Before Halsey released a single song, a short poem she wrote was liked and reblogged on Tumblr close to a million times. “You were red,” it went. “You liked me cause I was blue. You touched me and suddenly I was a lilac sky and you decided purple just wasn’t for you.” There, in a nutshell, was the Tumblr aesthetic: emo, vaguely lyrical, and compact enough to travel far and wide.
The poem became so popular that it eventually spawned memes, SpongeBob-related parodies, and even merchandise. When Halsey finally put it to music and used it as the bridge of “Colors,” a moody song off Badlands, her 2015 debut album, something odd happened: She was accused of plagiarizing the “famous Tumblr poem” that — as anyone who’d clicked back thousands of times to its original source would see — she’d actually written herself. So pervasive were these accusations that, in April 2015, she tweeted her frustrations about it: “Tumblr: makes a post with my lyrics incredibly popular. Tumblr: later accuses me of plagiarizing post with my own lyrics.” It was a strange parable of the digital age, and perhaps the parable of Halsey writ large: Tap too well into the viral hive mind, and you risk losing yourself completely.
Since she started releasing music in 2014, Halsey (now 22, born Ashley Nicolette Frangipane in New Jersey) has been haunted by a sense that she is a perfect specimen of her generation. Something about her feels demographic-tested; an early New York Times profile of her likened her to “a millennial built in a lab.” That’s partially due to her succinct viral-era origin story: She built a devoted following off her Tumblr poems, YouTube covers, and Instagram selfies documenting a rainbow of hair colors. (“I was just someone that people found minutely more interesting than the average person,” she shrugged in a later interview.) When she self-released “Ghost,” her first original song, it garnered so much attention that she was contacted by five labels in one day.
She definitely brought some of this generational branding on herself when she released “New Americana,” the bombastic single off Badlands. The song was a little too eager to be considered some kind of generational anthem, and its chorus sounded like someone proudly singing the words to a sweepingly generalized trend piece about millennials: “We are the New Americana / High on legal marijuana / Raised on Biggie and Nirvana.” There was a wisp of a more interesting idea in there, one alluding to a real sentiment about the emptiness of 21st century counterculture, but the song wasn’t smart enough to connect the dots. Instead it seemed engineered to cruise through the lane that had been recently created by Lorde’s gently sneering anti-pop hit, “Royals.” But “New Americana” reeked of thirst. Though it swung big, it missed a larger point: If there’s one thing millennials hate, it’s clean, easily rhymed attempts to be labeled, summed up, and defined.
Later, Halsey said in interviews that many listeners also missed the point; the song was supposed to be “tongue-in-cheek.” Last year she told Rolling Stone, “It became this cultural anthem that it wasn’t supposed to be, and it got so blown out of proportion. People would kind of say I was the voice of a generation, and I’m standing behind them, fucking drawing a line across my neck going, ‘Eh-eh, eh-eh, no, no, that’s not what I’m trying to say here.’” It’s a problem Halsey has already faced several times in her still-young career: She’s so good at delivering her own elevator pitch that she sometimes finds herself having to circle back and insist that she is a more complicated human being than her presentation initially suggested. In that 2015 New York Times profile, the writer claimed that Halsey had described herself as “tri-bi” (biracial, bisexual, and bipolar) though she’s since vehemently denied that she used that term. Still, and perhaps unfairly, that general vibe has stuck like glue to Halsey; the chief criticism of her is that she is more hashtag than human. She is, at least, self-aware enough to bemoan the irony of this. “The funniest thing is that the biggest battle that I’ve had to overcome in my career was not being bisexual, was not being biracial, was not being bipolar,” she told Rolling Stone. “It was everybody thinking that I was exploiting those things.”
You have definitely heard Halsey’s voice, whether you’ve wanted to or not. She was the guest vocalist on one of last year’s biggest pop singles, the Chainsmokers’ infernal and unavoidable “Closer.” Anyone seems better at her job when standing beside someone who is terrible at his, so the track cast Halsey in a particularly flattering light given that she was dueting with Andrew Taggart, a man who sings with all the skill and passion of someone reluctantly performing at a distant acquaintance’s karaoke birthday party. Halsey’s entrance in the second verse of the song is, then, a relief. Here is someone who can actually sing.
