over speakers—when my listening has an audience—that I feel self-conscious about the absurd, almost unintelligible loop of Straus's voice in the hook and the claim that “Your pussy is God.”An openly queer anthem about Straus’s desire for physical and emotional intimacy with another woman, the piece celebrates her partner’s sexuality and revels in her lust. The song is intensely personal: in speaking to her own experiences, the song speaks to me. Even so, for the longest time, sharing her song felt wrong, as if the words themselves became shameful in the presence of others.

Eventually, I came to recognize this fear as some internalized rejection of my own sexuality, a result of being implicitly told that queer desire is predatory and wrong. Despite the groundbreaking work to diversify the music industry undertaken by artists like lesbian duo Tegan and Sara, the current heteronormative narrative of mainstream media leaves very little wiggle room for women's overt expressions of unadulterated desire, especially for queer women who do not perform to or for men. Even girl-power anthems like “God is a Woman” define women’s eroticism within the scope of male sexuality. Her value is determined by how she makes him feel. Ariana Grande serenades an unnamed male figure, “You love it how I move you/You love it how I touch you,” placing herself in relation to a man early in the song. While she goes on to allude to her sexual prowess and flip the narrative of the body as a temple, she continues to propagate the idea that it is designed for others to worship in. Conversely, many queer artists actively oppose this self-imposed objectification, instead intertwining romantic interests with sexuality, as Straus does in “Pussy is God.” Her reaffirmation that the subject of her affection is “special” and someone worth caring about represents a far more tender affection than Grande’s praise of her own sexual prowess and is the crux of what makes the song so raw and meaningful.

We often turn to social media to call women queens and (selectively) applaud their empowerment, yet, in everyday life, still normalize slut-shaming and fetishize women’s eroticism. I see it everywhere: my women friends are comparatively less comfortable discussing masturbation than my friends who are men, and for better or worse, find it more difficult to express sexual desire for potential romatic partners of any gender. Despite the popularity of Grande’s song, the ways we discuss women’s desire have not fundamentally changed. “God is a Woman” is acceptable because it exists within established confines of sensuality and aesthetic beauty; Grande herself is the object of desire and presents in a way that is conventionally attractive without being too heavy-handed.

But as songs like “Pussy is God” blow past social mores that cast queerness and women’s sexuality as ‘other,’ artists like King Princess and Hayley Kiyoko, another queer pop artist,  are reclaiming bodily autonomy. They are both the objects of desire and the desirers, a role that queer women often take on outside the public eye. Straus and Kiyoko are now selling this dichotomy for mass consumption as they enter the world of mainstream popular media, taking pride in their ability to represent LGTBQ+ voices in the commercialized music industry. And their work does make a meaningful difference in the lives of their audiences; it is gratifying to recognize myself in Straus’s mourning of a lost lover in “Talia,” and understand Kiyoko’s difficulty navigating relationships with others who are uncertain in their sexuality, as described by her song “Curious.” Both women present queerness to the masses as nebulous and at times painful, an honest depiction that at times makes me feel vulnerable in sharing.

Many marginalized musicians who become mainstream choose to take on the role of an unelected advocate for their community, which entails presenting one perspective as the voice of a diverse group. While well-intentioned, this position is impossible to uphold, and at times can alienate queer people who do not conform to the binary model of desire that both Straus and Kiyoko present. They continue to represent women’s sexuality in the same ways that male artists do: overtly, with sweeping statements about physicality and erotic imagery in music videos. Neither artist disrupts the current heteronormative configuration of sexuality; instead, both employ language and images that are commonly utilized by men to depict women. This mode of expression can be unsettling, partially because it challenges the way we think about women who love other women, and partially because they love in a way that can seem similar to the way straight men do. As these artists are hailed as our unequivocal representatives, I find myself wondering: Who are they to speak for me?

 

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“I hate it when dudes try to chase me,” Straus croons in her breakout hit “1950,” immediately rejecting male attention in her first message to the world. In an industry dominated by big-name producers and multiple songwriters, “1950” stands out not only for its message but because the message comes directly from Straus. She began her career independently releasing music on Soundcloud before signing with Mark Ronson’s record label Zelig Records. She then re-recorded her first hit “1950” in early 2018, a tribute to The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. With the success of this song, Straus, as King Princess, was immediately thrust into the world of pop music and Billboard Top 100 hits. Although none of her singles since “1950” have achieved the same fame, she remains firmly planted in mainstream music, exactly where she wants to be. In many interviews, Straus has stated that she hopes to be the representation she never had growing up, the queer girl who has made a name for herself in a predominantly straight industry.

Straus hopes her music will normalize public representation of women’s sexuality, stating in a 2018 interview with them., “I think I wanted to emulate these male music figures that I had that were able to just talk about the women that they wanted to be with.” But by modeling herself after overtly sexual male musicians, Straus continues to view women through the male gaze, attempting to subvert but not necessarily dismantle the system. This reduction of a woman to an object of desire­—even by another woman—can be dehumanizing even if that is not the intent.

