"Dispelling the Myth of the New Lesbian Jesus" or "Why Hayley Kiyoko is Terrible"

I am going to preface what will probably be an unpopular critique of Hayley Kiyoko by admitting that I do get excited over any shred of queer visibility in popular culture. I am not a monster. Admittedly, I have traversed the Kiyoko Youtube wormhole and surfaced hours later, hungry, thirsty and exhausted. I get it, I do. But she’s still terrible. And she’s no lesbian messiah.

The Queen.

The Queen.

 I can’t begin to imagine how differently my formative years would have played out had there been an unapologetically gay pop star on my radar. I’ve always had Madonna—she was easy to queer. Sometimes she performed it convincingly but mostly she just played the part and I knew it. It was, however, better than nothing. At 16, I scoured books and music magazines and became a kind of gay investigative journalist, searching for signs of lesbianism in interviews and album lyrics. And when the well came up dry, as it often did, I became adept at the art of projection. I projected all of my lesbian hopes, dreams and aspirations onto Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. I projected them onto Shirley Manson in Garbage’s “Queer” video. I projected it over and over again onto the kiss between Nina and Louise in Veruca Salt’s “Seether” video—which I had, of course, recorded on VHS tape.  When Patty Schemel the drummer of Hole came out in Rolling Stone Magazine, I celebrated, privately, over a Kahlua and milk in my bedroom. I was not alone in my sexuality—or my alcoholism, as it turns out—but that’s another story.

I hate this.

I hate this.

 An aging lesbian, I enthusiastically celebrate public acceptance of any and all things GAY—of women like Hayley Kiyoko who insert themselves into spaces historically reserved for cis men, like that leopard print stool on the Expectations album cover. I do not, however, celebrate the cooptation of the male-gaze and would prefer burning that script to flipping it. If a young, successful, queer, female entertainer is celebrated for embodying Justin Bieber-esque ‘swagger’—pouting under stage lights, licking her lips while looking women in the audience up and down—it’s probably time to reevaluate our definition of ‘progressive,’ ‘feminist,’ artists. I look forward to the day when a queer woman can be a successful entertainer without objectifying other women. I’ll have a party.

Phranc and The Smiths in 1992

Phranc and The Smiths in 1992

 The history of rock and pop music is actually very queer when you scrape away the impenetrable layer of heterosexual cis men at the top. Expressions of same sex desire and gender fluidity existed before there was language to describe it. In 1936, Lucille  Bogan recorded my favorite song of all-time, BD Woman’s Blues, a coded ode to “bull daggers” or bull dykes: “B.D. Women, You sure can’t understand/ They got a head like a sweet angel and they walk just like a natural man.” And recent Rock n’ Roll Hall of fame inductee, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, was openly bisexual, an interpretation often buried in rock history and scholarship in favor of placing focus on legacy and musicianship. In the 80s and 90s, there were openly gay mainstream rock and folk stars like Melissa Etheridge, K.D. Lang, the Indigo Girls, while the Queercore movement manifested, congruently, as an anarchic response to homophobic mainstream culture—similar to how Olivia Records was born in 1973 as a reaction to overt sexism in the music industry. And our patron saint, Joan Jett, was a  visibly, albeit silent, lesbian with an attitude well before Hayley Kiyoko rebranded an entire year #20GayTeen. Most openly gay progenitors did not achieve mainstream visibility—and the ones who did were the ones who were able to be commodified, sold, and consumed. Butch and former punk turned All-American-Jewish-Lesbian-Folksinger, Phranc, had a major label deal in the 80s but it’s a lot harder to sell a visible butch lesbian singing songs about politics and being gay (during the Reagan/ Bush years) than it is to sell commercial pop music written by a former Disney star.

Spice Girls

Spice Girls

Hayley Kiyoko is to queer culture what the Spice Girls were to Riot Grrrl: An inoffensive, commercially viable version of a countercultural movement.

