Halsey Knows How the Game Goes, and She's Here to Win
| Ensure the red, yellow, and white composite cables are in their corresponding sockets. That your wireless controller has brand new AA batteries. Press power on the platform of your choice and see the switch wink neon green. *Cue those rousing introduction sonics* Click through the game’s main menu but know that before any adventure can begin, before any bosses can be beaten, you must first assemble your avatar. |
This was always the hardest part for you, Ashley Frangipane. You say it was especially precarious as you ricocheted around the Garden State never staying long enough in a school district to form connections, always leaving soon enough to claim indifferences. But oh, the power of constant reinvention, the rebounding transformation—Halsey.
This is a titanic week for you as your sophomore effort Hopeless Fountain Kingdom drops and you perform it in front of your most loyal fans in an intimate reveal you’ve lead them on a scavenger hunt to attend. But before the first note can be sung, you have an interview with Flaunt at the restaurant of your choice. And so, you must get ready.
Will your avatar be female, or will you decide to discard the binary altogether? Will you showcase your freshly shaven head for the “New Americana” rebellion you ignited in your 2015 debut platinum album, Badlands? The alternative concept album that interactively led your teenage guerrilla warriors from the dystopian desert of the barren badlands, up the escarpment, into the mountain tarns of shameless self-expression? Honoring all bodies, orientations, genders, and colors, triumphantly, you chanted in unison. “They’re Monaco and Hamptons bound/ but we don’t feel like outsiders at all/ We are the new Americana.”
You never asked to be their leader. But as you said in the prologue of the "New Americana" music video, “the lighting in their eyes huddled me into whatever they needed me to become. We were hopeful we would win, because nothing could scare us. We feared no city, and we feared no man…”
Are you ready for level two? You know that the battle against the forever-morphing boss of identity cannot be beaten in simple melee. This is something you are learning every day. Fresh from your most recent breakup, you’ve been quoted asking yourself, “Who am I when I’m not in his gaze?” And so, we want to know: will you wear hair? You’ve said in interviews that “hair is such a big deal”, that you’ve lost fans because of your buzzed head. But who would want those “fans” anyway?
As you finesse your avatar for the highest concept release of your twenty-two-year-old life, what choices are running through your mind? Rock the buzzcut? Or, roll back into your genesis with that iconic blue hair? That turquoise pop. Mermaid rinse. Voodoo blue. The hue your fans fell in lust/love with and decorate on their own avatars forming an army of you. The tint you can’t seem to part ways with. The blue that has them so shook, you can’t shake it.
You go blue. You have to, and you compliment it with a neon Orange is the New Black ensemble. The top a Harley-Davidson cut off muscle shirt, the pants baggy. Nails orange and yellow like candy corns. Timberlands, your combat boots.
You are being shuttled through the eastside of Los Angeles by your entourage of four twenty-something men in black ripped jeans, bleached blond hair, graphic tees, and grungy flannels. It is the last day of May, but the premature June Gloom is thick even by mid-afternoon. There are jacaranda trees lining the streets. They are popping periwinkle like day fireworks and their bulbs fall scentless on your car, whirled off to be squished by the traffic behind you.
Today’s boss is a double boss. Twins, Basil! These bosses are your frenemies, always the little voices on your shoulder whispering wild, volatile insecurities that you sometimes let blossom instead of nipping in the bud. Today’s bosses are the press and (mis)communication.
You tell the writer you sit down with at the plant-based restaurant (the type where every “meat” has quotes around it so you know it is not actually “meat”), “I think this will be the last interview I do for a while,” you say, heightening every following word, “Everything has just been so fucking mean. I’m just over it.” A pause; a sip of iced coffee. “You forget when you put something out into the world that everyone is going to have something to say about it.”
After researching your past press, it is clear that they have made you the target of their first-person shooters. You believe they’ve formed an “angry Halsey narrative,” and as you tell me this you begin to do something that’s kind of like talking about your ex on a first date. You talk about other interviewers while you’re being interviewed.
“I did an interview the other day and the interviewer was like, ‘I really don’t feel like your concept [for hopeless fountain kingdom] is all there.’” You sigh, “Reviewers are always saying that. And I’m like, okay, did you order the box set? Are you coming to the concert? Do you have the newspapers I left on fan’s doorsteps over all fifty states in America? Did you get a letter with a wax seal in the mail? No, you haven’t.”
You define singular play. Listeners who snag your singles, devour them and move on. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. Listen to your new hit “Now or Never,” listen to your 1.6 billion-viewed collaboration with The Chainsmokers, “Closer.” But you know this isn’t the main objective; the intention is role play.
“If you want to dive into the story, invest, then you can dive into my campaign and that’s what I try to set a stage for. So that’s why I get so pissed at reviewers who say ‘Halsey’s concept isn’t fully there,’ and I’m like that’s because you aren’t participating. My 300k dedicated fan base, those are the people that are hacking into the source code of my website, they are the ones getting leaks to their emails, the ones getting letters sent to their mailboxes, the ones who are in this world, and that is campaign play.”
Those diehard fans adore the world you’ve created for them. “I think a lot of what I do is me loving comic books and video games and the idea of a universe. I always joke around about the ‘Halsey Cinematic Universe.’ It’s very much a choose your own adventure: how much do you want to play?”
