“They made me their leader and I never asked to be”. While this might sound like a soundbite from the latest Hunger Games movie, it’s actually comes from pop singer Halsey’s apocalyptic video for ‘New Americana’. Equal parts pop pastiche and social commentary, Halsey’s music has become an overnight success. She has contributed to the soundtrack for Huntsman: Winter’s War with her song ‘Castle’, and recently collaborated with MAC cosmetics. We find out more about the voice behind 2015’s Badlands.
As she reflected on her fame in an interview for Vevo Halsey noted the juxtapositions in her life. “I’m doing things I never would have expected”, like flying internationally for tours and music videos, yet “there’s not much room for me to pick up and leave the way I used to.” For all its variety, she surmised, “every aspect of my day is dedicated to [music] now.” This hasn’t always been the case. Before she was Halsey, she was Ashley Frangipane, until a chance encounter with a music producer landed her in a studio, writing her breakout hit ‘Ghost‘. While social media propelled her to fame, Halsey is coy about her public image, simply stating on her website bio that she “will never be anything but honest.” She is reactive against any stereotyping; having distanced herself from comments she made in a New York Times article referring to herself as “tri-bi” (that is biracial, bipolar and bisexual). Speaking to Rolling Stone, she clarified
“the biggest battle that I’ve had to overcome in my career was not being bisexual, was not being biracial, was not being bipolar […] it was everybody thinking I was exploiting those things.”
Halsey’s 2015 album Badlands is a testament to her self-confessed love of retro-futurism. The concept album depicts a dystopian society obsessed with image and wealth. The music video for the headliner track ‘New Americana’ begins with aged VHS footage over Hawaiian mountains, while Halsey recounts the downfall of society into aggressive militant groups. “We are the New Americana” -her tongue-in-cheek war cry begins-“High on legal marijuana.”
Her sound is manufactured and polished, full of auto-tuned backing vocals and synthesisers. Despite this, Halsey is not concerned with making a radio-friendly hit. Rather, the sterile language of electronica provides the canvas for introspection. Ghost opens with chords from a thin, church-like keyboard which opens out onto layered drumbeats. Being Halsey, juxtapositions continue into her lyrical content; sexualised lyrics such as “Want them leather/Begging, let me be your taste test” form a counterpoint to the chorus: “My Ghost/ Where’d you go/ I can’t find you in the body sleeping next to me.”
“I went through my sex, drugs, loss and existential confusion phase at 17”, Halsey told Billboard. When talking to Rolling Stone, she admitted that music was a form of catharsis for herself. In her storytelling, the Badlands might describe a physical place, but it’s also a mindset. She’s able to fulfil her potential one step at a time by setting her sights high. Halsey told Vevo that her horizons broadened each time she achieved success.
“I’m going to see if I can get a record deal!’ And I did. ‘I’m going to see if I can sell out a tour!’, and I did.”
While Halsey’s music might explore themes of isolation and social downfall, she certainly isn’t afraid of the world she found herself in.