Is Halsey the Anti–Taylor Swift? Or Just a Darker Version of Taylor Swift?
The Shrine, Los Angeles
July 14, 2016
It's telling that the one-size-fits-all speech Halsey gives before singing "Hurricane," a track off her debut EP Room 93 (2014), can bend to the events that took place on Bastille Day 2016. While there's a gravity and sincerity to her rallying cry, there's also a rehearsed, generic empathy that allows her to immerse herself in any tragedy or victim story — something even Halsey herself acknowledges.
“This tour started a couple of days ago,” she says to her homecoming L.A. audience (she relocated here from New Jersey). “It's been a very complicated one for me.” The first night of the last tour to promote her hit debut LP, Badlands (a concept album that has nothing to do with Springsteen), was in Orlando, recently affected by the terror attack on the Pulse nightclub. “City after city I have to get onstage and look people in the face, then tell them they do not have to be afraid. It's a hard thing to do.”
She pauses on her pulpit, high above the stage, her muscular thighs hip-width apart. “To get onstage every night and think you have to give the same fucking speech for a different reason ...” Tonight, she decides not to specifically name the attack in Nice, France, but it's clear to all what she's alluding to. “I want you to feel like you can stand in this crowd and be the best version of yourselves! Life is too fucking short to be living in fear!”
Halsey's message is one of individualism, but it's an individualism that extends to so many individuals as to render it homogenous. She originally posited herself as the opposite of Taylor Swift, releasing a parody of "I Knew You Were Trouble" (from Swift's Red album) called "The Haylor Song." At pixie-cropped face value, Halsey (an anagram of her real name, Ashley) is many things publicly that Taylor is not: boldly bisexual, openly bipolar, proudly biracial and not afraid to take a stand, even one seemingly at odds with building her fan base. Earlier this year, she left Twitter to show solidarity with fellow pop singer Kehlani, who was trolled after revealing via Instagram that she had attempted suicide.
Swift doesn't put her neck on the line, unless it stands to benefit her in some fairly obvious way. Halsey appears to speak her mind for speaking's sake, in a manner more akin to Miley Cyrus. But of course, this benefits her, too. In 2016, she has become a commercial pop star of her own making, one who has graduated from midsize venues this spring to selling out Madison Square Garden this fall via the contrived "edginess" of an early Pink (minus Linda Perry's songwriting).
Tonight's show reveals precisely how and why it's worked. At the precocious age of 21, she leads the way to a largely teenage audience, who are here tonight to sing in unison songs that all sound like alt, darker, less obvious versions of Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble." Call it harmony, call it cloning, but not even at Justin Bieber's Purpose World Tour earlier this year did I experience an audience who hollered along to every single word for more than an hour, sometimes at such a volume as to completely overshadow the pop star herself.
But it's not the revolution that Halsey would have you believe. Between the speech and the highly impressive, pyro-heavy set design, Halsey is all about that classic escapism through pop. The difference is that at a Halsey show, you're escaping to dystopia, rather than from it.
The themes of Badlands — a world Halsey created to represent what it's like inside her bipolar mind — are brought to vivid, blasting light onstage, via biblical flames and pillars of smoke. During third song "Castle," as the backdrop turns into a glacial landscape — the visual equivalent of the bass-y throbs of her post-Lorde electronic pop — we find out exactly what the realms of Halsey's head feel and look like. On most tracks they resemble the surface of the meteor in Michael Bay's Armageddon or the Star Wars planet of Tatooine.
Halsey's mind is sharp-edged chaos. It is where the demons live and invite more demons — the audience's demons. All night, via identical tracks such as "Gasoline," "Hold Me Down" and her generational anthem "New Americana" (for the kids who were “raised on Biggie and Nirvana”), she clambers around the jungle of her mind, her high-heeled feet carrying her over and under scaffolding, as she willfully traps herself within her own nightmare. Her onlookers fix their gaze upon her, reducing their feelings of outsiderdom by focusing on hers. In that sense, the Anti-Swift is more Swiftian than she might care to admit.
What's undeniable is the connection between her and her 6,000 fans (and she plays to a sold-out crowd here again tonight). Or is it? As she begins "Is There Somewhere," Halsey leads the whole hall in a mammoth sing-along. They hit every note, every syllable exactly as she does on the album. For those who have swallowed Halsey's staggering journey whole, from YouTuber to stadium filler in less than two years, there's an intimacy in the masses, but ultimately the co-dependency fails before it's ignited.
“I'm a wanderess, I'm a one-night stand. Don't belong to no city, don't belong to no man,” sings the crowd — and Halsey — on "Hurricane," a sea of lost souls trapped in a vortex of calamity, searching for some service to capture the moment on Instagram.
Hold Me Down
The Feeling (Justin Bieber cover)
Is There Somewhere
Colors Pt II
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