a lesbian in isolation: reflections on ‘gravel to tempo’

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ever since its release off the weekend, i haven’t a day without listening to and watching the music video for hayley’s gravel to tempo. enough has been said about it (and more will be said) that i don’t feel the need to ramble on too aimlessly, but perhaps the most important thing to serve on the record here is this: how grateful i am to have this MV in my life. last week was shitty, but it was bookended by a monday viewing of ghostbusters and gravel to tempo’s weekend release. it’s pretty hard to complain.

there are so many things i could comment on, but people on tumblr have said it first and said it better. they picked out and noticed the same things i did, details that are particular to us, that you might not notice unless you share our experiences.

it’s in the way hayley walks, the slope of her shoulders, the distance between her legs as she stands, and i notice this, as i notice holtzmann’s slouch and kate mckinnon’s salute. i’ve been a bit more self-conscious lately, new environments and all, and my obsession with micro-monitoring the way my body moves has only amplified. maybe it’s unfair of me to say, because i don’t know any other experiences of gender-nonconformity. but it’s certainly a dissonance nevertheless, that the way you present yourself to the world is read as one thing, while the way you move your body (involuntarily and intentionally, the swing of your arms, the balance of your gait), the way you relate to and occupy space, the way you interact with others – are not aligned with defined femininity. it’s been days of staring at other girls – their elegance, their beauty, their ease in the way they are with each other – and staring quickly away lest i’m caught looking. then no one would think anything but that i’m a weirdo. the days where i’d find myself wishing i could shake off the feeling that there’s something wrong with me, that i wasn’t normal and like other girls, stretch on until they stop becoming days, and was simply becoming.

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it’s in the way that hayley stares at girls that gravel to tempo acted as a healing experience for me. she stares and she dances. she explicitly discloses the setting of the video: high school, with the ‘popular’ girls she had crushes on. you can’t misinterpret this into a petty story of high school hierarchy. it’s in the way that every movement of hayley’s body was sexual, but yet tangibly different from what we’re used to seeing because her sex was not for male consumption, it was barely for consumption. she danced goofy, and dorky, and stuck another girl’s chewing gum in her mouth. the video hit me in a way that recently preceding lesbian-focused music videos failed to, including hayley’s cliff’s edge and girls like girls. there has admittedly been a sudden fortune of lesbian-focused videos lately, perhaps owing to increased diversity in the industry, but whether this is a good thing remains to be seen. just look at gia’s only a girl: the video sexualises an infantilised fantasy of lesbians, aesthetically reminiscent of lolita. (a more brutal criticism: it’s porn with better music.) girls like girls didn’t manage to escape this trap completely. in my view, the fact that hayley didn’t herself star in the video played a major part. both girls like girls and cliff’s edge were landmarks to me but i’m particular, and not only do i find it difficult to relate to romance, the themes explored in both the music videos were ones explored ad nauseam in heterosexual romances.

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it’s in the way that hayley’s gravel to tempo is distinctly, unabashedly lesbian – or sapphic, as the kids call it these days (and thousands of years ago) – and it cannot be interpreted any other way. i may seem to meander away for while but i will eventually come to a point: i’ve been finding it hard to make friends, to no one’s surprise. my ‘logic’ has always inhibited my sociability (i say logic, you say neurodivergence; potato, potato). the logic of: ‘people aren’t looking to make friends right now, they’re comfortable as they are; if they are interested in seeking you out they will of their own accord, and beyond having some acquaintances, you don’t need friends; in fact you shouldn’t only seek people out because you feel lonely and want the appearance of having friends’. following: ‘if i wanted friends, i’d put in the effort, but i can’t be bothered.’ the further damning logic of: ‘it doesn’t make a difference to me whether i am with people or alone; people are people and i don’t have particular favor for one over another, i respect them all as they are’. i coined it: indiscriminate to the point of apathy. this got me to thinking about why i left (i don’t regret it – there’s been some near-misses and massive freak-outs, but i don’t regret it). i remember writing with regards to malaysia that i ‘did what i had to do’ as a cap to that chapter in my life. but the work is never done.

gone are the tentative networks of support i relied upon back home, gone are the friends whose physical proximity i never took for granted. you strip away the anatomy of a departure (the fanfare, the tears), and you’re left standing alone trying to rebuild something that cannot simply be replicated. that cannot be replicated at all. i’ve been working on this, slowly, surely, and i’m coming no closer to anything definitive, anything that would console me at my lowest, but i have come to something: that i have changed and (un)learned a lot the past two or so years, from self-diagnosed misanthrope to, well, whatever the hell this is right now. more open. more empathetic. just, more. and that’s a good thing. but i relied too much, even orbited my life around my friends, this silk-web network of affinity. when you’ve been parched for years, you can’t help but have your fill of when you can.

but i’ve got to do it for me now. i’ve got to stay alive, for me. or at least learn to. i’ve been thinking a lot about ‘cultivating independence’, and how the dominant narratives of independence for students fresh out of home are dressed in economic terms, detached and sterile. i want to cultivate independence. to get up in the morning, and eat, and clean my room and go to classes, to learn – for myself. not to impress someone, not for the degree i’ll use to make money, not for my parents and their sacrifices, not for the love i carry for my friends. independent of all other motivations, but that for myself.

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it’s in the way hayley sings, anthemic, defiant, that she’s gotta be on her own, without casting these attractive girls as points of reference. there’s something about gay girls standing unashamedly alone, set distinctly apart from other girls. i haven’t renounced my appetite to build and build and build, my respect for connections and the erotic, my desire towards affinity, but there are days (there are plenty of days, in fact) when one needs to be affirmed that it’s okay to stand alone, to re-orient your motivations to yourself, to cultivate independence. i was reading an article yesterday about writers of the lesbian-feminist literary era, and i shall quote a bit: “is a woman alone a lesbian? can a woman be a lesbian in solitude? is lesbian an identity available in isolation?”

i feel lonely right now, although i know i have friends. i know there are people around me, as there always will be. i am alone, isolated, almost. from what i have been working on relentlessly for the past few years, from full access of my own senses and cognitive capacity. i think about, how important it is for hayley kiyoko to premier a music video about a lesbian, about independence, about standing alone and standing for yourself. yet i am referring to (relying on) her work, and i will always be referring to works of women past. on days when i feel lonely and most alone, i have only to watch gravel to tempo and feel a sense of belonging, of almost-affinity. independence in terms of motivation is reasonable, to ensure i lead a life that i set out for myself and not one that has been determined by others. but i cannot truly be independent from everything, and i do not want to be. i do not want to be alone.

a lesbian is never in isolation. she always has a home in herself: in her lesbianhood, and that of others.

[1] gravel to tempo, hayley kiyoko

[2] girls like girls, hayley kiyoko

[3] cliff’s edge, hayley kiyoko

[4] only a girl, gia

[5] what remains: remembering michelle cliff, beth brant, and stephania byrd

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