Halsey Is Her Generation’s Most Successful Pop Chameleon
From the Beatles to Bowie to Madonna, metamorphosis has been an assumed component of pop stardom for decades, and the ability to transcend easy categorization has often been key to such artists’ success. So at a time when the speed of life is accelerating at an alarming rate, in a society where breaking down binaries has become a prevailing ethos, it makes perfect sense that one of Earth’s biggest pop stars would exist in a constant state of flux.
Most of the biggest names in music today defy stylistic definition, from superstars like Billie Eilish and Post Malone to headliner-level cult favorites like Frank Ocean and Lana Del Rey. We are coming off a decade ruled by the Jewish Canadian teen soap opera star who took over first hip-hop, and then pop at large, by eradicating the distinction between rapping and singing — to say nothing of the Pennsylvania girl who used Nashville country as a launchpad to conquer the musical mainstream, from Tim McGraw tributes to Future features in under 10 years. Justin Bieber just became the first artist to top Billboard’s R&B and country singles charts in the same week. Despite a continued push toward genre definition from the streaming services and radio programmers alike, artists with the magnetism to exist across those artificial boundaries are thriving. Fluidity is in.
Ashley Frangipane was seemingly born for this moment. Biracial and bisexual, the 25-year-old New Jersey native known as Halsey is uniquely suited to move across cultural spheres. Since parlaying breakthrough single “Ghost” into a recording contract with Capitol in 2014, she has done that and then some. If each album from music’s biggest stars is now expected to encompass a new era, with its own iconography and stylistic deviations, Halsey has put that impulse into overdrive by switching up her whole sonic and visual aesthetic from song to song and appearance to appearance. What she sounds like, and even what she looks like, seems to change every time she’s back in the spotlight.
Lots of artists are working across genres these days, and many attempt to splice unexpected sounds together, but few have more fun with their presentation. Alongside BTS on the effervescently funky K-pop dance track “Boy With Luv” last spring, her hair was a long, straight, colorful shock of neon. In the video for her nu-metal-damaged one-off “Nightmare” a month later, she donned a number of dark rock ‘n’ roll getups as well as a wavy red wig designed to parody conventional concepts of femininity. A few months after that, she wore a similar big retro hairdo in earnest while performing with country stars Lady Antebellum at the CMA Awards, merging their weepy “What If I Never Get Over You” with her own twilit acoustic track “Graveyard,” the lead single from her new album Manic. Because the fiery persona behind all that decoration remains consistent, Halsey has been able to establish a recognizable presence without ever really settling on a signature sound.
Part of being a pop star with staying power has always meant acclimating to new trends, and tracing a path through Halsey’s discography reveals her to be adept at such adaptation. Her 2015 debut Badlands was in thrall to Taylor Swift’s melodious confessionals, Lorde’s dark minimalism, and Lana Del Rey’s noir-ish obsession with American iconography, seasoned with traces of the indie synth-pop acts that were popping off at the time, like Son Lux and Purity Ring. After rocketing to a new tier of fame via the Chainsmokers’ post-EDM power ballad “Closer,” she returned in 2017 with the genre-hopping Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, which built on what came before while taking cues from the Weeknd, Rihanna, trap, tropical house, and maybe even Frank Sinatra.
These records were mostly on-trend, but Halsey’s instinct for hooks and diaristic storytelling elevated them beyond rote imitation. For a singer who has carried herself like an actress sliding in and out of disparate costumes, her lyrics have been startlingly frank and personal. As with fellow tabloid fixtures Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, and especially influence-turned-peer Swift, her songs feel less like standalone stories crafted in a lab than episodes from her real life. That’s partially why the “Cry Me A River”-interpolating breakup anthem “Without Me” — her first solo #1 hit, which reappears on Manic even though it’s been out since October 2018 — can be compelling despite playing it much straighter than your average Halsey track. The drama she’s acting out is her own.
That’s never been clearer than on Manic. Thematically, the album delves into Halsey’s experience with bipolar disorder, the condition formerly known as manic depression. As we learned from Jimi Hendrix half a century ago, it’s a frustrating mess. “Should be livin’ the dream/ But I go home and I got no self-esteem,” Halsey sings at one point. Elsewhere, she laments, “I hate everybody/ Then why can’t I go home without somebody?” The creeping trap-pop of opening scene-setter “Ashley” ends with sampled Kate Winslet dialogue from Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind: “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. I’m just a fucked up girl who’s lookin’ for my own piece of mind. Don’t assign me yours.” This leads into “clementine,” on which she confides, “In my world, I’m constantly constantly havin’ a breakthrough/ Or a breakdown, or a blackout/ Would you make out with me underneath the shelter of the balcony?”
In a tweet promoting Manic last night, Halsey promised “the full emotional spectrum” — yet another gamut to run — but the mood of the album is far narrower than that description implies. The songs present a young woman in constant tumult, flailing for connection even as she pushes people away, alternately blind with confidence and paralyzed with self-doubt. Even the few fleeting instances of pleasure are spiked with regret, like the wistful what-ifs of “Alanis’ Interlude,” which finds Halsey flashing back to an illicit classmate romance and declaring, “Your pussy is a wonderland.” Only on the strummy slow jam “Finally // beautiful stranger” does she fully give herself over to good feelings: “But I think it’s finally, finally, finally, finally, finally safe for me to fall.”
