The Week In Pop: Halsey’s New Americana Might Actually Be A Real Demographic
You ever hear a song and think, “Yep, that’s gonna be huge,” even as it slightly repulses you? Such was the case when Halsey’s “New Americana” entered my ears, its chorus triumphantly trumpeting this clunky generational creed: “We are the new Americana/ High on legal marijuana/ Raised on Biggie and Nirvana.” From its sweeping us-against-them rallying cry to its synthetic post-genre pop appeal to its generic “alt” posturing, the whole thing reeked of Lorde, only spiked with enough of Lana Del Rey’s magisterial glamor to get you tipsy. The lyrics made me wince; the music swelled and surged as anthems do; the hook kept me humming along despite my better judgment. It sounded like a hit, and sure enough, it was — at least on Apple Music’s worldwide radio station Beats 1, which earlier this summer was playing “New Americana” more than any other song besides the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.”
Grantland’s Sean Fennessey recently explored Apple’s attempts to mint Halsey as an “icon” — Zane Lowe’s word, not mine — noting that despite the vigorous support of Apple’s fancy new cultural monolith, “New Americana” had yet to make a meaningful indent at Spotify, YouTube, or Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. Fennessey wondered whether that absence was such a bad thing for Halsey’s benefactors in Cupertino: “For Apple Music to anoint a young star is to create a mutual relationship, a culture of debt, and a new class of pop star.” Creating a new caste of celebrities beholden to their empire is all well and good for Apple, but does Beats 1 overexposure translate to actual fame for Halsey?
Apparently, it does. Her debut album, Badlands, debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 this week, second only to the Weeknd once again. And really, the blockbuster numbers of Beauty Behind The Madness are an aberration; in the statistical wasteland that is 2015 album sales, 115,000 equivalent units and 97,000 in pure sales would have made Badlands an easy #1 on most weeks. Like her Twitter buddies in Twenty One Pilots, Halsey is a budding superstar whether you’ve heard of her or not.
This is not all Zane Lowe’s fault. The 20-year-old singer born Ashley Nicolette Frangipane was quietly buzzing before Beats 1 existed. After she gained traction with a Taylor Swift parody in 2012, her SoundCloud hit “Ghost” helped her nab a deal with electronic-oriented Capitol subsidiary Astralwerks in time for last year’s Room 93 EP, which in turn multiplied her sizable social media following. At SXSW this year, people tweeted about Halsey more than any other artist. In keeping with the spirit of the times, her persona is pointedly ambiguous — biracial, bisexual, and bipolar, or “tri-bi” as she calls it — and so is her music, a sleek composite of trendy modern pop sounds with ominous goth overtones. And as Jon Caramanica noted in a New York Times piece about all the young female pop rebels jockeying to be the next Lorde, the jaded outsider position Halsey adopts throughout Badlands is all the rage right now, infecting everyone from shy R&B it-girl Alessia Cara to pop-rock aggressor Meg Myers to clever country duo Maddie & Tae.
Of all those artists channeling the disaffected spirit of “Royals,” Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s shadow hangs heaviest over Halsey. Badlands is an album with a strong point of view, but in sound and attitude it could easily be mistaken for Lordecore. Within the first three songs, Halsey pictures herself as the queen of the misfits (“Castle”), samples the same Son Lux song that Lorde herself covered and remixed (“Hold Me Down”), and offers up the most potent successor to “Royals” we’ve yet witnessed (“New Americana”). And lest we forget Halsey’s career began with a jokey “I Knew You Were Trouble” cover, the album’s next three tracks — “Drive,” “Roman Holiday,” and “Colors” — all carry traces of Swift’s lyrical and melodic phrasing. “Colors” in particular is practically a “Red” rewrite, despite noir shading that once again recalls Del Rey (“Everything is blue/ His pills, his hands, his jeans”).
