Who does Halsey think she is?
That’s not just a rhetorical question. Many pop stars present, or sell, themselves as one thing, attuned to one genre and demographic; then they branch out, or reach out, or switch producers (hello, Taylor Swift). A few show range early; usually (think Prince) these rarities look and sound like auteurs, lords of each track they make, gaining their powers by comprehending and using the distinctions of genre and audience, race and age and region and sexuality, that can confound and constrain the rest of us.
Halsey’s not like that. Instead, her third album, Manic, released just before the pandemic, says something irreplaceable about her and about many of us right now: it’s the sound of a chronically unsettled, almost pathologically voluble, and brilliantly self-knowing millennial, certain she lacks security and wants attention, but howlingly uncertain where, or with whom, or how, she can belong. Where earlier artists’ diversity of genres, within a single pop, rock, or R&B album, often came across as a show of power and range, the multiplicity of genres and attitudes—all of them yearning, uncertain, agitated, unsure—in Halsey’s new work lets her represent, with honesty and power, a moment and a generation where security and stability (economic, sexual, emotional) are nowhere to be found.
You could almost say she’s always been like that. Her first recordings were YouTube affairs with cult followings, re-recorded for Badlands (2015). It’s a lovely, achy affair of teen and post-teen angst, bad decisions, and romantic blind alleys, and it stays largely within one genre: echoey semi-gloss gloom-pop, like a more interesting, less orchestrated Lana Del Rey. Self-designated “bipolar, biracial and bisexual” (she dislikes the label “tri-bi”1), living penniless in New Jersey and New York basements while L.A. execs arranged for her peers’ stardom, the young Halsey had more authenticity than her rival art-chart-pop waifs, and she knew it. She could speak for her generation (“We are the New Americana/ Raised on Biggie and Nirvana”), but she was still learning what she wanted to say, and what had been said before: “I couldn’t stand the person inside me/I turned all the mirrors around.”
She also came across as uncommonly needy, both as a person and as an artist. With her verbal versatility and her vocal range, from a rasp to a bell tone, she seemed made for collaboration: not the kind where the producer sock-puppets the singer, not the kind where a Sinatra-like interpreter recodes songs they could never write, but the kind where two artists (on or behind the mic) make an audible whole and rarely the same two each time. The story behind the song could be mutual aid, or addiction and co-dependence, or else about how she couldn’t tell the difference. With her 2016 chart-topper, “Closer,” she and the DJ duo Chainsmokers worked together to make a song about intimacy that literally never resolves: there is no tonic chord in the chorus. No matter how close she gets, it’s not enough.
Halsey’s rarely that interesting harmonically now. She can’t be, since she has to hold some things constant for everything else to vary so wildly, both within and inside her new songs. And if Badlands wasn’t much for genre variety, hopeless fountain kingdom (2017), certainly was: half-rapped songs, torch songs, piano-only numbers (“Sorry”), big Adele-ish affairs like “Alone”…that was the album that showed how much Halsey could do, how many kinds of hits she could have. And she had them. “Bad at Love” was the kind of song you didn’t mind hearing over and over in public places. Its patter-song verse (“Met a London girl with an attitude/ Never told no one but we looked so cute”) and belted-out chorus seemed to come from different worlds: sick of one? Wait twenty seconds and you’ll get another.
But hopeless fountain kingdom was, however hazily, a concept album, a tour de force, a Major Statement, with a vague plot around made-up characters (versions of Romeo and Juliet), and self-imposed constraints such as the lack of guitars. Manic is different, not because it’s genuine (whatever that means in this context); not because she’s said in interviews that this album’s about her as her, with no fictional framing. Not because the album followed her breakup with the rapper G-Eazy (the “Him” in her alarming 2019 single “Him & I”), tying the kiss-off songs to a real-life romance. Not because (unlike hopeless fountain kingdom) Manic begins and ends quietly, with the anthems trapped in the middle.
