Friday, October 16th, 2015

Halsey – New Americana

Does she want to write “Rooooyallls…”?

Katherine St Asaph: It is a strange thing to finally hear a supposedly inescapable song that you’ve only seen touted and scapegoated from twelve different directions. No one seems capable of talking about Halsey without talking about her looks and/or her generation. Grantland’s Sean Fennessey builds an entire argument (basically that Halsey’s career is some kind of in-house Apple product, which perhaps makes it the first of its sort supported by all the company’s competitors) around the “fact” that Halsey “looks like what Apple wants you to hear.” The refrain recurs in the NYT: Halsey “could be mistaken for a millennial built in a lab.” (This is indeed how millennials are formed; this checks out.) Everyone invariably mentions “New Americana” and its Millennial Pledge of a chorus: “We are the new Americana, high on legal marijuana, raised on Biggie and Nirvana.” So primed, it was a surprise to hear a more measured song. The intro is like a Digital Daggers track, except without the histrionics so what’s the point; the lyric is one of what’s going to be many attempts to rewrite “Royals” without the hip-hop implications. Halsey has a few prosaic turns of phrase, like “cigarettes and tiny liquor bottles: just what you’d expect inside her new Balenciaga,” but it turns out everyone was right, and the chorus is dreadful. Not for the words, nor for Halsey’s snotty delivery, nor because Rihanna got there first, nor even because of the theory that it’s legal marijuana to appease radio censors; but because it’s the melodic equivalent of Impact type: impassive, there to make a statement, suitable for memes, and grating if it’s used for more than a few words.

Megan Harrington: Halsey is using shorthand (“Biggie,” “marijuana,” “Balenciaga”) to signify youth and then unsubtle imagery to capture their attention, hoping to connect to the struggle of growing up at a time when your identity is always up for public consumption. It’s natural, if toxic, to think about the past and remember it as simpler and sunnier and that’s my first reaction listening to “New Americana.” In fact, I thought immediately of Britney Spears’s “Sometimes,” a song I related to very much as a thirteen-year-old girl. Where Halsey’s shrouded in darkness, Spears is all light, but there’s more in common than in difference. Both, with heaving breast, sing about fear and desire, hoping to locate their nexus as life’s accelerant. Spears, then derided as plasticine and fake and manipulative, is now an icon. Today’s thirteen year old girls will decide whether Halsey is the same.

Thomas Inskeep: Wants to be Lorde really badly, and doesn’t come anywhere close. Just naming American iconographies doesn’t make you Lana del Rey, either, especially when you rhyme “Americana” with “marijuana” and “Nirvana” and then have the gall to bastardize Biggie lyrics. One of the year’s worst singles.

Alfred Soto: I don’t want to dismiss attempts to create fascinating originals that depend on an existing sound or an approximation thereof. Chet Baker wasn’t Miles Davis and Change weren’t Chic. But the flow is awkward, the lyrics primed to make statements designed for 800-word Vice dismissals.

Iain Mew: I really like the large bits of Halsey’s album which sound like Indiana’s moody synth-pop, but I can still see that this is an anthem on a different level. Its marching beat and alternately soaring and sighing chorus provide a powerful momentum, a sense of soft revolution that would be something really special if I could only make anything of the message to it. “Raised on Biggie and Nirvana” makes literal sense if you consider the music of the parents of ’90s children, but what’s the significance, especially coupled with legal marijuana? A hymn to how a previous generation’s rebellion becomes the mainstream? What’s the deal with the comparisons to peers who, unlike “we”, go to Monaco and the Hamptons? We are the 9%? As someone who falls between those ’90s kids and their parents, maybe it’s only right that I feel left out, but I’m confused throughout.

Lauren Gilbert: I can picture rich kid Angeleno teenagers waving their cell phones to this at Coachella 2016 already. It’s calculated to be the anthem for a generation – note the namechecks for gay marriage, marijuana legalization, the Hunger Games/Divergent/The Maze Runner video – but it just makes me tired. BADLANDS contains some very good pop songs (“Gasoline”, “Castle”), but this isn’t one of them. Sonically, it’s dark and lush; another post-Lorde Youtube sensation. Lorde has also spoken about how some of her early lyrics make her cringe now; in two years, Halsey will probably feel the same way about this song.

Jer Fairall: Biggie and Nirvana and prescription weed may be the referents that you catch first, but it is the anachronistic James Dean reference–the year’s second–that reveals the sheer incoherence of the text. The verses speak mainly of neoliberalism, until they speak of gay marriage (and then of neoliberalism again), but is this a diagnosis, an indictment, or a celebration? At the very least, I can take the bludgeoning joylessness of the music, a mix of anthemic Modern Rock tics and a vocalist who sounds like Ellie Goulding striving for Avril Lavigne at her most histrionic, as a means of ruling out the latter.

Will Adams: Awfully serious for a song whose chorus almost prides itself on its forehead-slapping marijuana/Nirvana rhyme. Halsey’s embarrassing sloganeering comes off no less hollow and shortsighted than your standard thinkpiece about millennials. That it comes this time from someone in my age group twists the knife.

Reader average: [4] (13 votes)

Vote: 0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10

14 Responses to “Halsey – New Americana”

  1. Lauren is spot on: “Gasoline” builds beautifully in the verses, and is unsettling enough that Halsey could easily become a Fiona Apple-style songwriter if she went down that path. It’s a shame that “New Americana’ is the popular one.
    My other problem with Halsey is that all her songs need context to work; “Biggie and Nirvana” come from her experience growing up in a biracial home, listening to her dad’s rap and her mom’s grunge on the same iPod. (Even “Gasoline” becomes improved after learning about the singer’s struggles with mental illness.)

    I’m not going to attempt to defend that line in general, because it’s terrible, but I’m happy those 90s icons weren’t completely arbitrarily chosen.

  2. That does help! It hadn’t occurred to me that the importance might be in the and.

    And welcome to Lauren, who has just joined us!

  3. Man, I’ve noticed a trend of reviewers comparing young women doing sparse singer/songwriters stuff to Lorde over and over again. Sometimes the connection is very clear and appropriate, but it’s starting to get annoying; I wish we could start branching out to different signifiers to say *exactly* what it is we’re trying to say instead of just “hey, this is another Lorde girl”

  4. (This is just the latest entry with those comparisons, so I’m not singling you guys out, btw; more of a critic-phenomenon in general that is starting to bug)

  5. I’m conscious of avoiding comparisons confined to the same gender – it’s tiresome and lazy. But in Halsey’s case it’s unavoidable.

  6. The song this reminded me the most of, actually, was Anjulie’s “Stand Behind the Music.”

  7. I like how the sidebar cuts off my above comment such that it turns into clickbait

  8. the impact font analogy is masterful

  9. Katherine is amazing again, news at 11

  10. I don’t even like Lorde, but tbh there is a lot more of an electronic bent to a lot of her production, and she does attempt to synchronize her production to those little moments. Hals has just made the same boring rock song again and again, and obviously she could easily have nothing to do with her own production there’s nothing new or exciting about BEEG RAK DRUMZ again and again.

  11. I 100% believe any James Dean references in 2015 are at least slyly winking at James Deen.

  12. Andy, that is an extremely good point.

    (also hello all!)

  13. I like this song a lot, but after seeing the music video I can’t deny the load of Millennial baggage and post-apocalyptic/post-old world angst the song fails to handle. Still, I like a simple screaming chorus and some fun sounding words that make a song feel big, even when it’s a guppy in most every aspect.

  14. it’s okay everyone, this song’s meant to be ironic!