Actress Hailee Steinfeld Does A Decent Pop Star Impersonation

Hailee Steinfeld

Actress Hailee Steinfeld Does A Decent Pop Star Impersonation

Hailee Steinfeld

Hailee Steinfeld was precocious from the start. At just 14 years old, Steinfeld scored an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the Coen brothers’ 2010 True Grit remake. None of her gigs in the decade since have dripped with quite so much prestige, but appearances in films like the critically acclaimed coming-of-age flick Edge Of Seventeen, the reportedly enjoyable Transformers offshoot Bumblebee, and the Pitch Perfect franchise helped establish her as one of the most promising and charismatic young actors in Hollywood. She voiced Gwen Stacy in Into The Spider-Verse and currently stars as Emily Dickinson on the Apple TV+ quasi-sitcom Dickinson. She has pulled off the transition from child actor to legit movie star.

Surprisingly, one of Steinfeld’s most convincing roles so far has been that of a real-life pop star. For the past five years, starting with her debut EP Haiz, she’s maintained a music career alongside her acting work. This venture has been more successful than your average Hollywood star’s musical vanity project. Steinfeld’s not an A-list pop artist by any stretch, but she’s scored enough hits that at this point she’s one of the biggest pop stars left who hasn’t yet released a debut album. Even now, as she finally readies her first full-length project, she’s piecing it out in a series of EPs, starting with a five-track installment this Friday pointedly titled Half Written Story.

Although Steinfeld has some good songs to her name, it’s always been hard to say whether she brings anything to the table musically. Onscreen, she bursts with personality, but her songs tend to err on the side of manufactured product built for Top 40 radio and YA rom-com syncs. Judging strictly by her discography, she would not seem to be the kind of persona who stans can build an entire identity around worshipping. Apple Music’s Hailee Steinfeld Essentials playlist — an assortment of songs that certainly stretches the definition of “essential” — does not reveal a signature sound so much as a tendency toward boilerplate sparkle. Her singles often sound like something Selena Gomez or Camila Cabello passed on — tracks that live and die by the strength of their hooks, where the production is the real star and any competent singer could feasibly be subbed in.

Rarely do Hailee Steinfeld songs communicate any sense of who Hailee Steinfeld is, yet if you’re able to appreciate pop music as a feat of harmony, texture, and technology rather than a heartfelt personal expression, they’ve been catchy enough often enough. “Love Myself,” the violently winking early Steinfeld single with a big shout-along chorus and heavy allusions to masturbation, is one of those tunes that bombards you into submission whether you like it or not. Bumblebee anthem “Back To Life,” an effervescent synth-pop track situated somewhere between Halsey and Chvrches, remains a certified banger. “Capital Letters,” her song with BloodPop® from the Fifty Shades Freed soundtrack, thrives on that same wavelength.

Steinfeld’s biggest hit so far, “Starving” — a collaboration with future “The Middle” producers Grey and Zedd — is a grocery-aisle pop-rock-EDM hybrid euphoric enough to withstand lyrics as clunky as “I didn’t know that I was starving till I tasted you/ Don’t need no butterflies when you give me the whole damn zoo/ By the way, by the way, you do things to my body.” It’s proof that Steinfeld, ever the actress, is capable of making complete nonsense sound good when supplied with a strong enough foundation. On the other hand, she’s also participated in absolute dreck alongside the likes of Florida Georgia Line, Logic, and Machine Gun Kelly. The MGK collab in particular resembles a Lonely Island parody of decade-old pop-rap duets like B.o.B and Hayley Williams’ “Airplanes” and Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love The Way You Lie”; its chorus features Steinfeld passionately belting out the hypermodern meme-cum-cliché “If you can’t take at me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.”

Despite a title that practically tees up zingers about music that needed more time in the oven, Half Written Story presents a slightly more fully-formed vision of Steinfeld the singer. It’s possible that a distinct musical personality would have emerged sooner if she had released more than one song at a time these past five years. Or maybe she just needed a constant collaborator like Koz — perhaps best known for his work on Dua Lipa singles like “IDGAF” and “Physical” — who helmed more than half of Half Written Story and served as its executive producer. Together he and Steinfeld have constructed a collection that, if not exactly brimming with idiosyncrasies, conveys more of the charm and sass that typify her onscreen work.

For one thing, she’s clearly into refurbishing classic pop songs from many eras. Opening track “I Love You’s” is a shiny modern update of Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love You’s” with none other than Lennox’s Eurythmics bandmate Dave Stewart behind the boards. (UPDATE: Hilariously, I guess it’s a different David Stewart?) “End This (L.O.V.E.)” flips the swooning standard “L.O.V.E.” into a minor-key lament about romantic discord in the shadow of 808s & Heartbreak: “L is for the way you lie to me.” Although not directly interpolating an old hit, the lovelorn waltz “Your Name Hurts” evokes music so retro Steinfeld’s grandparents probably slow-danced to it at prom, as filtered through R&B sounds her parents might have enjoyed circa Y2K. “Man Up,” meanwhile, stays firmly planted in the hip-hop age, with Steinfeld even attempting something between rapping and monologue: “My brother hates you, my mother hates you, my father and sister too/ Wait, I don’t even have a sister, but if I did, she’d hate you.” Like so much of Steinfeld’s discography so far, it’s corny, but she sells it.

