What’s it like to grow up these days? I’ll let Halsey answer that question herself: “We are the new Americana/High on legal marijuana/Raised on Biggie and Nirvana/We are the new Americana.” If you’re wondering what you get when you comingle legal pot, nihilistic grunge and hedonistic hip-hop, well, the answer isn’t a sunny one.
Twenty-one-year-old Ashley Frangipane (her stage name is an anagram of her real one) sounds like she could be Lorde’s or Taylor Swift’s black-sheep sister. Halsey trades in broadly similar themes and sounds (laced with a dramatic dose of electropop ambience du jour). But whereas those artists keep things in relatively tamer territory, Halsey rips into raw and graphic tales of furtive hookups and drug use—only occasionally noticing the emptiness in her soul that results from those choices.
“Castle” notes that anyone fighting for social change is going to face resistance. On “Drive,” Halsey realizes that she and a guy she’s in a car with are “sick and full of pride.” Meanwhile, “Ghost” confesses, “I’m searching for something that I can’t reach.” “Colors” critiques drug use as a faulty strategy for finding contentment (“You’re only happy when your sorry head is filled with dope”).
“Hold Me Down” appropriates spiritual language to articulate an inner battle (“My demons are begging me to open my mouth/ … They fight me, vigorous and angry, watch them pounce”). Later she adds, “It’s the devil that’s tryna/Hold me down, hold me down.” “Gasoline” acknowledges deep hurts, asking, “Are you insane like me? Been in pain like me?” Also in self-aware territory, “Control” acknowledges that harboring secrets can be damaging: “I tried to hold these secrets inside me/My mind’s like a deadly disease.”
“I Walk the Line” (which is not a cover of Johnny Cash’s song of the same name) concludes sadly, “I find myself alone when each day is through.”
Defiant individualism marks “Hurricane”: “I’m a wanderess/I’m a one-night stand/Don’t belong to no city/Don’t belong to no man.” Halsey says that when she has sex, it’s on her terms: “I went down to a place in Bed-Stuy/A little liquor on my lips/I let him climb inside my body/And held him captive in my kiss.” Later in that song, she mentions an ex who “tripped on LSD.”
“Strange Love” mingles a too-graphic-to-print, f-word laced description of sex in a bathroom with a different drug: “Everybody wants to know/ … How your hands felt in my hair/If we were high on amphetamines.” But Halsey’s not interested in satisfying anyone’s curiosity, singing nine times, “But I don’t have to f—ing tell you anything.” And as already noted, “New Americana” implies that smoking marijuana is just part of life for kids today. “Colors” romanticizes another (apparently older) lover’s bad habits (“Everything is blue/His pills, his hands, his jeans/ … Everything is grey/his hair, his smoke, his dreams”). This song is one of several that suggest that sex is as close as Halsey gets to religion: “I know I’ve only felt religion when I’ve lied with you.”
Spiritual and sensual themes mix again on “Coming Down”:”I found god/I found him in a lover/ … I found the devil/I found him in a lover/ … I’ve got a lover/A love like religion/ … I’ve got a lover/And I’m unforgiven/ … I found a savior/I don’t think he remembers.” Explicit lyrics about oral sex are followed by these lines: “Now we’re lost somewhere in outer space/In a hotel room where demons play/They run around beneath our feet/We roll around beneath these sheets.” On “Young God,” we hear, “You know the two of us are just young gods/ … And if you wanna go to heaven, you should f— me tonight.”
Champagne, marijuana, profanity and still more self-destructive behavior infuse “Gasoline,” where Halsey asks, “Do you tear yourself apart to entertain like me?/ … Do you call yourself a f—ing hurricane like me?” Meanwhile, “Control” warns, “G–d–n right you should be scared of me!”
Backseat coupling turns up in “Roman Holiday” (the lyrics of which are again too graphic to publish), as does teen rebellion (“I remember the fear in your eyes/The very first time we snuck into the city pool”). Hints of S&M-laced sex turn up on “Ghost” (“I don’t like them innocent/I don’t want no fresh face/Want them wearing leather/ … I like the sad eyes, bad guys/Mouth full of white lies”).
What’s the best we can hope for in life? Can we expect to be happy? Fulfilled? If not, what do we do? I don’t know too much about Halsey’s personal life. But if these songs are even remotely representative of how she’s tried to address those questions, the answers she gives here are grim ones.
Lasting love is nowhere to be found. Instead, there are only furtive physical dalliances (often paired with drugs and/or alcohol) that, in her quieter moments, Halsey admits are not very fulfilling. It’s no wonder she’s angry (“G–d–n right you should be scared of me!”) and unsympathetic (“There’s no use crying about it,” she sings in “Castle”). She’s also ferociously committed to living life on her terms. “I want more, this is what I live for/Selfish, taking what I want and call it mine” (“Hold Me Down”).
For all that, though, I find it very curious that Halsey frequently sings about demons, devils, God and religion. She seems to reject these things. But she can’t quit talking about them, even if only metaphorically, as she narrates the barrenness of the dark lands she’s wandering through. Perhaps some part of her suspects, deep down, that there’s more to life than sex and drugs and rage, even if she can’t yet fully admit that truth.
I hope Halsey one day finds her way out of the emotionally desolate desert she’s mapped out here. Until then, however, listeners should plot a detour around these aptly named Badlands.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.