Bikini Kill

Bikini Kill

There are pros and cons to this commodification, of course—it’s not all bad. The downside of this commercialized  “queer revolution” is that it is being heralded by the most physically palatable version of queerness—the same way The Spice Girls were the more conventionally attractive, virtually harmless version of those hairy feminists in Bikini Kill— in an era of gross capitalist consumption. And isn’t that the antithesis of queer culture? To participate in your own commodification and call it visibility?  The upside is that Kiyoko is a femme, and she is aggressively gay. An aggressively gay femme. What a beautiful phrase! She even corrects people who mislabel her. She fights the good fight (femme invisibility) and illuminates the daily struggle of gay women who lack the physical (often masculine markers, septum rings and/or an undercuts) distinctions needed to be taken seriously, or recognized at all, within the LGBTQIA community. She’s a visible, aggressively gay pop star with a diverse, global fan base. And the vehicle for her women-loving-women message is radio friendly pop which means she won’t be exiled to the Land of Lesbian Music and her message and same sex video makeouts will be consumed by a wide audience. Sure, she’s making someone a lot of money but she has the ability to change how queer people are perceived on a grand scale.

So, my problem is not that Hayley Kiyoko exists. My problem is that her music is terrible (objectively); she’s not the first lesbian anything and if you work in music media and perpetuate that myth, you are complicit in the silencing of queer women in music history; her visibility and success is a matter of commodification, being in the right place at the right time, not some new, queer revolution. That being said, I find her videos HIGHLY relatable (the unrequited love parts because I am emotionally stunted), fun to watch, and I’m old so who am I to judge. I am not proposing that we disavow a successful young, queer woman; I am suggesting that it is possible to enjoy something and to be critical of it. That it is better to notice who rises to the surface during particular cultural moments, and to critique rather than pledge blind allegiance to any attractive woman who kisses girls and capitalizes on it. Let us ingest our pop stars and be forever critical of them, the industries that churn them out, and the gatekeepers who grant them access to audience.

"Love Actually," "Carol," and the Fallacy of Closure

Two years ago, I was in Hudson, New York visiting one of my favorite couples, B and S. They’re older creatives, descended from greatness and revolutionary art movements. We were drinking coffee when S mentioned that he enjoyed the movie Love Actually, a film I’d finally watched because it was one of my ex-girlfriend’s (I am using the term as loosely as possible...like 'wet fart' loose) favorite movies—which should have been a red flag, or at least solid evidence as to our fundamental differences.

influence4big.jpg

“You liked Love Actually?”

“It’s a nice movie,” he said.

“But it’s so bad!”

“Well, it’s not a movie for you.”

I consider A Woman Under the Influence a lighthearted holiday film, so he did have a point.

Love Actually is an objectively terrible film, not only because it is completely ridiculous, but because it promotes the fallacy of closure. The kind of neat and tidy resolutions that emerge from the dust of romantic or interpersonal upset, and exist ONLY in movies. They are marketed, ad nauseam, alongside the ideology that there exists in the world one soulmate for you, and if you’re open enough, work hard enough, compromise and sacrifice enough, you will find yours in the form of Hugh Grant or something. These soulmates typically live around the corner or bump into you in a coffee shop, but sometimes they live across the country or even the globe. If they do, they will, after meeting you briefly, reevaluate their future at an airport while standing in line waiting to be accosted by a TSA agent, only to realize what they’re leaving behind in Whatever-Town (you), and the realization strikes with such force that they exit the airport only to run into their human counterpoint (you), who, by some miracle, reached the same realization in line at a grocery store and you made it to the airport just in time. You and your soulmate proceed to suck face in front of a bunch of strangers, and then, I assume, go back to your place, probably have sex, move in together, get married, have a kid, move to the suburbs, vacation once a year, advance in your careers and live happily ever after.

