Pop

Halsey’s Defiant ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ Expands The Limits Of Pop’s Purview

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Pushing back against boundaries has, like it or not, defined how the media treats Halsey. In the past two or three years, descriptors like “Rebel” and “Firebrand” feature prominently in their profile headlines. If they feel in any way misunderstood, Halsey only uses these disconnects to fuel their creative ideations, which are boundless and hugely satisfying on their masterful fourth album, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power.

Clearly, the most ambitious project Halsey’s done to date, IICHLIWP is not only a singular look at the manifold feelings around pregnancy and new motherhood, it is a fascinating departure from what their pop peers are doing. Like, say, Billie Eilish and Lorde, who’ve also released new albums this summer, Halsey is happier than ever. They’re a new mom; they’re in a healthy partnership, they’re financially independent and fully established in their career. (“I’m getting arguably, the first break I’ve had in seven years. I’m finally taking care of myself, eating my vegetables and getting sleep and I’m pregnant and everything’s amazing and then out comes this,” they recently said.)

And yet, these personal achievements have not inspired Halsey to adopt an attitude of self-love, a sunnier sound, or vibe around a maypole with the other unplugged proselytizers. Contrarily, Halsey tackles a combination of major life events — pregnancy, partnership, career success — with a clear-eyed refusal to be boxed in by whatever idea of happy endings these things preclude. In other words, Halsey is no pregnant Katy Perry attempting to embody Mother Earth in a field of flowers. What they explore is much more nuanced, and, ultimately, truthful.

Halsey has never been your typical pop-music celebrity. Not that industry types haven’t tried to slot them into the mainstream: since launching seven years ago, Halsey has been paired with tons of zeitgeisty producers, collabs, and movie placements. On their 2014 debut Badlands, Halsey (named for the Brooklyn L stop, which just also happens to be an anagram of their first name, Ashley) worked with buzzy names like Lido, The Futuristics, and Aron Forbes. Their darkened, electropop melodies earned needle-drops on big-franchise features like Fifty Shades Darker and The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Later, their household name status amplified through even higher-profile collabs with The Chainsmokers, Sia, Greg Kurstin, and Benny Blanco.

Despite the lack of Grammy recognition, this is the sort of golden-child career trajectory that, on the surface, would make any music hopeful green with envy. And yet: Halsey is not — and never has been — the sort of unoffensive performer to just show up, do their job, and keep their opinions to themselves. (As many other female pop stars can attest, opinions tend to hurt rather than help a performer’s career; just look at how long it took to Taylor Swift to admit her political leanings.)

One of the things I’ve always admired about Halsey, who answers to she/they pronouns, is that they have an uncompromising interest in feeling heard. (As I noted above, in the entertainment industry, having opinions often translates to “being difficult.”) Last fall, knowing full well the bridge-burning consequences, Halsey called out the alleged insider-trading dynamics within the Grammy nomination process, writing on social media that nominees are selected based on “behind-the-scenes private performances” and other “bribes.”

They’ve openly talked about subjects like their experience with endometriosis, miscarriage, sexuality, wanting to be a mother, and the public judgment they faced around trying to get pregnant in their mid-20s. “I got treated like a teen mom a lot of the time, you know what I mean?” they recently told Zane Lowe about being pregnant at 26. “Where people were like, ‘Oh my god, you’re so young, and you have so much to do in your career, and you’re not married.'” (This dynamic, of course, has had its downsides — Halsey has gotten into trouble in the past for lobbing poorly worded insults at publications who’ve negatively reviewed their work.)

Featuring assistance from Nine Inch Nails production titans Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who imbue IICHLIWP with a focused, industrial punch, Halsey creates an expansive but never cluttered 13-song universe, experimenting with sound and genre while editing with thoughtful precision. Pop, R&B, rock, punk, electronic — all genres are represented across IICHLIWP. Opener “The Tradition” is a cinematic, piano-led ballad about a woman who “got the life that she wanted, but now all she does is cry.” “Girl Is A Gun” is reminiscent of 2012-era Grimes with its high-definition, ultra-slick electronica beat. The rushing, Avril Lavigne-sounding “You Asked For This” is a stunning portrait of the 20-something pop star as a new mother, turning a common victim-blaming phrase on its ear and using it as a framework to discuss coming-of-age confusion.

Will society let a new mother be sexual AND a parent? Will they understand that parents also used to be children themselves, and probably the vast majority of new parents feel childlike terror at becoming somebody else’s parent? “You know I’m still somebody’s daughter, see / I spilled the milk you left for me,” Halsey cries, after namedropping grown-up things like “picket fences/file taxes.”

Indeed, just because a pregnant woman wrote and recorded IICHLIWP doesn’t mean they don’t experience love and lust in equal measure. The Dave Grohl-drummed “Honey,” another pop-punk banger, eroticizes another woman (“she stings like she means it / She’s mean and she’s mine”). “Darling,” featuring delicate guitar-work from Lindsey Buckingham, is a heartfelt thank you to their partner, with whom they’ve made a home after “a couple years of living on the road.” Album single and epic standout “I Am Not A Woman, I’m A God” is almost like a spiritual cousin to Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch,” pointing out at-odds truths that live within them (“I am not a woman, I’m a God / I am not a martyr, I’m a problem / I am not a legend, I’m a fraud”).

Halsey has been very careful not to stamp IICHLIWP as an “empowerment” album. By stamping a limiting, white-feminist-branded term like “empowerment” on here, that automatically makes Halsey’s career-making effort too much like a wellness retreat where they sell vaginal jade eggs. No, IICHLIWP is way more complex than that, artfully parsing out the nuance around pregnancy (feeling scared AND excited AND sexy), fame (“I am not a legend, I’m a fraud”), and loving someone so much, you get sad thinking about how there will never enough time left to spend with them (“Darling, you will bury me before I bury you”). Ideally, Halsey’s everything-can-be-true-at-once narrative isn’t lost on an industry that (still) likes pop stars to show up as simple — and heteronormative — as will fit in a tidy little tweet or a headline. That’s never really what we’ve gotten from Halsey, and we shouldn’t want it any other way.

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is out now via Capitol Records. Get it here.

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