Photo: Trevor Flores / Courtesy of Atlantic Records

Hayley Kiyoko Widens the Breadth of Pop on ‘Panorama’

With Disney deep in her past, pop star Hayley Kiyoko’s Panorama navigates queer relationships with self-assuredness, packaged in accessible pop hooks.

Hayley Kiyoko
Empire / Atlantic
29 July 2022

Hayley Kiyoko is one of the many stars to emerge from the Disney Channel chrysalis with a newly-formed persona opposite her glossy, made-for-TV image. The Guardian pointed out that, at the beginning of Kiyoko’s solo career, “She was still closeted — growing up on puritanical Disney can’t have helped in that regard.” However, since 2015’s single “Girls Like Girls”, Kiyoko has been coined “lesbian Jesus” by her corner of the internet and forged a boundary-breaking persona that transcends Disney’s shadow differently than her peers. On 2022’s Panorama, her second solo album, Kiyoko exposes listeners to the many different sides of her persona, both musically and personally.

Rebellion, an essential part of the Disney alumnus formula, is foundational for Kiyoko. She played Stella in the Disney Channel movie Lemonade Mouth, about five teens who upstage a popular rock band that had backing from the school and from its corporate sponsors. However, Kiyoko also rebels against establishment pop conventions through her expression of her identity as a queer woman. Initially steered towards a traditional path to pop stardom, referring to her love interests using he/him pronouns, Kiyoko broke free by releasing her debut single, “Girls Like Girls” in 2015, which features the chorus, “Girls like girls like boys do / Nothing new.” Kiyoko rebelled not only against heteronormative expectations for young girls in the spotlight but against Disney’s expectations for young pop stars to be tame or sexually promiscuous at the discretion of the market. This deadly overlap of capitalism and patriarchy yielded the memorable rebellion of Kiyoko’s Disney peers Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato

In the music video for “Girls Like Girls”, Kiyoko used visual media to shift the paradigm of teen pop stardom outlined by Disney. Through her lack of presence in the video, Kiyoko made the video canvas onto which viewers could project their own experiences. By portraying a teenage girl who falls in love with her best friend while she’s in an abusive relationship with a man, the video transitioned Kiyoko from a familiar Disney star to a star who sings about gritty emotions without a tidy resolution, and her directorial role emphasized the Kiyoko would be telling her own story from this point in her career forward. 

When the video’s protagonist embraces her love interest, causing her boyfriend to lash out physically, Kiyoko’s direction reminds listeners that teenage rebellion doesn’t always come in the form of Disney’s friendly troublemakers. Instead, same-sex relationships that challenge patriarchal power structures can invite physical violence and other systematic threats. Raising the stakes of teen romantic relationships helped Kiyoko to define the genre going forward. 

While in her previous work Kiyoko portrayed self-actualization by breaking away from a man, on Panorama, men are barely present at all, showing that Kiyoko no longer needs to make her queerness a central part of her song’s narratives. She simply tells her own story. In the opening track, “Sugar at the Bottom”, Kiyoko warns a man to stay away from her ex-girlfriend, saying, “Stay away / She’s fucking crazy.” Here, the man in the love triangle is portrayed as the outsider, with the same-sex relationship taking center stage from the beginning of the narrative, instead of being something that the narrative prepares a listener to experience. Similarly, in “Supposed to Be”, when speaking about a breakup, Kiyoko references her ex-lover’s “perfume in the bathroom / I wear it so you cover me.” 

Assuming the perfume belongs to a lover of the same sex as Kiyoko is its own form of gender normativity, but when taken in this context, the perfume signifies a same-sex relationship in an innocuous way that doesn’t justify its existence or examine its place in the culture. This unapologetic rendering of a queer relationship accomplishes Kiyoko’s goal of becoming a niche pop star with mainstream ambitions. If Panorama, seems lacking in detail or originality (I mean, what kind of perfume is it?), that’s because it’s supposed to. By including the unadorned detail of perfume, Kiyoko clears a space for herself within conventional pop culture, which often relies on banality to convey meaning. She comes full circle back to her Disney roots: after establishing her own identity, she can court the mainstream traditions that childhood in a corporation initially prepared her for. The perfume doesn’t need to be special. It just needs to be there. 