Love Actually is worse than other formulaic rom-coms, because it heralds a guy—Rick from The Walking Dead before he was Rick from The Walking Dead—who is so seemingly well adjusted and attachment disorder-less, that he’s able to profess his undying love for Keira Knightly in a series of well-articulated poster boards, and then casually move on with his life. Not only move on with his life, but remain friends with Kiera Knightly and her husband (his best friend). Yes, Rick from Walking Dead loves his best friend’s wife, tells her about it, and the general movie-going public seems to think this is an acceptable, romantic display. Poster board-wielding Walking Dead Rick exists, presently, as a Valentine’s Day Meme, annually flooding social media platforms with the message, “To Me You Are Perfect.” Even if he is some rare breed of earnest, self-aware guy, in touch-with-his-feelings-and-capable-of-expressing-them-legibily, there is no way that Walking Dead Rick did not suffer the ails of unrequited love. In the movie, he evolves seamlessly from “creepiest wedding videographer on earth,” to “I’ll love you forever, but I have to let you go,” in a matter of weeks—an ending more implausible in this capitalist consumer culture that covertly promotes transaction, overpowering or manipulating our objects of desire and calling it love.

What the fuck, Rick?

What the fuck, Rick?

I am 37 years old and reside in a strange resolution purgatory where a lifetime of indoctrination into the idea of heteronormative romantic love and happy endings meets gay optimistic nihilist with a hard preference for Jena Rowlands/ John Cassavettes chaos. I’ve experienced disappointment in love, twice, and I know that closure does not come in a box, gift-wrapped, with a receipt. Sometimes there’s an email, a text message, or a ‘fuck you’ and a facebook block for no discernible reason. Sometimes closure is the end of something, without explanation.

I am a lesbian and so I have seen the movie Carol. Carol isn’t a great movie, but it is a better movie than Love Actually because it is gay, it stars Cate Blanchett, and because it is rife with mixed messages, loose ends, guns, and disappointment. The first time I watched it, I suffered a devastating epiphany. I had been dating a woman, intermittently, for about a year. Every couple of months or so, she’d secretly begin dating other people, find a more suitable partner, abruptly end the relationship with me, and cease all contact and communication, leaving me, a Gemini, and therefore astrologically prone to obsessive rumination, alone with my thoughts. So, there’s this scene in Carol where Blanchett leaves her young lover a note after their second night of sensual boning: “You look for resolution because you are young.” I felt childish for seeking an explanation from the object of my desire and I looked to Blanchett for guidance. After all, Carol was a middle-aged woman with life experience, an ex-husband, a string of lovers, a daughter, and a mansion. Carol was stoic, mysterious, and wise. I wondered if my years of alcoholism and drug addiction had stunted my emotional development. I berated myself for morphing into one of those pathetic, love addicted, pedestrian lesbians who propose marriage to the first person who shows them any sign of affection. But then I watched Carol again, several months later, and Cate Blanchett seemed less mature and more like, well, kind of an asshole: “You look for resolution because you are young.”

Blanchett, Queen of the Gays

Blanchett, Queen of the Gays

‘Actually, CAROL, I look for resolution because you drove me halfway across the country, fucked me in a hotel room, took off before I woke up, and sent your best friend, Sarah Paulson, to drive me back to New York in your car. You’re a mess, Carol, and an explanation would be nice,’ is what Rooney Mara should have said. Resolution cannot be forced from a dry well like Carol, and there are a lot of dry wells walking around in the world, disguised as functioning human beings. Proceed with caution. Closure is, of course, preferable to the unknown, but dangerous if it exists as a prerequisite for letting go.

While Carol does not fall for the trap of tying everything up at the end of the film, it is STRONGLY implied that Cate and Rooney are destined to live a fulfilling lesbian life together in New York, despite their age difference and the fact that they hadn’t really spent much time together at all minus the ill fated road trip. But being gay in the 1950s did not provide much opportunity for sexual exploration, so I don’t blame Rooney Mara for shacking up with the first ridiculously hot Cate Blanchett that buys her lunch. Carol, like Love Actually, avoids the grim reality of life, love, and relationships—that things often don’t work out, love is not always reciprocated, forgiveness is not an implicit ingredient in the evolution of emotional closure, and it doesn’t always manifest in the ways we would like; in poster board messages, letters, reunions or friendship. In mature conversations, over dinner, with apologies, propositions, and promises to keep in touch.

