I think I might’ve found my musical key to help bridge the gap between high school, college, and my young adulthood. And it comes from an artist that high school and college me definitely least expected. I’m talking about Halsey.
Now, I understand that Halsey is a polarizing figure to some folks for better or worse, but hear me out. She’s been onto some really incredible and underrated art for a while. And it took me going to the last show of their Love and Power tour to really understand.
Like Taylor Swift, I’ve had a kind of a complicated relationship to Halsey’s music. It feels like a whole history has been brewing that has ranged from indifference to aversion to curiosity to now I’ve added a Halsey t-shirt to my collection of tour tees because damn, I feel seen.
Chapter 1: Indifference
High school was a weird time. I was constantly surrounded by art and innovation since I went to a performing arts high school. But I stayed in my weirdly elitist ‘classic rock is the only music I listen to’ lane. One way I was like a lot of kids though: I was chronically reblogging things on Tumblr.
I don’t remember seeing much about Halsey on Tumblr back in high school because I graduated in 2014, basically right before she really got traction. By the time Halsey really started to get people’s attention, I had started college and was paying less attention to the site. But believe me, I definitely saw some lyrics from her first album Badlands circling about. I didn’t really have an opinion on them and their “cursive singing” but was aware that people either loved or hated them. Just another Lana Del Rey/Lorde-esque alternative artist trying to break through I thought.
Chapter 2: Aversion (Not For Me)
As I came back from sophomore year adventures in Shanghai, Halsey soon got put in the classic 2010s dance music trope of ‘new token pop singer in dance song’ with the song “Closer” by The Chainsmokers. I honestly didn’t think it was a that bad of a song for a while…until it was EVERYWHERE.
I remember watching their performance at the VMAs with my new friend Juliette and thinking to myself, ‘God, this is so bad.’ Like literally, it feels like the singing Chainsmoker is singing live for the first time. But then Halsey comes out with her classic spunk and isn’t singing bad per se but by association with the “the frat boys of EDM”, this was all sorts of cringe. I had already written off The Chainsmokers but Halsey hanging around them was not a good look to me…so I unfairly lumped her with them.
(Disclaimer: I tend to believe that all artists are not beyond redemption, but lemme just say that The Chainsmokers have done little to convince me to take them seriously and that’s ok! They can stay that way! Maybe I’ll do a post on them for April Fools lol.)
“Closer” was endlessly stuck in my and Juliette’s heads that it became an inside joke for us once one of our favorite YouTube creators at the time, Christine Sydelko, did a parody of the song where her and a friend at the time replaced every word in the song with “bing bong”. 2016 was really a wild time.
From there though, I definitely wrote Halsey off. They were trying to straddle the lines of hip-hop, alternative, R&B, and pop in a way I didn’t understand at the time. I tended to agree with folks that wrote her off as “trying too hard to be edgy” when hopeless fountain kingdom came out. I realize even in junior year of college I was still trying to unlearn my musical superiority complex from high school.
Chapter 3: Curiosity
Things started to change in 2018 when Halsey collaborated with Khalid and Benny Blanco on “eastside”. I really liked that song because of the way it felt like a shoutout to kids (like me) that grew up on the east side of town. It made me nostalgic for high school in a way I hadn’t been before. It’s as if I started to realize that a lot of time had passed since I was in high school and I was a new version of myself.
The turn was only pushed in a positive direction when her collaboration with BTS, “Boy With Luv”, dropped in summer 2019. I hadn’t been much of a K-Pop listener before that, but I was won over by both of them because damn, talk about a freaking bop. Y’all know I’m a sucker for a disco-inspired song.
But I still hadn’t been convinced that Halsey’s solo songs were for me. Until I heard “Graveyard” live at the Hollywood Bowl one month after my first breakup.
The desperation in the song struck a deep chord in post-breakup me. I felt like I had a song that both warned me of the dangers of my love for and comforted me in the brokenness I felt because of the situation it had gotten me into.
When they released Manic, I started to understand what Halsey was about as she dove into some of her most vulnerable songwriting. I still remember driving near the neighborhood of my former flame in January 2020, sobbing to “clementine”, angrily screaming to “You should be sad”, and trying to ground myself to “3am”.
Manic made me feel seen in the messy parts of me, as if I had permission to be my full human self. The album would only prove to be more of a tool as we launched into the pandemic.
Chapter 4: Epilogue (Or How I’m Learning to Embrace the Halsey in Me)
With a casual appreciation of Halsey in tow, I was curious to hear If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power when it came out last summer. I was blown away on first listen and I feel like it solidified her artistry in my mind.