If that song is an outlier in terms of substance, it’s much more characteristic of the album’s low-key posture. Halsey continues to skip across the modern music landscape; Manic’s three guest stars, each of whom collaborate with Halsey on a song-length “interlude,” are post-everything sing-rapper Dominic Fike, BTS member Suga, and the aforementioned Alanis Morissette. So the versatility is still there, but more than ever before it coheres into a consistent vibe, softer and more spacious than anything Halsey has released before. Hard-hitting programmed beats are rare. The loudest track is the surprisingly chipper “3am,” which revives the sound of late-’90s alt-adjacent guitar-pop hits like Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch.”
Instead, Halsey often opts for a deconstructed quietude seemingly inspired by Frank Ocean’s 2016 landmark Blonde, on which drums were scarce even when songs surged to their climax. Underlining the influence, closing track “929” functions much like Blonde’s farewell dispatch “Futura Free,” on which Ocean took stock of his place in the world. Manic’s songs aren’t quite so oblique or idiosyncratic, but the bombast of her first two albums is decidedly scaled-back, usually in artful fashion. Frequently all or most of the instrumentation drops out, leaving Halsey to emote in the empty space. Compared to wide-open canvasses like “I HATE EVERYBODY,” “More,” and “Forever … (is a long time)” understated singles “Graveyard” and “You Should Be Sad” play like bangers.
The best song on the album also might be the most pared-down. The spare anti-gravity piano ballad “clementine” features Manic’s most interesting production, a cascade of plinking echoes courtesy of XXXTentacion collaborator John Cunningham. It also has Halsey’s boldest vocal performance, sometimes doubling her breathy reflections with piercing wails that will undoubtedly strike some listeners as obnoxious. Its refrain may sum up Halsey’s plight and her musical M.O. all at once: “I don’t need anyone, I don’t need anyone/ I just need everyone and then some.” That’s not an achievable goal, but she’s been making a pretty good go of it.
It’s Roddy Ricch’s week to shine on the Billboard charts. Not only has Ricch’s album Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial returned to #1 on the Billboard 200 for a second nonconsecutive week, he’s also scored his first #1 single, blocking Justin Bieber from a #1 debut in the process.
First, the Hot 100: “The Box” rises from #3 to become Ricch’s first #1 single. According to Billboard it’s the 1,096th #1 hit in the chart’s history and benefitted from the second best streaming week since “Old Town Road,” with 68.2 million on-demand plays. Its surge relegates Bieber’s “Yummy” to a #2 debut. The track is still the Bieb’s 17th top 10 hit, almost exactly a decade after “Baby” became his first. Ricch notably has another track lingering just outside the top 10, with his Mustard collaboration “Ballin'” now at #11. The rest of the top 10 comprises Post Malone’s “Circles,” Maroon 5’s “Memories,” Dan + Shay and Bieber’s “10,000 Hours,” Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved,” Tones And I’s “Dance Monkey,” Lizzo’s “Good As Hell,” Arizona Zervas’ “Roxanne,” and Selena Gomez’s “Lose You To Love Me.”
As for albums, Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial tallied 97,000 equivalent album units, only about 1,000 of them from album sales, to lead the chart. This is the first week Billboard’s album charts incorporate on-demand video streams from YouTube and other providers, which translated to 4,000 extra units for Ricch. He’s followed by a bunch of his fellow former chart-toppers: Post Malone, Harry Styles, the Travis Scott-led Jackboys compilation, the Frozen II soundtrack, DaBaby, Billie Eilish, Young Thug. Rounding out the top 10 are Summer Walker and Rod Wave.
Blake Shelton – “Nobody But You” (Feat. Gwen Stefani)
Who would’ve predicted this future for Gwen Stefani circa Tragic Kingdom, or even circa “Hollaback Girl”?
Tove Lo – “Bikini Porn” & “Passion And Pain Taste The Same When I’m Weak”
OK, so everyone is going to incorporate their Billie Eilish influence by actually hiring Finneas to produce them? Let’s see how quickly this wears out its charm. In this case, it’s a refreshing change of pace for Tove.
J Balvin – “Morado”
J Balvin has reached that plateau where it almost doesn’t matter if his new single is good as long as it means we get a new video. (This song, which translates to “Purple,” is the sneaky kind of “pretty good” that makes me suspect I will someday find it irresistible.)
Hayley Kiyoko – “she”
These I’m Too Sensitive For This Shit tracks are so fun, so catchy, so well-produced. The same can be said for this goofy-as-all-hell “she” video.
Shakira & Anuel AA – “Me Gusta”
Looks like Anuel AA is performing at the Super Bowl! As obligatory-new-song-for-high-profile-appearance fodder goes, Shakira could do much worse than this hard-throbbing reggaeton track.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- The Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana will premiere on Netflix 1/31. [Pitchfork]
- A new Jimmy Fallon primetime series will pit celebrities against each other in musical challenges. [ABC]
- Lizzo responded to The Biggest Loser trainer Jillian Michaels’ comments about her getting diabetes: “I deserve to be happy.” [HuffPo]
- Shaggy says he turned down a chance to be on Rihanna’s new album because he didn’t want to “audition.” That’s no way to treat Mr. Boombastic! [Metro]
- Ed Sheeran was ordered to disclose concert revenue as part of the lawsuit alleging his “Thinking Out Loud” infringes on Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” [THR]
- Demi Lovato will sing the National Anthem at Super Bowl LIV. [CNBC]
- Here’s the pilot for Lil Dicky’s upcoming FXX series Dave. [YouTube]
- Demi Lovato appeared on Will & Grace. [Twitter]
- Lewis Capaldi and Dave lead the 2020 Brit Award nominations. [BBC]
- Ariana Grande will perform at the Grammys. [Twitter]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Your weekly reminder that you are old. Really, really old. pic.twitter.com/Mj57ya7YmF
— Natalie Pierre (@NataliePierre_) January 13, 2020