Case in point: Maybe you, hypothetically speaking of course, fall madly in love with someone who uses you as a prop to periodically elevate their self-esteem in between more substantial relationships over the course of a year or two. Maybe they apologize and you fantasize about a future where you overcome the hurt and are able to forge a new kind of relationship out of the old. The two of you, perhaps, and your ex’s new fiance, a beacon of maturity illuminating the local queer community. The Love Actually ending. But sometimes the past is overwhelming and you might tell the fiance to go fuck himself because he liked one of your photos on Instagram and you assume he’s posturing—you know, ‘getting his dick all over everything’ so you know he exists—a very 21st century expression of masculinity and ownership that says, ‘I’m here and she’s mine.’ Kind of like a less expensive engagement ring. And then maybe your ex tells YOU to fuck off, and you both agree that there is too much baggage for a sustainable and functioning friendship. A few days later you apologize for insulting the fiance, and just like that, three years of navigating the insanity of the most significant romantic experience of your life ends with an agreement, via email, to be cordial to one another in public and remain social media friends (yes, this is a thing now). Social media is the new barometer of publicly successful, contemporary resolution. This need for some crumb of connectedness, as if to say ‘everything’s copacetic,’ is nothing more than the shapeshifting fallacy of closure manifesting in the digital age. But I’m nosy and want continued access to the ex’s Yearly Christmas Photo so I send a friend request and do my part in upholding the illusion of acquaintanceship. But, I mean, overall, this scenario did not end well.

Often, there is no resolution to be had when things end. There is no correct version of events or bigger person, there are only two people armed with conflicting projections of reality. Sometimes lesbians break up and they don’t remain friends—and lesbians remaining friends is a disgusting trend proliferated by gay media, like AfterEllen, as a necessity or sign of emotional maturity. Sometimes lesbians break up and they hate each other forever and THAT, too, is closure, whether or not it’s Rainbow Flag Endorsed.

Is it ironic that I’m struggling to formulate a closing paragraph for an essay about how closure is an insidious myth, a marketing tactic, embedded into the very fabric of our culture? Probably. But you can’t get articles published or movies made without an ending. I think my point is, that if you’re one of those lucky people like Rick from The Walking Dead, or Blanchett or Rooney Mara, great. Good for you! But I’ll be here waiting for popular culture to better reflect an array of experiences that don’t all culminate in something resembling a jewelry ad—that don’t perpetuate the idea that you NEED to resolve conflict in order to achieve resolution. Sometimes closure is a final ‘fuck you’ and never seeing that person again, except for intermittent social gatherings where you avoid eye contact or say ‘hello’ to be polite.

On Marianne Faithfull: Diary of a Lesbian Spinster in Winter

November 6th

I do two things, religiously, every winter: I listen to Marianne Faithfull and google stories about hermits who die in their homes without being discovered for weeks. Years ago, somewhere in Europe, a friendless recluse decomposed into her floor. Her body wasn’t discovered until it began dripping into the downstairs neighbor’s apartment. Last year, I considered adopting a small dog with a misshapen body and protruding fangs. The disclaimer on the adoption website read, “He did eat his owner.” The owner died at home and the dog ate the corpse instead of starving to death which seems reasonable enough. He has since been adopted and renamed “Rumplestiltskin.”

On November 6th, 2018, I drive to campus for an evening seminar and play Marianne Faithfull’s newest album, Negative Capability. I have my period and I feel hormonal and weepy. I rarely cry and I am confident about my suppression techniques until “In My Own Particular Way” begins and I promptly burst into tears for the first time in a little over two years, which, coincidentally, also occurred in a campus parking lot. I blame the parking lot, reapply my mascara, and head into class.

marianne negative.jpg

November 17th

As a closeted teenage homosexual, I spent a lot of time alone in my room,  avoiding high school boys and their aggressive penis,’ playing music, drawing, adventuring in a homemade spy belt, and recording music videos and live performances on VHS tape—before the dawn of the internet and when MTV still lived up to its name. I watched Marianne Faithfull sing with Metallica on Saturday Night Live in 1997. I thought she was interesting because she was old and I’ve always had an affinity for “women of a certain age,” but I didn’t care for Metallica and failed to investigate their mysterious backup singer.