Kiyoko’s debut album, Expectations laid the foundation for pop music that would exist for its own sake by narrating the struggles of a pop star who didn’t meet many expectations. For example, in “What I Need”, featuring Kehlani, Kiyoko says, “When you’re on your own girl, you wanna own it / But when we’re with the fam you don’t wanna show it.” Here, she portrays a queer relationship in which a partner doesn’t feel comfortable sharing the relationship with family, causing tension between herself and her partner. This depiction of struggles indicative of a queer relationship framed Kiyoko’s music within the context of an ongoing insurgence of representation in pop culture, making it both compelling and accessible to a large audience.

On the title track of Panorama, Kiyoko narrates her journey out of the dark place explored on her previous album, saying, “I’m done with fires just to prove that I’ve been cursed / I’m done confusing these ashes with my worth.” This metaphor proves that when an individual endures a struggle, others often treat the collateral damage of that struggle as an accomplishment. However, this correlation inevitably defines that individual by their struggles instead of encouraging them to move on. Although this misunderstanding frequently affects the queer community, when people outside the community seek to define those in it by their queerness, it is also a universal struggle. “Panorama” doesn’t attribute this hardship to Kiyoko’s relationship tumult or coming out story. Instead, by telling queer stories on her first album, Kiyoko earned the ability to move beyond her queerness on Panorama, in keeping with the title. 

In “For the Girls”, Kiyoko addresses the patriarchy through satire. In the song’s chorus, Kiyoko proclaims, “Summer’s for the girls / The girls that like girls / The girls that like boys.” This phrase echoes “Saturdays are for the boys”, a phrase popularized by the sports news platform Barstool, which encourages men to eschew obligations and find pride in associating with their bro pack. This phrase has gained traction in America because it encourages men to set aside time for social groups that maintain traditional hierarchies, in an age when men are constantly being challenged. However, by saying that summer is “for the girls,” Kiyoko parodies this trend, implying that other social groups are also worthy of a special designation. 

In the self-directed music video for this song, Kiyoko stars in a queer, all-female version of The Bachelor, which echoes the song by showing that women don’t need to compete for a man’s attention to be an object of desire. Kiyoko’s girlfriend Becca Tilley, a former contestant on The Bachelor, makes a cameo in this video, proving that as a couple, both Kiyoko and Tilley can provide their own take on the heteronormative institutions that initially gave them a platform. By rebelling against these institutions through their careers, the stars embark on a new reality show, in which the narrative of their careers becomes a performance in and of itself.

Disney has become adept at benefitting from these narratives. By initially casting stars as teenage rebels who only rebel within the context of Disney’s wholesome parameters, Disney creates an expectation that these stars will one day unleash their promiscuity on the world. (Which they often do.) Even when stars rebel against their former employer, that employer always remains part of the conversation. Disney isn’t just the beginning of the careers of Kiyoko, Miley Cyrus, and others, but the cultural reference point that makes their evolving personas interesting. To move on from Disney is to move on from the foil character that makes your own personality shine. Of course, it doesn’t help that reviewers never fail to mention it. 

Panorama‘s “Chance” reminds listeners that reaching the summit doesn’t mean hardship will go away forever. Kiyoko confesses, “I was a no / Never maybe / I knew she’d never take a chance on me.” By the end of the song, this refrain turns into, “I never let her take a chance on me.” Sung with strong accentuation on certain melodic phrases to highlight the catchiness of the chorus, this song reassures listeners that in spite of the headstrong attitude that comes with breaking boundaries, self-doubt and inhibitions can linger. Life isn’t about making them go away; it’s about dealing with them. Kiyoko used the space she cleared for queer love songs in pop culture as a vessel to express her own humanity, reminding listeners that the most important part of a panoramic view is looking inward.