King Princess is not alone in her self-proclaimed empowered expression of sexuality. Hayley Kiyoko has also taken control of her own narrative in her lyricism, online presence, and music videos, explicitly owning her body and gender expression while diving headfirst into the world of mass-distributed pop music. Kiyoko was first recognized as a prominent queer artist after the release of “Girls Like Girls” in 2015, a matter-of-fact affirmation of her sexuality that was accompanied by a music video depicting the trials of navigating one’s first lesbian relationship in the face of homophobia and the judgement of others. It was one of the first music videos that had ever resonated with me on a personal level, not necessarily for plot but for the emotional vulnerability Kiyoko depicted. It was intimate and honest, and it was reassuring to see young teenage girls fall in love the way that I do. When the protagonist physically fought for her relationship, it almost felt like she was protecting me.

As a part of Kiyoko’s target demographic, I understand her appeal; she is well-spoken and entertaining, as well as a natural storyteller. Her self-directed music videos incorporate intensive dance routines and unadulterated queer love, balancing empowerment with vulnerability, as exemplified by her “I Wish” music video, released in 2019. “I Wish” flips the narrative of the school-girl fantasy, instead depicting Kiyoko and her friends participating in an elaborate sorceress-inspired ritual before breaking out into dance that incorporates traditionally masculine thrusts and body language. The choreography is jarring and she appears almost possessed, utilizing symbols of fists and pounding that are typically associated with men. The surprising nature of this performance lies not in the actions but the actor, as Kiyoko still presents within the binary confines of sexuality despite undertaking an unexpected role. Like Straus's, Kiyoko’s representation rests on the male conception of power and physical representation of it, reclaiming queer sexuality while still depending on previous constructions of what it means to be empowered.

 

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As they gain more recognition, these queer artists have the potential to use their platforms to make substantial changes in a heteronormative system, but they may do harm to their audience even as they claim to overthrow the establishment. Both King Princess and Hayley Kiyoko have been hailed as voices of their generation and queer icons, but neither woman has contributed to long-term, substantial activism beyond the confines of Pride month and representation advocacy.

Kiyoko spoke out against Rita Ora’s 2018 hit “Girls,” arguing that the song perpetuates the idea of (bi)sexuality as a performance for men. Ora released an apology for the lyrics, which link sexual exploration with inebriation, stating that the experiences depicted were reflective of her own and were not intended to offend anyone. The song focuses on desire of women by women, a theme that is prevalent in much of Kiyoko’s music as well. Like “Curious,” the “Girls” music video features many half-clad women, lying suggestively while the artist sings. Theoretically, “Girls” continues to perpetuate the same stereotypes as Kiyoko’s songs, and yet Kiyoko is critical of Ora’s expression of eroticism. For Kiyoko—and many others—the issue does not lie in the act of sexual performance but in who is actually performing. Kiyoko features eroticism in her music videos and lyrics, exposing bodies in an empowering way that is a performance in and of itself. It is only when others’ experiences are unreflective of her own that she chooses to critique how queer women present themselves. As a voice in mainstream media, Kiyoko promotes only one version of women’s sexual empowerment sexuality, one that is limited in scope and functionality. She actively participates in the pitting of lesbian expression against bisexual expression, and directs media coverage to all that is wrong with a version of queer sexuality that does not mirror her own.

Kiyoko also participated in Taylor Swift’s infamous “You Need to Calm Down” music video, starring as one of the many LGBTQ+ faces in the “ally anthem.” The video was widely criticized as a star-studded publicity stunt, an example of another straight celebrity profiting from Pride month, and Kiyoko’s presence continues to undermine her argument that sexuality is not a performance to profit from. This hypocrisy is common among artist-activists who make broad statements about representation in popular media by selecting certain voices to speak for others.

Straus too sees herself as a means of representation, intertwining her public image and the music she creates to promote one persona that supposedly speaks for many. She was fortunate to grow up surrounded by prominent musicians who worked in her father’s studio, helping her form a strong sense of self that is evident in the public sphere. Her privileged upbringing, arguably, has given her the opportunity to be unabashedly herself and create music that celebrates her identity. But as she leaves behind the bedroom-and-microphone setup for a professional studio, her unique voice may be lost in the charts. Queer desire sells, but the capacity in which Straus expresses it isn’t necessarily what people want to hear. “1950,” her most commercially successful song to date, is the least overtly queer song she has produced. However, her other music is still relatively well-known, and the release of her upcoming album in October may sway public opinion to allow for more mainstream expression of women actively desiring other women—not simply the state of being desired.

 

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For many women—myself included—the idea that sexuality can be owned and constructed in a positive manner is still relatively new and is partially a result of seeing it represented in the media we consume. For all their faults, King Princess and Hayley Kiyoko are two prominent woman artists who have developed their own expression of sexuality and queerness in their art, a goal many aspire to but never reach. Most of us are still trying to determine the intended audience of our own sexual performance, how we look at others, and how we want to be looked at. As I formulate my own framework of desire, it helps to hear the defeated sigh of Straus as she admits that “We say ‘I love you’ but we ain’t together,” and see the raw depiction of both the sensual and painful parts of sapphic relationships in Kiyoko’s “Cliff’s Edge.” Although their proud pronouncements of queer love and desire are what garner public attention, the vulnerable moments of intimacy they sing about are what make me feel heard.

 

ANABELLE JOHNSTON B’23 was never allowed to write about this kind of thing in her high school newspaper.