In my late 20s, having played in bands, and procured a sizable music library out of the nucleus of “best of” albums, I considered myself well-versed in rock history. But, I invented spectacular stories about how I arrived at a particular artist or album, which, for the record, is a gender induced phenomenon. Growing up female, just outside of Guyville,[1] with no viable source of music knowledge, you tend to discover things in “un-cool” ways. The road to good taste, whatever that is, is a bit longer for girls than it is for, say, a teengage boy who was, perhaps, encouraged to play drums in a shitty death metal band, or who had the privilege of living with older, cooler siblings.

The truth is, one December in the early 2000s, I picked up Marianne Faithfull’s “Greatest Hits” out of a bargain bin at a record store and that’s when she hit me. I have disliked almost all of my favorite artists at some point but there comes a day when my emotional maturation meets their artistic genius and the two coalesce to form a successful relationship. Soon after my foray into the greatest hits, I was the proud owner of her entire discography. I preferred her Broken English,[2] cigarette-ravaged, post-heroin voice. I still do. A weathered heel on cool snowy-blue, gravel; aged and imperfect. A cup of tea that’s just a little too hot and burns when it goes down.

November 28th

I started smoking in the sixth grade, after I got my first electric guitar. It was hard to smoke regularly at 12, with a mother who singlehandedly made every school in our district smoke free. In the 90s, I bought packs of Marlboros from a vending machine at Bickfords Restaurant and smoked in the woods with friends. I chain smoked from 18 to 31. I can’t say it was Marianne Faithfull’s fault, but I can say that she was a very beautiful smoker and I didn’t hit puberty until my senior year of high school. Coorelation is not causation, but it is something.[3]

November 29th

In 2007, I admitted myself to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. One surprising thing about rehab is that they confiscate books and music that are not ‘recovery-based.’ I was prepared for the strip searches, sleepless nights on a cot in a room with other detoxing women; to be handed toiletries and razors that had to be returned after showering; for barred windows and no exercise; but I was not prepared to give up my music. I was admitted to the facility as “homeless” which meant I was awarded a coveted state bed, an extended stay, and visitation privileges. Most of the other women had visitors who smuggled in makeup or drugs, but I insisted on burned compact discs that I would shove down my pants before exiting the visitation room. There were certain things my family wouldn’t provide—anything too “depressing” and no Judy Garland because she was also too depressing and an alcoholic. But an acquaintance visited once—I think he was curious about the place. He wrote vacuous short stories about the trials and tribulations of white, college-educated, red headed young men, and he was a redhead and a Brown University graduate. He brought me a Marianne Faithfull mix and I never saw him again.

December 5th

Romantic love is a social construct but the rush of oxytocin that comes with the honeymoon period is nice. Despite my ambivalence, I reboot my dating site profile and choose a series of flattering, candid photos that I hope will attract like-minded individuals. I link my Spotify account and choose “Why’d Ya Do it” as my Tinder Anthem.[4] I do not receive any matches.

mfbroken english.jpg

 December 19th

A french reporter interviewed me about the status of women in music over Skype. We discussed oral history and the always subjective art of curation. She asked who my dream interview would be and I answered, “Marianne Faithfull.” When she asked, “why,” I said, “I love her.”

As a newly functioning and, arguably, productive member of society (how productive is a Ph.D. in a capitalist economy?), I maintain the gift of having once been a total disaster. It is a gift to have lived a million lives, and I am predisposed to obsessions with artists who possess similar disastrous yet multifaceted pasts, and who have lived long enough to offer perspective. Not necessarily a happy ending, but the comfort of shared experience.

 December 23rd

There is something about being a 37-year-old, perpetually single lesbian that makes me feel like I missed an important lesson during my formative years; the years of indoctrination into the heterosexual American ideal. In elementary school, we were asked to illustrate our futures using white paper and colored markers. I drew myself, a successful marine biologist, in a red Saab convertible parked outside of my condo, gazing adoringly at pet whales and dolphins in their large, well-maintained pools. I realized the error of my ways when the rest of the girls in class presented caricatures of weddings, husbands and bald infants. Twenty-seven years after that failed class assignment, I have managed to avoid any semblance of a normal romantic relationship. I procured a beard in High School, Brian Doolin, after a mean girl called me a lesbian in art class; from 18 to 20 I suffered massive crushes on my best friends which is an unfortunate but totally normal predicament to be in at that age; in my 30s I dated a younger woman who had a boyfriend but liked my attention on and off for a couple of years until she got bored and later engaged; and one cross-country romance with a turtleneck wearing art curator from Los Angeles who moved in with someone else while were dating and I didn’t even notice.