But, you know, in her own way. Halsey sings with a vocal affect that the music writer Reggie Ugwu has perceptively identified as “indie pop voice,” a trendy technique that relies on something linguists call “vowel breaking.” It sounds to me like a digitized yodel; Ugwu described it as “hipster riffs on Alanis Morissette.” Either way, Halsey is one of its most chronic practitioners, straining to coat each of her vowels in a jewel-toned sheen. As a result, her voice sounds synthetic even when there aren’t any effects on it; she sings like someone who is trying to approximate the cyborgy distortions of Auto-Tune, perhaps because she’s grown up singing along to it on the radio. This stylization, though, often fit the mood of Badlands — a record of dark, industrial pop that featured songs about isolation, steeliness, and, in one instance, feeling like a robot. On the chorus of “Gasoline,” she sang in an appropriately stilted fashion, “I think there’s a flaw in my code.”
Halsey’s self-penned lyrics focus on destructive relationships, hard-partying nights, and the anxieties and depressions that linger stubbornly in the morning. “It’s the devil that’s trying to hold me down, hold me down,” she sings on one of Badlands’ singles, a defiantly sung and deeply felt admission that quickly resolves itself into a benign and mindlessly catchy chorus. Halsey traffics in a mainstream microgenre you could call fuck-up pop, populated by a series of young female artists who have, in recent years, proudly aestheticized the experience of being a hot mess. It’s been a welcome correction in an industry predicated on women presenting themselves as perfect and #flawless, even if this opposing trend has already developed its own clichés. A song like Halsey’s “Hurricane” (in which she compares herself to the titular force of nature and a one-night stand) feels indebted to Ke$ha, Charli XCX, and Tove Lo, artists who’ve made their names singing about — and sometimes reveling in — the ecstasy and melancholy of mascara-smeared, occasionally heartbroken nights. But there’s a fine line between saying something honest and true about these feelings and using them to help shape an artfully crafted persona. (The messiest girl at the party is never the one declaring, “I’m such a mess!”, nor is she the one using that as an Instagram caption for a mirror selfie.) As “New Americana” proved, it’s difficult to tell when Halsey is being earnest and when she’s being tongue-in-cheek — parodying clichés rather than succumbing to them. “My demons are begging me to open up my mouth,” Halsey sings on “Hold Me Down.” “I need them / Mechanically make the words come out.”
An admirable thing about Halsey is that she has never been ashamed to swing for the fences: Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, her new album, begins with her reciting the prologue from Romeo and Juliet. (You have not lived until you’ve heard indie-pop voice in iambic pentameter.) But there’s an unexpected treat for sitting through this bit of trite pretension: “100 Letters,” the first proper song on the album, is the best thing Halsey has ever done. It has a sad, soulful defiance that reminds me of some of Pink’s early singles and enough lived-in lyrical details to make its story of a codependent relationship come vividly alive. “I have spent too many nights on dirty bathroom floors,” she sings, “to find some peace and quiet right behind the wooden door.” It works because it feels so intimate and particular; unlike “New Americana,” it’s not straining to stand for anything larger than itself.
Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is by no means a great album, but it has its moments of elevating certain pop clichés: I like the brassy punch of “Alone,” even if it traffics in the standard second-album trope of complaining about fame; the chorus of “Bad at Love” is a nice showcase for the relatively underused muscularity of Halsey’s voice. Still, none of the singles so far have made much of an impact, and they have an I-have-no-idea-who-sings-this genericism that makes them feel disappointingly faceless (especially the Rihanna-soundalike “Now or Never”). Quavo phones in a verse on the formless “Lie” because it is 2017 and of course he does. Much like Badlands, too much of Hopeless Fountain Kingdom feels stuck in the no-man’s-land between ambitious artistic vision (which, to her credit, Halsey definitely has) and pop radio’s of-the-moment and thus quickly dated rules.
Halsey knows how to get people’s attention. At the Grammys this past year, she walked the red carpet in an outfit that was half–Infamous J.Lo Dress, half–TLC’s “Creep” video and sported a provocative sneer that suggested she was wearing it not in spite of, but for the haters. She’s been savvy enough to snag the kind of high-profile features that have made her a quasi-household name even if you don’t know any of her solo songs (“The Feeling,” her duet with Justin Bieber that appeared on his album Purpose, was a minor hit but deserved to be 10 times bigger than “Closer.”) But once she’s got our attention, Halsey still seems unclear about what to do with it. Parts of Hopeless Fountain Kingdom suggest that there’s a more complicated and interesting artist beneath the branding and buzzwords, but convincing people to lean in close enough to see that will be Halsey’s challenge going forward. “I can put on a show,” she boasts on a song called “Heaven in Hiding.” No one’s denying that, but what — if anything — is behind the curtain remains a question mark.