Halsey is meaner and more troubled than Lorde and Taylor, though, and that permeating darkness is what gives the album its own sense of personality. Underneath her swagger burbles the same kind of pain, confusion, and anger that drove the likes of Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple, but those emotions are often muted by the album’s attempts to be a sparkling pop product. Whereas “New Americana” is a slogan disguised as a song, the back half of Badlands brings the tension to the fore, establishing Halsey as more than an amalgamation of today’s reigning pop stars and offering up a wealth of memorable lyrics I can already picture an army of fans screaming back at her. The creeping trip-hop lament “Haunting” introduces itself with a manipulated vocal hook and this striking couplet: “I was as pure as a river, and now I think I’m possessed/ You put a fever inside me, and I’ve been cold since you left.” On “Young God,” Halsey puts it bluntly: “If you wanna go to heaven, you should fuck me tonight.” And “Control,” which sounds something like Trent Reznor’s attempt at trap music crossed with Paramore’s attempt at a Bond theme, paints her battle with mental illness in increasingly ferocious terms, from “I’m bigger than my body” to “I’m meaner than my demons” to “Goddamn right you should be scared of me.”
Halsey’s competition should be afraid, too. Though she has yet to truly hijack the mainstream and thus can’t quite play ball with her most prominent influences, her sales numbers this week suggest the demographic she’s singing about in “New Americana” might actually exist at her beck and call. She can be trite, yes, and she is not as revolutionary as she might imagine, but like politicians, pop stars powerful enough to build significant coalitions are rarely #FLAWLESS — more likely they’re strong personalities broad enough to harness the hopes and dreams of the many. Halsey’s music takes a collection of sounds and archetypes that has been saturating that nether region between the underground and the mainstream and arranges them into a recognizable identity, not the most original but so scalable that I can imagine her headlining stadiums someday. More so than most songs about upheaval, “New Americana” implies that the turnover is already complete, the past long since displaced by fresh traditions and new heroes to worship. Even if Halsey’s friends at Apple hadn’t already validated that thesis with last fall’s U2 debacle, her song would function as its own proof text: Badlands is our surest sonic evidence yet that pop music has indeed moved into a new era defined by new icons, and the album’s resounding success confirms that — yes, Zane Lowe — Halsey has a real chance of becoming one of them.
Most of us at Stereogum like Justin Bieber’s new single “What Do You Mean?” It turns out we’re not alone: Bolstered by 337,000 downloads, “What Do You Mean?” debuted at #1, becoming only the 23rd song to ever enter the Hot 100 on top per Billboard. It’s Bieber’s first career #1; his previous peak was 2012’s #2 hit “Boyfriend.” Bieber is also the youngest artist to ever debut at #1. Furthermore, with the Diplo/Skrillex collab “Where Are Ü Now” climbing back to #10, he has two songs in the top 10 simultaneously.
It’s undeniably a big week for Bieber, but the king of pop this week is most certainly the Weeknd. Abel Tesfaye’s album debuted at #1 (more on that momentarily), and just as impressively, he now holds the #2 and #3 singles in the country with “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills.” As Billboard reports, The Weeknd becomes the first artist since Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” last November to land two songs in the top 3, and the first man since Pharrell featured on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” in June and July 2013. The rest of the top 10: Silento’s “Watch Me” (#4), OMI’s “Cheerleader” (#5), Major Lazer/DJ Snake/MØ’s “Lean On” (#6), Selena Gomez and A$AP Rocky’s “Good For You” (#7), Fetty Wap and Remy Boyz’ “679” (#8), R. City and Adam Levine’s “Locked Away” (#9), and the aforemention “Where Are Ü Now” (#10). And look out for Demi Lovato’s “Cool For The Summer” (up to #11 this week) and Swift’s “Wildest Dreams,” which shot to #15 thanks to the premiere of its accidentally controversial video at the VMAs.
Back to the albums chart: As previously reported, the Weeknd’s Beauty Behind The Madness tallied 412,000 equivalent units to debut at #1, the second-best sales week of the year after Weeknd benefactor Drake’s 535,000 for If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. That means the Weeknd outsold Kendrick Lamar, Luke Bryan, Dr. Dre and many more 2015 heavy hitters. Beauty Behind The Madness is his first #1 album, though the #2-peaking Kiss Land came very close in 2013. We already told you about Halsey’s #2 debut, with Badlands recording 115,000 units to give Astralwerks their highest-debuting album ever. After Halsey comes Luke Bryan’s former #1 Kill The Lights, enduring at #3 with 50,000. Swift’s 1989 is at #4 with 44,000, followed by Dr. Dre’s Compton (#5, 32,000) and Ed Sheeran’s x (#6, 28,000).