No, Manic is different because it’s such a hot mess. Its organization is its disorganization: its pop textures, its words and its instrumentation, portray a charismatic woman who can’t get calm, settled, or organized, a woman who can’t get the independence, or the consistency, that earlier stars sought, if not for their whole careers, at least for the length of a 40-minute long-player. Critics noticed the range of genres: some even led their reviews with it. Kate Hutchinson of The Guardian called Halsey “a musical magpie…hoovering up clickety R&B, alt-rock, country and Lana Del Rey’s oeuvre” along with “the blare-your-lungs-out heights of emo bands, such as My Chemical Romance.”2 As for the range of feelings, rather than telling one story about commitments and breakups, the sex-and-romance songs whipsaw along with a persona now vulnerable, now vaunting, often in flight from how she felt last week, with “a long way to go until self-preservation,” as she says in the stacked monorhymes of the warily sympathetic closing track.
In 2019 Manic wanted to be the sound of a precarious generation. In 2020 it’s the sound of America, the sound of no normal as the new normal, of nonstop self-remaking as a spiritual necessity, of life inside the emotional gig economy, and now of self-isolation while you scroll through your mentions, hoping to somehow feel seen. The radical unsettledness that you can hear in Manic as a quality of Halsey’s personality—with its extremes and its unwise commitments—comes across now as an aspect of everyday life, for everyone, hanging on to our remote connections, dreading the next friend’s long-distance implosion, keeping it digital (to paraphrase her magnificent snarl in “3am”) because if we want to get physical, we’ll just end up alone.
Manic makes great pandemic listening because it made great chartpop even before we all locked ourselves in our separate rooms. From the photo of Halsey-as-sad-Bowie on the cover art to the stage whisper of the last lyrics, it’s a portrait—or, rather, a fractured, not-to-scale, glued-together composite of unalike portraits—made from a series of singers named Halsey, all famous, all reeling from some sort of breakup, all needy, all with a lot (vocally, verbally, emotionally) still to give, all cycling (as the four-chord patterns all over these songs cycle) between commitment and isolation. Some of those singers have names: for example, “Ashley,” both Halsey’s birth name and the name on the leadoff track, which opens with spacey bleep-bloops, dallies with open space where the chords should be, and concludes “I’m bursting out of my.…Self.” A more conventional lyricist would have put “shell.” But Halsey can’t tell a shell from a self. Can you?
The sequencing on this album tells the same story as so many of its songs: this magnetic singer can’t turn her parts—charm, shame, passion, fear, vocals, chords, beats, special effects—into a consistent whole. She is, as “clementine” proclaims, “constantly having a breakthrough, or a breakdown or a blackout”: “I don’t need anyone,” she concludes in an accelerating singsong, “I need everyone and then some.” For her—as for so many of us now—parasocial relationships, like that between a celebrity and her fans, stand in for two-way social relationships, and none of them are enough. “clementine” ends by double-tracking the vocals, one version of the same words in, and one wildly out of tune, as if to remind us how neither one is a constant and singular self.
It’s not wrong to hear Halsey as the voice of a generation, “a leading encapsulation of millennial femininity,” as Billboard put it in 2016.3 In the same article, the singer labeled herself “so very relatable and so very topical and so very Tumblr.” That’s a good description of Badlands. Manic, on first listen, could be a sequel to Badlands, a sparkling example of late-teen and quarter-life crisis bedroom pop angst, the shiny-enough-for-radio version of a generation that crushed up Ritalin to earn the degrees that will let them, someday, quit driving for Lyft. “clementine,” with its bedroom-pop instrumentation and its wearable angst, could almost pass for Billie Eilish, latterly taken as a voice of that same generation.
