Halsey Is the Most Interesting Pop Singer You're Not Listening To
Photos by Jack Gorman
Halsey, Bad Suns
Revention Music Center
July 8, 2016
Confidence comes in many forms. There are slang terms like “swag” that music writers use as shorthand for the confident cool that comes from having the ability to strut across the stage fearlessly. There are coded terms like “attitude” that music writers use when they want to subtly imply that someone is confident but also maybe a bitch. There are words like “conviction” that music writers use when they want to describe someone who is super-serious about what he or she does.
But one word that doesn’t pop up much when we talk about pop music is “aggressive.” For whatever reason, aggression is frowned upon in pop. Empowerment anthems are supposed to be inspiring but should never have claws. There’s a reason why no one is afraid of a fighter who uses “Roar” as his walkout music; it’s not a fight song, it’s a jump-rope song.
Halsey is not afraid to be aggressive, and a song like “Castle” makes you wish that more modern pop acts weren’t afraid to be aggressive, either. Like many of her tracks, it’s not a song for the summer or neon colors, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its own anthemic qualities. When she sings it in front of a CG army of herself, it’s a sight to see, one that few in the world of modern pop could replicate.
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Her confidence manifests itself in other ways, of course. It’s in the way her songs bounce around from mood to mood, from the retro-dance vibe of “Roman Holiday” to the schlocky singalong of “New Americana” to the bouncy darkness of “Haunting," while trusting that the audience will be there to sing loudly the entire time. It’s in the way that she always feels like she’s in command onstage, even when she admits that she’s tired from being up late following the news, the way many of us were early Friday morning, or she's talking about how the public at large are still asking, "Who is Halsey?"
And, most interesting, it’s in the confidence to be as open as she is with her lyrical content.
Valuing “authenticity” in music typically feels like a fool’s errand. Some of the best songs ever written are completely absurd and some of the most heartfelt are completely awful. It’s even worse in pop music, where the second you add another credited songwriter to your track, someone on the Internet will pop up to claim that you’re a fraud. Let’s not even get into what they say about female songwriters who have the audacity to get rich singing about their broken heart.
But it’s Halsey’s authenticity that makes her stand out. Even with slick production, there’s still something that feels very real and confessional about her lyrics. “Gasoline” has a lot of lines that I can imagine in other singers' mouths, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of another who would sing, “Do the people whisper about you on the train like me?/ Saying ‘you shouldn’t waste your pretty face’ like me?” That’s a very real, very specific sentiment that a lot of artists aren’t confident enough to put down for mass consumption.
Moments like that pop up all over her catalog, most spectacularly in the show-closing “Colors," which is laser-focused in its description of an ex-love. (It’s easily the most interesting song in pop released by someone other than Beyoncé in the past year.)
If you’re a pop music fan, you can be a lot of things that make you feel powerful. You can be a firework, or you can be born this way, or you could be all about that bass, or you could…well, you get the point. But one wonders how much more interesting things could be if more folks were willing to label themselves “hurricanes” and the aggression that comes with it. I’m pretty confident Halsey would still do it better than everyone else.
So, How Were the Openers? Do you like your pop-rock generic? Do you like it super-generic? Then by God, is Bad Suns a band for you. I mean, I don’t blame the crowd for being
Personal Bias: “Colors” was not the best song of 2015, but it was pretty damn close.
The Crowd: Young, energetic and not afraid to let their freak flag fly, plus some drunken embarrassments. Learn how personal space
Overheard In the Crowd: “That’s bad karma,” said one person complaining about how they had been screwed by a ticket reseller. People who take advantage of people’s love of music are monsters.
Random Notebook Dump: Back when I reviewed The 1975
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