Country duo Maddie & Tae, they of “Girl In A Country Song” fame, racked up about 28,000 to start at #7 with Start Here. Meanwhile, Stereogum favorites Beach House’s Depression Cherry debuts at #8 with 27,000 — that’s one place below the #7 debut of 2013’s Bloom. Yet another debut at #9, as singer-songwriter Ben Rector moves 26,000 units of Brand New. It’s just enough to beat last week’s #1, Disturbed’s Immortalized, down to #10 this week with about 26,000 as well.
IT’S BEYONCÉ APPRECIATION WEEK
Troye Sivan – “Wild”
Sivan is the most recent beneficiary of Taylor Swift’s side career as a Twitter-based pop blogger (#EPgoals), and “Wild” is the title track from his new EP. It’s very much in keeping with that bigger-than-life ’80s sound that’s been dominating pop lately, on the Peter Gabriel-plus-children’s choir tip. The song itself doesn’t do much for me, but the video is compelling — I kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the two boys to kiss.
Selena Gomez – “Same Old Love”
“Same Old Love” is not the same old Selena; I wouldn’t be surprised if Charli XCX (who co-wrote “Same Old Love” and features on background vocals) wrote this icy, minimal banger with Gwen Stefani or Rihanna in mind. Then again, Gomez has long been one of pop’s most effective chameleons, so what difference does one more new aesthetic make, particularly when the song is this good? Gomez might have finally found the single to get her past #6, where all three of her biggest hits (“Come And Get It,” “The Heart Wants What It Wants,” and the recent A$AP Rocky collab “Good For You”) have stalled out.
Kacey Musgraves – “Are You Sure” (Feat. Willie Nelson)
I agree with Caitlin that Pageant Material was a letdown, but a lot of these songs still work well in isolation, and this twangy barroom ballad with Willie Nelson is one of the best.
Pentatonix – “Can’t Sleep Love”
Pentatonix made their name on superior a cappella covers, and now they’ll see if their voracious fan base will stomach inferior a cappella originals. Hey, it worked for the Bellas in Pitch Perfect 2.
Jordan Bratton – “Frank”
Bratton has always struck me as more artfully inclined than your average R&B singer, and on “Frank,” he proves it. The nervous, melancholy piano beat and singsong lyrics addressed to “girl” are pure Drake, but what modern R&B hasn’t been touched by the 6 God’s influence?
Demi Lovato – “Take Me To Church” (Hozier Cover)
Lovato’s got the pipes to pull this one off, but unfortunately she turned it into a Joss Stone song.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- A “source” claims Miley Cyrus wants silicone devil horns implanted in her forehead. [In Touch]
- OneRepublic are one of Tim Cook’s favorite bands, but their appearance at the Apple event yesterday felt very off-brand for the company. [Mirror]
- Taylor Swift has surpassed Kim Kardashian as the most followed person on Instagram. [Us]
- Speaking of Swift, here she is with Ellen DeGeneres being “funny.” [Reddit]
- Emily Ratajkowski says Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video, in which she starred, is “the bane of my existence.” [Just Jared]
- Britney Spears has signed on to keep performing in Vegas for two more years. [Twitter]
- A royalties dispute is putting Garth Brooks’ 25th-anniversary “Friends In Low Places” remake on hold. [Rolling Stone]
- Check out Rihanna’s first designs for Puma. [Nylon]
- Selena Gomez revealed her new album cover. [Twitter]
- Nick Jonas debuted a new song at a recent concert. [YouTube]
- Lord, save us from the Jessica Simpson comeback album. [Josep Vinaixa]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME
— Andrew Beaujon (@abeaujon) September 10, 2015