But Eilish speaks for teens, and she speaks softly: she made her first album without having to leave home. And her stage persona, so far, has been about not showing too much of herself, about control, about dialing things down. For all her depths of inner sadness, and her serious melodic talent, Billie is a warm blanket and a gray flannel pillow compared to Ashley Frangipane and her alter egos. Billie asks where we can go when we all fall asleep; Halsey’s up chasing her cravings at 3 a.m. Put “clementine” next to “You should be sad,” moreover, and the contrast—if not for Halsey’s sterling, recognizable voice—would feel less like songs on one artist’s album than like songs from two different Spotify mixtapes. The latter embraces its country-pop cheatin’-heart framework all the way from the isolated guitar-string riff to the chorus’s warbly, melismatic vocals (“sad-e-yad-e-yad”).
Nor is the Foray into Country™ Halsey’s only departure from chartpop electro-norms. “Finally, beautiful” stretches out into an indie-roots lope that could almost be Neko Case. “Still Learning,” with its hint of soca, begs for the dance floor that other tracks reject, reminding fans who might have forgotten that Halsey once collaborated with Stefflon Don. The witty, self-accusing “Forever” hopscotches into Melanie Martinez territory, all Gothic Lolita and music box bells; on “Dominic’s Interlude” (featuring Dominic Fikes), we’re hearing the Beach Boys, close male harmonies giving raw feelings the cushion they deserve. Then SUGA from BTS shows up.…
The middle of Manic ends up less a calculated demonstration of versatility than a helpless shift from one Halsey to the next: she’s showing us, to paraphrase Czeslaw Milosz, how hard it is for her to remain one person.4 Her multiplicity shows up, too, in recent borrowings from pop music history: “Without Me” (another kiss-off song, perhaps, to G-Eazy) feels like an answer to the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me;” “Eastside,” a non-album hit with Khalid and Benny Blanco, tracks the plot and the textures from Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” The first song Halsey released after Manic takes her range even further: “Experiment on Me,” from the film Birds of Prey, is high-powered pop-metal, electronic percussion stuttering all the way through, as if she had traded places, for four minutes and change, with Alexis Brown from Straight Line Stitch.
Another way to describe what’s special in Manic is to say that Halsey (whether she’d put it this way or not) has made an album about precarity, about the experience of life without stability, and without expectations of stability, when you might need to act like a chameleon or Silly Putty to stay alive and then discover that you can’t help acting that way, and wondering if everything is an act. There’s room here for at least seven types of precarity (let’s say economic, residential, emotional, erotic, generic, verbal, and medical), “stuck between the having it all and giving it up,” as she tells SUGA (who may indeed have it all). The Occupy Wall Street figure Malcolm Harris proposed in his 2017 book on millennials that his generation of “young people feel—reasonably, accurately—less in control of their lives than ever before.”5 The Canadian social scientists Jeffrey Martin and Wayne Lewchuk find that millennials “have fewer full-time permanent employment opportunities” and that “employment precarity is penalizing a generation.”6 That penalty comes in lost income, in renting and seeking unwanted roommates forever, but also in the requirement that millennials keep up a hustle, put multiple faces forward, adapt and survive: “we all push the product nonstop and the product is us,” as the tech journalist Dave Pell complained.7
And it’s a hustle Halsey, more than some of her entertainment peers, would know: parasocial connections, becoming and staying famous, became for her both a lifeline and a more-than-full-time job. Before she was famous, she was homeless, not that you have to go that low to understand modern vertigo.8 “Precarity is now a daily feature of the white middle-class experience,” in Carolyn Dever’s summary.9 For many millennials, especially millennials of color (and Halsey is not a white girl, though her modal fan is), things have never been otherwise: the older people who promised, back in the Great Mild Recession of 2008, that younger people’s storm-tossed ships would see land in a couple of years were deluded, or lying. “If I waited until I was economically stable to enjoy life,” one twentysomething told the social researcher Lauren Clark, “I’m not sure that I ever would.”10 And that was pre-COVID. Millennial musicians, of course, get even tougher prospects than their older peers if they aspire to full-time musical livings, since albums have become loss leaders for headlining tours; if you want to go that route (rather than keeping your day job), it has to be you, not only your music—and the right, new, relatable version of you—that the public wants to hear and see.
