Hayley Kiyoko – Citrine
By: Kathryn Trammell
Sometimes an album comes along that is so completely composed of steady, catchy beats and highlighted by the occasional repeat-worthy track that you can’t help but download it claiming one small success to your growing eclectic collection of music. Hayley Kiyoko’s newest EP, Citrine, is not this kind of album. It’s better. And although I could go on and on in true music review fashion about the ways in which her sultry synthetic tempos seep into your skin and plant themselves deep inside your bones until you can’t help but move and be moved by the brilliance of her artistry, I’m not going to. That is because to do so would be ignoring what this EP does best – express what people often think but cannot say yet do so anyways because to keep it in would be suffocating. This is the power of music – to express what can’t be put into words but also can’t be silenced. Each song may be full of Kiyoko’s own words, but they might as well speak for a handful of people who rarely get to hear their stories celebrated in the songs they love most.
“Girls Like Girls” is Kiyoko’s first example of this. Paired with a music video that was given more care than most short films are given, the song established Kiyoko as an artist who wanted to do more than provide the kind of lip service that typically weighs down other artists’ attempts at being “inclusive.” The song isn’t one about experimentation or about girls kissing girls for the observation and pleasure of a boyfriend. It was about normalizing love – all love.
This message was later repeated, only with a slightly darker tone, when Kiyoko released her music video for “Cliff’s Edge,” making many of the same fans who had connected so deeply with “Girls Like Girls” shocked that they were being represented yet again. It’s impressive enough as it is when, say for instance, a Dierks Bentley song doesn’t change pronouns from “she” to “he” just because it’s Elle King’s turn to sing or when extended metaphors inside lyrics can be read as queer. So when in the days leading up to Citrine’s release, Kiyoko dropped a steady flow of cover art, video clips and song titles making it obvious that all five songs on her new EP were going to continue to speak for girls who like girls, fans became appropriately excited.
If Kiyoko’s 2015 EP, This Side of Paradise, helped her find a voice to connect with fans then Citrine is the cliff upon which she now stands to shout that voice into the air. From beginning to end, Citrine tells a story – each song a chapter detailing the narrator’s personal growth and acceptance of herself. Maybe it’s the way she approaches the very beginning of the first song with her feet walking towards us over a gravel path, but we get the feeling that she has something important to tell us so we listen as each step becomes the tempo to her EP’s first song fully realizing that Citrine will be anything but a passive experience. It’s no wonder then that Citrine’s first chapter begins with “Gravel to Tempo,” a song about Kiyoko moving past self-doubt and depression to realize that the “monster” everyone made her believe she was is not who she is at all. Using words like “crawling” to describe the way a memory plays itself inside her mind she draws attention to fact that people are usually too consumed with worrying about the struggles of growing up that they rarely consider the struggles of simply surviving adolescence. This is a message that “Gravel to Tempo” expresses whole-heartedly and it’s one that fans, especially those who struggle with self-validation and self-acceptance while young, immediately connected with when the song was released.
But personal growth doesn’t always mean that being able to express yourself gets any easier. So, when Kiyoko walks away from her first chapter and into the next, we realize just how much she still struggles with speaking her mind even though she is finally free to do things her way. She may know who she is and she may no longer have reservations about how she loves, but this doesn’t make admitting her attractions to girls once they begin to “haunt” her mind and keep her up at night something she’s ready to do.
While “Ease My Mind” is able to distract the audience from the more difficult aspects of this struggle with glossy, optimistic beats, high notes and cheery interludes, the track “Pretty Girl” does the exact opposite in an ingenious way. When listening to the chorus of “Pretty Girl” it’s easy to notice that all four lines end with the word “girl” except for the second line, which ends with the word “world.” You’ll also notice that that the second line ends in a slightly higher pitch compared to the ending of the first, third and fourth lines in the chorus that end on the tonic note (the beginning note of the scale). Although this seems a bit technical, the fact that the word “world” is sung above the tonic note is significant because music is written this way on purpose and that purpose is to create dissonance. Tonic notes and chords give a listener a sense of completion when they are heard. Since the line “I just want to know if you will let me be your world” ends with a note that makes the statement feel unresolved it is quite possibly the most telling moment on the entire EP. Its higher pitch indicates hope, but the placement out of cadence with the rest of the notes around it indicates a fear of rejection, especially because the girl she’s attracted to might not be attracted to Kiyoko’s “type.” Its brilliant, it’s revealing and it’s quite possibly one of the many subtle reasons why the song has nearly twice as many views on YouTube as the other three tracks released alongside it.
As the story progresses onto the fourth track, we quickly learn that at some point in Citrine’s story our narrator was not rejected, especially once “One Bad Night” begins to play. The lyrics for this track are full of innuendo, the kind that can be read politely or explicitly but are hot either way. It’s interesting to note too that while “One Bad Night” is full of the kind of fire imagery that writers usually associate with desire, especially in the song’s bridge, each chapter in Citrine that came before “One Bad Night” was also associated with a different element in some way. As small pieces of one large story, each track is woven together by the sounds of the narrator moving through and interacting with the world around her. Whether it’s the earth crunching under her feet or the synthetic wind wisping between lines like “I hear you like a whisper” and “I feel you in the wind chill,” these elemental layers only add to Kiyoko’s artistic genius.
Appropriately, Citrine ends in a similar fashion with the trickling flow of water that carries the narrator to a palace inside her mind where the memory of someone dear to her is kept gilded, perfect and at peace. Of all the songs on Citrine, “Palace” is the most emotional and when Kiyoko sings the words “I need you to be free” we feel it in every gut-wrenching syllable she draws out as if agonizing over each word might force what she’s saying into a reality. When you love the way Citrine describes it, losing that love can “shatter [any] dreams” you’ve ever had of being happy again. However, “Palace” offers a solution to the sadness and that it to celebrate the life of the person you loved with the memory of what made them so beautiful. For Kiyoko, that memory ensures the object of her affection is treated like royalty and given immortality to them through the power of her songwriting. It also ensures that we, as her audience, have one more reason to embrace the way Citrine depicts and celebrates love – with vibrancy, with accuracy, and without apology.
The music of Citrine is universally appealing in both sound and meaning, but that Hayley Kiyoko is directly speaking to girls in most of Citrine’s songs (if not all of them) is revolutionary for those of us who have been waiting for years to the hear the word “girl” replace the word “you” across multiple songs, especially when the lyrics truly mean it. If there’s one thing that’s certain after experiencing Citrine, it’s that Kiyoko meant every word she wrote and crafted into her story and we could not be more grateful for that.