And you put your money where your mouth is. When our interview coalesces to its final denouement, you leave your “chicken” on the table and are rushed into your waiting car and whisked downtown, barreling through the high-rises of Los Angeles that feel more and more like the cityscapes of the original Ghost in the Shell that you guzzled as a girl, babysitting your younger siblings as your young parents worked multiple jobs.
“I loved retro-future surrealism. That’s one thing I always admired about video games and anime. You can’t tell what timeline they exist in. Is it the past? The future? Is it even on this earth? That’s how I want my albums to feel.”
Your fans are lined up on the wrinkled sidewalks for free tickets to your album release show. Three of your fans wait, looking at their phones. They are dark haired girls, one with braces, one with a snapback, and one in, you guessed it, your blue wig. They tell me they are eighteen, but they must be lying, playing characters themselves. They are shy and giggle at all of my questions but tell me, “We love the world Halsey creates for us. ‘Mom’ makes us feel so special.”
They waited thirteen hours on sweltering sidewalks just for the chance to attend your album release. “A lot of artists struggle to bring their fans into their world. I do the opposite – I interject myself into theirs,” you say. You are meeting and greeting the fans in the long line and you remember one of them from three years ago, when this virtual reality first commenced.
In May you took to Twitter – “I feel like I’m in a bad video game where every time I level up I have to defeat another shitty white dude trying to take credit for my work.” And just like that we’ve unearthed your personal Bowser, your Ganon—the final boss.
“It would be too hard to give me any credit. I direct a music video and it’s like ‘oh well, someone else must have directed it, they just put her name on it so she appears more impressive,” you tell me, frustrated. “It’s just misogyny. The lack of faith in female capability. It is such a male-dominated industry that everyone seems to believe there has to be a man behind the woman, that women can’t do anything without some secret help.”
In late 2015 you collaborated with Justin Bieber on a massive song, “The Feeling,” on an even more mammoth album, Purpose. In a radio interview, you said, “I hate having to say this, and I’m really glad I did the Bieber record, but I sold out Madison Square Garden before I did it. I’m really glad that I did “Closer,” but Badlands went platinum before I did it. I’ve worked really hard on my own. So, to have that handed to someone else, I won’t tolerate that."
It’s simple misogyny by association. But of course, it is obvious both collaborators are obsessed with their perceived hyper-masculinities. From Bieber’s bullied bulge in his “unedited” Calvin Klein photoshoot to – oops! – some accidental nudes on vacation (twice...), to The Chainsmokers flaunting the sum of their combined penis lengths in interviews, admitting crushes on you, and then dissing you in “hacked” tweets about your buzzcut.
Perhaps your only departure from your bad-ass narrative was getting cringe-worthy intimate with D.J. Andrew Taggart in both the music video of “Closer” as well as at the 2016 V.M.A. performance. But either way, the manspread will always attempt to push you and your hard work off the chaise lounge so they can catnap in luxurious chauvinism. But enough about pricks.
You pierce the stage of your album release show held at The MacArthur in DTLA and your fans are woke. They are shook. Tonight they are dressed grungier and riskier than they typically would be. They still believe in your leadership of societal rebellion. “She’s wearing the blue hair!” One man screams, waving an itty-bitty Pride flag.
You compliment it with a white sequined top and high-cut jean shorts with decorative fringe that shimmer as you dance. The reception is gigantic when you thank your fans for their support after the first song, for letting you join their reality. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom sits like a queen on the top throne of iTunes at the time of the show.
The album is inspired by your recent breakup but it is galvanized by Baz’s Luhrman’s 1997 film Romeo + Juliet. In your own words, “It’s my story in the style of another story. It’s the soundtrack to that story.” You perform each new song with vehemence. In “100 Letters” your voice exorcises your past lover’s contact in a proud present stance, “But I don’t let him touch me anymore.” It casually chronicles bisexuality – “Got a girl with California eyes/And I thought that she could really be the one this time” – and again in the single “Strangers” featuring Lauren Jauregui of Fifth Harmony. You sprinkle in past hits, honoring your origins, but you omit “Closer,” “The Feeling,” and “New Americana.” You will be defined brazenly by your present.
Between songs you make one statement to usurp all of your bosses. Your deliverance to your ever-changing identity. You assert that you will not be constructed by industry masculinities.
“I wanted to set the record straight with you guys about one thing,” you say after a sip of water, “I know that people are going to find my confidence angry or arrogant, but when I was making this album I was very vulnerable and insecure, and writing it helped me along the journey of learning how to love myself.”
The crowd absolutely wigs out in support. “Sometimes you’re not going to like yourself, but some days you’re going to really fucking love yourself,” you say, following it with a brief pause of nonchalance before you flip that blue hair and they are gagging on it, “So, I am confident. You can call it arrogant if you want, but it took me a very long time to get to this place, so I’m staying here.”
Written by Miles Griffis
Photographed by Zoey Grossman at Art Department
Photographed at Studio 60
Styled by Zoe Costello at Atelier Management.
Hair: Rachel Lee at Atelier Management.
Makeup: Anthony H. Nguyen using Tom Ford Beauty at Opus Beauty.
Manicure: Stephanie Stone using Chanel le Vernis at Forward Artists