Today’s twentysomethings, especially if they’re on Tumblr, can and will describe themselves as bipolar or ADHD or autistic or a host of other conditions it used to take an expensive psychiatrist to diagnose. They are far more likely than the Olds to be #actuallyautistic, or #actuallyADHD, or openly bipolar (and if you think this new openness is a bad thing, I probably shouldn’t hang out with you). This new awareness of mental health, of the way that manic can mean manic (and not just a manic pop thrill), can save real people from immuring themselves in unhealthy relationships, from resigning themselves to the way things are, from castigating themselves over brain chemistry and social conditions that aren’t their fault.
That understanding won’t constitute a solution, no more than an understanding of precarity and debt and student loans and the tyranny of standardized tests constitutes a solution to the dramatic Jenga pile that is (or was) the American model of class mobility. But it’s good to know, and Halsey, more than any other pop star currently working, seems to know. Bipolar, for her, isn’t just her up and down moods; it’s not trusting yourself to remain yourself, knowing that on some days you’ll make decisions that on other days seem unrecognizable (I speak from acquaintance, not from firsthand experience). That sense that you can’t rely on yourself, that tomorrow you could go anywhere, fits Halsey’s talents, and especially her vocal, emotional and generic range.
Nor is bipolar disorder the only mental health lens on this album. If you have a friend who sees themselves as “a system”—the Tumblr-friendly, less stigmatizing name for multiple personality—you might compare your friend’s experience to the array of Halseys on Manic, or at least ask your friend what they think. But Halsey isn’t a system—instead, she is “like” one: a set of failed attempts to be a whole, each with its own timbre and its own stack of needs for validation: “why can’t I go home without somebody?” as she puts it in “I Hate Everybody,” where the self-contradictions are clear. Bisexuality isn’t a self-contradiction, or a problem, but bisexual erasure (the claim that bisexuality isn’t real) can make it look like one: the sex columnist Dan Savage, who once denied the existence of bi men, now says they have a “moral obligation to come out” as bi.11 Halsey uses her collaboration with Alanis Morrisette to clarify that alleged problem, too: “he and she is her, and her and he are loved, and I have never felt the difference.” The head-spinningly wide range of collaborators (raise your hand if you expected Alanis and SUGA to show up on the same long-player) remind us that Halsey can be, and can do, so much—and that she has neither the ability, nor the wish, to stand all on her own.
Maybe none of us do. Maybe there is no single, stable real “you,” apart from circumstance and debts, loves and attachments and promises. Maybe you’re just a procession of various faces, and your job is to make them as glamorous, as revenue-generating, or as appealing you can. That’s the suspicion behind the all-surface, no-depth postmodernism of disco-era Bowie—not the man who was Ziggy Stardust but the amoral Thin White Duke, the man who sang, “I am a DJ, I am what I play.” And it’s the suspicion, turned rancidly neoliberal, that Halsey has been battling for all of Manic (if not longer than that). It’s a suspicion that’s rough enough if you’re just playing around with theories, but it gets far scarier if you’ve got a pattern of co-dependent relationships, substance troubles, rollercoaster moods, self-harm and self-erasure in the interests of bad-news girls and boys. If there’s no stable you at the center, no constant Self, why not become whatever your love interest or partner in crime wishes that you could be?
Why not indeed? One answer: that kind of unanchored life will kill you. (In Halsey’s telling, it almost killed her: she entered hospital after a suicide attempt at 17.12) Another answer is that it feels better to at least try to take charge of yourself, to at least try to figure out how and why and when you switch genres, and when your moods change. And another answer—the one on which Manic ends—is that Halsey needs to stick around, to at least present herself as sometimes reliable, because she owes that to her fans, who see themselves in her. She’ll never be stable, constant, a rock, in the way that (say) Beyoncé or Bruce Springsteen or the great Emily Haines from Metric (“I believe in the power of girls”) can be. Instead she can be what chemists call meta-stable: likely to shift from one state, one genre, one attitude to another at some point, but unlikely to dissolve in your hands.