According to Halsey, the album was a concept album that explores “the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth…the dichotomy of the Madonna and the Whore. The idea that [Halsey] as a sexual being and [her] body as a vessel and a gift to [her] child are two concepts that can coexist peacefully and powerfully.”
As someone who’s struggled with the idea of having kids herself, I was worried I wouldn’t understand where they were coming from. But I knew exactly what they were talking about in this album.
When this album came out, I was beginning to struggle with the new version of me that was emerging. I had just started at a job that I loved because it combined my love for music with my skills in marketing. I had also started therapy and was realizing that my old pattern of people-pleasing was not gonna work anymore. I’d begun to realize the people-pleaser version of me had emerged as a coping mechanism from my family trauma and I was way too used to ignoring my needs for the sake of making someone feel comfortable.
Doing the work made me scared to lose the warm, sweet version of me that a lot of people knew because I was finally starting to get to know the rebel in me that indignantly voiced her discomfort with the ways I allowed people to mistreat me. This side of me always existed, but I silenced the anger she felt at so many things in order to keep the peace. Being pleasant all the time has been a hard facade to keep up and it’s not only not realistic anymore but also not healthy to keep things bottled in all the time.
Where I’ve grown since then is starting to open myself to the idea of being loved as I am: as sinner and saint, as an messy, imperfect human and a powerful image-bearer of God. I’ve been feeling insecure in places where I felt like I had to be the palatable version of me for one reason or another. But I’ve been finding comfort in the places where I realize people have seen me as a a true work in progress.
Halsey’s music ends up being this comforting presence in my life because their artistry is about being raw and open about their humanity: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Like she said during the concert, it can be cringy to look back and remember how you felt as an old version of you but there’s a beauty in learning to love the past versions of yourself. Halsey’s a work in progress in all the complex, beautiful and messy ways and her music is an invitation to accept it in my life.
It’s as if Halsey has shown me it’s ok for the rebel and the innocent, joyful child in me can coexist. Heck, I’ve even started to see that the way Halsey’s explored many different genres and collaborations parallels with the different kinds of people in my life that I love. Halsey’s the only artist who’s collaborated with Juice Wrld (who my brother loves) and Kelsea Ballerini (who my friend Katie loves). I think it’s pretty special to be a person who’s open to breaking down musical barriers.
It’s wild to have this realization after a concert, but I mean, there’s a reason Maggie Rogers did her dissertation on the idea that art is a form of spiritual practice. Anyway, if you’ve misunderstood Halsey, I encourage you to explore their catalog. As for me, here are some songs that helped me learn to appreciate Halsey’s artistry:
This is honestly the main song I think of with Halsey’s tumblr era. I love this song because as cringy as it feels to proclaim “cigarettes and tiny liquor bottles” as “New Americana”, she’s not wrong to call that out. It feels anthemic and an early sign of Halsey’s ability to write bangers.
I recently heard this song and was blown away by the production choices. Literally, how did I miss this song. It feels so glamorous in its sadness. Sure there’s a thread of “famous person problems” in the song, but there’s also a thread of relatability in being lonely/misunderstood though you’re surrounded by a lot of people. A really underrated and solid song.
I HATE EVERYBODY
The way this song sounds like me coming to terms with my problematic behavior after the two breakups I dealt with in the last 3 years. I’ve definitely been wrestling with my ability to give and receive love and how it’s never gonna be perfect. I kinda ventured into nihilistic territory earlier this year by isolating myself and shaking my fist at humanity, but I realized that I don’t actually hate everybody. But I do hate being so self-aware that I forget to have fun.
This sweet song from Halsey made me profusely cry during the concert and it was unexpected. First of all, she literally made a painting while signing full force, so that was cool. But I think this song hit for me because of the way it portrays the relationship dynamic where you can open up to someone and be vulnerable in a safe place.
I am not a woman, I’m a god
The production in this song gives me chills. The way those industrial synths progressively come in gets me every time. Special shoutout to producers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for that I guess. I struggled with appreciating this song for a while because I couldn’t relate to the hubris of calling myself a god, or so I thought. The chorus starts with the hubris and then follows up with “I am not a martyr, I’m a problem” — which like, is there anything more human to feel powerful for a few seconds and immediately humbled as a powerless human being? I’ve come to feel this song as an expression of my human woman-ness: the powerful in potential but also incredibly broken self. Ending the show/tour with this song was really cathartic.