On bad days, I feel like a failure. Like everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, at some point, participates in the Wedding Industrial Complex. They cohabitate, marry, and trade in personal aesthetics for stark, mid-century modern chic, potted plants, and sparsely decorated white walls. For small, tasteful barn weddings, Ikea trips, dinner parties and compromise. On good days, I feel like a relationship renegade. I relish in my solitude. I am passionate about my work. I can hang as much art on my walls as I please and bathe behind the comfort of an uncouth Jeff Goldblum shower curtain. I leave the door open when I go to the bathroom so I can talk to my dog. I am not a failure, I am an enigma.

I travel often for work—I interview musicians—usually in Los Angeles because that’s where many of them live. Marianne Faithfull lives in Paris. Of course she does. I remember the first time I flew home to Massachusetts after visiting the turtleneck wearing curator girlfriend. My phone rang as soon as my plane landed and it was her. “Just wanted to make sure you made it.” I thought, this is why people partner up. I listened to “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” on the drive home but I didn’t recognize it as a premonition at the time.[5]

 December 26th

I don’t know why ageism is a thing that exists in pop culture because women over age the age of fifty are inherently more interesting artists and performers. I would rather listen to Marianne Faithfull at 71, a woman who shares her bed with an assortment of books, (and if that’s not a mutually beneficial relationship worth striving for, I don’t know what is) than be subjected to another trendy 20-something year old cog in the revolving door of streaming music garbage. I would rather be alone forever than lose myself in a relationship. I wonder if that’s why Marianne sleeps with books. I would rather be a book on Marianne Faithfull’s bed than be in love.

 December 27th

I listen to Marianne Faithfull in the winter, obsessively, because it’s purging music in a purging season. The cold, diminished daylight, the holidays, that voice—the combination begs for catharsis. Winter is the Saturn Return of the seasons and you can either absolve your shit or continue on your merry, unevolving way.

I have a tendency to disregard what I call ‘pedestrian emotions’—Love, loneliness, longing, regret—as weakness in order to maintain the illusion of someone confident, unwavering, and self-reliant. Because I am incapable of expressing true vulnerability—or more specifically, to vocalize my desire for “someone to love, who could love me back…in our own particular way”[6]—Marianne Faithfull is my conduit. And because she refuses to discuss her songs in any detail, she does us all the great favor of allowing for translation. I translate them in my private spinster universe, which, for the most part is a 2009 Toyota Matrix, in the dead of winter. Or sometimes in my living room with my old dog watching, and in those moments, that is “love, more or less.”[7]



[1] Great line from “Harvest Spoon,” by Free Kitten. 1995. Has nothing to do with Marianne Faithfull.

[2] Broken English is Marianne Faithfull’s 7th studio album, released in November, 1979. It is considered her “comeback.”

[3] Marianne Faithfull started smoking again but will quit when she goes in for shoulder surgery according to an interview with Jude Rogers for The Guardian. I still do not smoke and it’s not Marianne Faithfull’s fault that I was an impressionable and insecure teen who didn’t hit puberty until my senior year of high school.

[4] “Why’d Ya Do It” is the 8th track on Broken English, about infidelity: “Why'd ya do it, she screamed, after all we've said/ Every time I see your dick I see her cunt in my bed.” Not a great choice for a dating site anthem.

[5] I first heard this version of the song on the greatest hits bargain bin album.

[6] “In My Own Particular Way,” the 4th track on Negative Capability, is beautifully sad, vulnerable, and relateable. It’s about love, loss and aging. The most curmudgeonly of curmudgeons would cry in a parking lot over this one.

[7] “Love more or Less,” from Give My Love to London, released September 2014.