Hayley Kiyoko "Girls Like Girls"
Songs That Defined the Decade

Songs That Defined the Decade: Hayley Kiyoko's 'Girls Like Girls'

"It says to me that people are learning and growing and accepting themselves."

Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved. 

Back in 2015, Hayley Kiyoko was not yet Lesbian Jesus, as her fans would eventually come to deem her. In fact, the girl group singer-turned-actress-turned-pop singer-songwriter was still publicly silent about her sexual identity, fearing that the public would immediately begin placing value on her position as a pop singer if she opened up about liking women. 

“It's the immediate judgment that people have, and the stereotypes that they have on a female who likes women,” Kiyoko tells Billboard. “I wanted to be known for being Hayley… for who I am, and not who other people think I am. That was a big fear of mine, because you're really putting yourself in the line of fire by opening your personal life up to the world.”

But in a session with co-songwriters Owen Thomas and Lily May-Young, Kiyoko was asked a very simple question: What’s something that scares you? In that moment, she came out of the closet to her co-workers, and found her voice. “They were like, ‘All right, if you felt fearless and weren't scared, what would you say?’” she recalls. “And that's where ‘Girls Like Girls’ came from.” 

“Girls Like Girls” was unlike anything that Kiyoko had written at the time. While the track maintained the singer’s synth-pop sound that early fans had come to expect, the song’s lyrics delved into her queer identity with a brazen confidence that had remained unseen on previous songs. The lyrics operate as a statement to a man that she’s out to steal his girlfriend from him, as she plainly states that “Girls like girls like boys do,” before adding with a vocal shrug, “Nothing new.”

In the four years since its release on February 3, 2015, “Girls Like Girls” has gone on to become the defining song of Kiyoko’s career -- upon its release, the song quickly gained traction both in and outside of Kiyoko’s small fanbase, as the views on the music video (which was Kiyoko’s first time directing her own work) quickly climbed. 

Witnessing those views climb was a shocking moment for Kiyoko: prior to the track’s release, the star had only seen middling success with her music, and was being asked to consider alternate paths to popularity. “People were watching my videos, but I think I only had 9,000 subscribers,” she says of her YouTube channel. “The numbers just weren't climbing, and everyone was telling me to do remixes and covers. I was just like, ‘That's not me.’”

This video, however, struck a nerve. Kiyoko recalls a fond memory of when she first saw how popular the song had become just before a show she performed in Lansing, Michigan. “I was performing for like 50 people, we didn't have a green room, and I was sitting in the trunk of the minivan that we were driving across the country. That's when the video hit 500,000 views,” she says. “That was out of my hands, because it was other people sharing it. That's what was so beautiful about the whole situation, is that ... people felt connected to it.”

Today, the song is still shaping the star’s career path — in December of 2018, the YouTube video for the song hit 100 million views, and in the months since, has added another 13 million. “It's insane,” Kiyoko says, laughing, of the song’s continued relevance. “It says to me that people are learning and growing and accepting themselves. People need that.”

Throughout the remainder of the decade, queer pop stars have come to more frequently populate mainstream media. But for many of them, coming out would become a public announcement to be made after they'd already achieved major success (like Lil Nas X, Janelle Monáe, Daya and Brendon Urie).

Yet in 2015, Kiyoko stood out as one of the few queer stars who not only opened up about her sexuality publicly, but in doing so, found more popularity than she ever had previously. “Girls Like Girls” would go on to become the star’s signature song, and helped introduce her to a massive audience.

It is undeniable that Kiyoko’s career quickly changed thanks to her coming out anthem: shortly after the song’s release, Kiyoko signed to Atlantic Records, where she released her follow-up EP Citrine in 2016, and later her debut album Expectations in 2018. She opened open for Panic! at the Disco during their Pray for the Wicked Tour; she won the push: artist of the year award at the 2018 VMAs; and she even got to star alongside Taylor Swift in her blockbuster “You Need to Calm Down” video, which earned the video of the year award at the 2019 VMAs. 

In a matter of years, Kiyoko transformed from a small-time singer-songwriter into the savior of queer pop music, Lesbian Jesus. “I think that's what's the most important thing about music,” she says. “If you're being forward, and helping each other understand one another, that makes a difference.”

Songs That Defined The Decade