While hopscotching around pop music history, Half Written Story sticks to a consistent theme of heartbreak, resilience, and self-care. It’s a breakup album that makes room for a realistic portrayal of sadness and a strong critique of her ex. “I fell asleep with the makeup still all on my skin,” she confesses on “I Love You’s,” while on “Your Name Hurts” she attests, “This half-written story is horror at best/ The kind where the hero still dies in the end.” From there she moves on to a pair of scathing tell-offs before going full tearjerker on piano ballad “Wrong Direction,” the project’s closing track and lead single. “I don’t hate you,” she admits, “Though I couldn’t if I wanted to/ I just hate all the hurt that you put me through/ And that I blame myself for letting you.” Arriving directly after her proclamation of hate on “Man Up,” it coheres into a believably messy portrait of love’s aftermath. Either she’s finally digging deep and coming up with something real, or she’s an even better actress than I realized.

CREDIT: Jimmy Fontaine

CHART WATCH

YoungBoy Never Broke Again has his second #1 album. The rapper’s 38 Baby 2 tallied 67,000 equivalent album units to debut atop the Billboard 200 less than seven months after first topping the chart with AI YoungBoy 2. Per Billboard, it’s the quickest turnaround between #1 albums since BTS pulled off a three-month turnaround in 2018. YoungBoy also had a #2 album with Still Flexin, Still Steppin, so both his rate of production and the public’s rate of consumption is insane right now.

Last week’s #1 album, DaBaby’s Blame It On Baby, falls to #2; Billboard notes that this is the first time two consecutive #1 albums have featured the word Baby in the title. There are no other debuts this week, partially because big releases from Luke Bryan and Haim have been delayed. Thus, the bulk of the top 10 comprises longstanding hits from Lil Uzi Vert, the Weeknd, Lil Baby, Post Malone, Bad Bunny, and Roddy Ricch. Travis Scott’s Astroworld shoots back up to #9 thanks to excitement surrounding his Fortnite in-game concert Astronomical, while Megan Thee Stallion’s Suga is back to #10 owing largely to the popularity of its breakout hit “Savage” and its new Beyoncé-assisted remix.

Speaking of Travis Scott’s Fortnite concert and the Beyoncé remix of “Savage,” both figure prominently on this week’s Hot 100 singles chart. “The Scotts,” the Travis Scott and Kid Cudi duet debuted during that Fortnite concert, debuts at #1 this week. It’s Scott’s third #1 hit following 2018’s slow-climbing smash “Sicko Mode” and 2019’s “Highest In The Room,” which also debuted atop the chart. Per Billboard, it’s Cudi’s first #1 and first trip to the top 10 since breakthrough hit “Day N Nite” peaked at #3 back in 2009.

After former #1 hits by the Weeknd (“Blinding Lights”) and Drake (“Toosie Slide”) comes “Savage,” which rises from #14 to #4 to become Megan Thee Stallion’s first top-10 hit. The Beyoncé remix debuted last Wednesday, just one day before the end of the tracking week, so it’ll be interesting to see whether the song can keep building off that momentum next week. Similarly, Beyoncé is not credited on the chart this week because the original version boasted the majority of the song’s streams, whereas next week the remix will undoubtedly constitute the bulk of the “Savage” streams.

After Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” at #5 comes Doja Cat’s “Say So,” down one spot to #6. Expect that one to also take an upward turn next week thanks to last Friday’s arrival of a remix featuring Nicki Minaj. The rest of the top 10 comprises Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” Post Malone’s “Circles,” Justin Bieber and Quavo’s “Intentions,” and Harry Styles’ “Adore You.”

POP FIVE

Marshmello & Halsey – “Be Kind”
I don’t like what this says about me, but I expected more from a Halsey/Marshmello collaboration.

Dixie Chicks – “Julianna Calm Down”
I didn’t realize Jack Antonoff producing Gaslighter meant the Dixie Chicks were pulling a full-fledged T-Swift crossover move. After two singles, I’m extremely curious to hear the rest.

Brandy – “Baby Mama” (Feat. Chance The Rapper)
I enjoy this greatly, and I hope it portends a Brandy comeback and a Chance The Rapper redemption arc.

Luke Combs – “Six Feet Apart”
Look, I get that Luke Combs is Mr. Normal Everyday Guy, but his quarantine ballad goes beyond on-the-nose to somewhere deep inside the sinuses.

Hayden James & Icona Pop – “Right Time”
Still very much here for Icona Pop’s pivot away from blog-pop into no-holds-barred dancefloor jams.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik are expecting a baby. [TMZ]
  • Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber have a new charity single, “Stuck With U,” coming Friday. [Instagram]
  • Grande also sang “Still Hurting” from the musical The Last Five Years on Jason Robert Brown’s Virtual SubCulture Artist-In-Residency livestream. [YouTube]
  • Nicki Minaj appears on a new remix of Doja Cat’s “Say So.” [YouTube]
  • Kanye West purchased his childhood home in Chicago. [WGN]
  • Good guy 2 Chainz fed homeless people in Atlanta instead of reopening his restaurants there. [TMZ]
  • Eminem confronted a home intruder in his Detroit living room. [Metro Times]
  • Responding to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School Board’s banning of classic books in their native Alaska, Portugal. The Man have pledged to personally donate copies directly to students who want to read them. [Twitter]
  • A new all-star charity cover of Julia Michaels and JP Saxe’s “If The World Was Ending” features Finneas, Sam Smith, H.E.R., Alessia Cara, Niall Horan, Kesha, and other pop stars. [YouTube]
  • Katy Perry, Doja Cat, and Lil Nas X (remember him?) will perform on a benefit hosted by fast fasion site Shein on Saturday. [Rolling Stone]
  • Charli XCX released a video for “claws.” [YouTube]
  • SHAED shared an acoustic cover of Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out.” [YouTube]
  • That meme with the thigh-high boots is thanks to Lisa from BLACKPINK. [Mashable]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

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