“Save yourself, others you cannot save,” the poet Adrienne Rich wrote at one of her own low points. The Halsey of Manic turns that advice around, making parasocial relationships into sources of strength, saving others in order to preserve herself. In 2019 she told the YouTuber Zach Sang that like emo bands and jam bands—but unlike other chartpop stars—she has, and welcomes, fans who follow her from city to city. They need her; she needs them. And they need her to be, not one stable figure who has mastered her demons, but the volatile, endangered bundle of selves that Manic barely contains, because that’s why they see themselves in her, and her in them.
The album closing “929” begins with the supposed minute, hour and day of her birth, just as the album opened with her birth name. Then it veers hard into who she can be on stage: “I remember this girl with pink hair in Detroit well she told me/ She said ‘Ashley you gotta promise us that you won’t die ‘cause we need you.” And the singer wants to believe it, even though those three rolling, repeating whole notes say she can’t. The same song concludes with an anticlimactic a capella: “Soft and slow, watch the minutes go; count them out so you know you don’t keep them for yourself.” She made these songs, these volatile records of disparate parts that add up to one Halsey, not for herself, but for us. Without them, we might not recognize ourselves.
Brian Hiatt, “Halsey on Duetting With Bieber, Hating ‘Tri-Bi’ Label,” Rolling Stone, 10 February 2016, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/halsey-on-duetting-with-bieber-hating-tri-bi-label-177167/
Kate Hutchinson, “Halsey: Manic review–sounds a bit like everything you know, but better,” The Guardian, 26 January 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jan/26/halsey-manic-review-still-learning-clementine
Jonathan Ringen, “Billboard Cover: How Halsey Became the Voice of Her Generation Through Tweets, Tumblr and Truth-Telling” Billboard, 10 March 2016, https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/cover-story/6971430/billboard-cover-halsey-on-fans-fame-music-success
Czeslaw Milosz, “Ars Poetica?” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49455/ars-poetica-56d22b8f31558
Malcolm Harris, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017).
Jeffrey C. Martin and Wayne Lewchuk, “The Generation Effect: Millennials, employment precarity and the 21st century workplace,” McMaster University, Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) (September 2018), https://www.economics.mcmaster.ca/pepso/documents/the-generation-effect-full-report.pdf
Dave Pell, “Now Selling on the Web: YOU,” Forbes, 7 February 2011, https://www.forbes.com/sites/davepell/2011/02/07/now-selling-on-the-web-you/#69ef0fa6636a
Rosemary Rossi, “Halsey Considered Letting ‘a Stranger Inside of Me’ to Pay for Food,” The Wrap, 7 April 2019, https://www.thewrap.com/halsey-considered-prostitution-to-pay-for-food-video/
Carolyn Dever, “Birth of a Queer Parent,” Public Books, 5 February 2019, https://www.publicbooks.org/birth-of-a-queer-parent/
Lauren Nicole Clark, “Why Millennial Precarity Should Change The Way We Think About Class,” Medium, 16 May 2018, https://medium.com/the-establishment/why-millennial-precarity-should-change-the-way-we-think-about-class-1cde377caf0
Zachary Zane, “Hey, Bisexual Community, It’s Time We Forgave Dan Savage,” Hornet, 9 January 2018, https://hornet.com/stories/dan-savage-bisexuality-community/
Brittney McNamara, “Halsey Opens Up About Being Misunderstood and Attempting Suicide at 17,” Teen Vogue, 11 March 2016, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/halsey-suicide-attempt-bipolar-disorder-bullying