Is Halsey’s ‘Hopeless Fountain Kingdom’ the future of pop music? – USA TODAY
Ask Google what “alternative music” means in 2017, and “Halsey” will pop up â along with names likeÂ Twenty One Pilots, Imagine Dragons, Paramore and Lorde. No longer reserved for bands that sound like Nirvana, alternative has become the genre of music that doesn’t have a genre.
That’s precisely why Halsey has embraced the term, one that’s perfect for a 22-year-old who’s not a fan of labels, particularly theÂ “tri-bi”Â moniker she’s been slapped with by the media:Â biracial, bisexual and bipolar. TheÂ singerâs new album Hopeless Fountain Kingdom (out Friday) the follow-up toÂ her platinum 2013 debut Badlands, is another album of vividly-narrated pop/R&B songs thatÂ bets on itsÂ compelling narrator outshining its less-than-distinctive music.Â In that way,Â HalseyÂ just might be the future of pop music.
Like so many other teens raised in the suburbs (in Halseyâs case, New Jersey), Halsey (nÃ©e Ashley Nicolette Frangipane)Â found early inspiration in mid-2000s albums that told dramatic tales of love and destruction, professing her love for Brand New, Panic! At The Disco, Bright EyesÂ andÂ Taking Back Sunday. Belonging to the first generation of music listeners to come of age with the internet, Halsey’s peers cobbledÂ together their first music libraries from blogs and file-sharing services, a hodgepodge of a listening experience that rendered the distinctions between music genres totally obsolete.
Halsey took away a crucial lesson from the alt-rock artists of her youth, that music is only as good as the emotions it sparks.Â Sporting tattoos, a buzzcut and an open sexuality, Halsey built a massive following by positioning herself as an alternative to other young stars, making trendy-sounding pop/R&B withÂ the same sweepingly dramatic songwriting that captivated her as a young fan. Hopeless Fountain KingdomÂ is less interested in a defining musical aesthetic than an emotional one, withÂ HopelessÂ beingÂ the titleâs optimum word, its songs a series of hard-partying, Shakespearean mini-epics. HalseyÂ make no secret of its source material; the album begins with her reciting lines from Romeo and Juliet.
As for what HFK actually sounds like, that’s less clear. The album doesn’t contain any immediate earworms like Closer, Halsey’s megahit with the Chainsmokers. Instead, sheÂ borrows magpie-like from other stars’ signature sounds, with someÂ working better than others.Â Eyes Closed,Â co-written by the Weeknd, sounds like Halsey singing karaoke from his catalog, andÂ Now or Never‘s chorus borrowsÂ Rihanna’sÂ Needed MeÂ riff. More effective are the tracks that team up with Adele and Sia’s go-to producer Greg Kurstin; Halsey’s voice shines on theÂ Adele-style piano ballad Sorry, andÂ the Sia-esque flourishes onÂ StrangersÂ and Devil in Me (which Sia co-wroteÂ ) elevate the tracks to among the album’s best.
Strangers,Â Halsey’s track with Fifth Harmony’sÂ Lauren Jauregui, is also making headlines for featuring two queer women singing a romantic duet, a feat Halsey calls “unheard of” (Jauregui also identifies as bisexual). Both Strangers and the HFK highlight Bad at LoveÂ hint at same-sex relationships, further positioning Halsey as a key figure helping to makeÂ mainstream pop a little less straight.
However, ifÂ Halsey’s queer, mixed-race, genreless status is positioning her asÂ pop music’s future, her Quavo-featuring track Lie is a dangerous misstep. The MigosÂ rapper has aÂ much–publicizedÂ history of using homophobic slurs in his music and interviews, so why Halsey, an artist whose career is synonymous with her progressive identity, invited him on her album is puzzling.
For stars like Halsey, whose music is secondary to their publicÂ persona, there is no separating their art from their politics. The swift downfall of theÂ queer punk groupÂ PWR BTTM, whoÂ similarly positioned themselves as advocates for their fans before one of their members was accused of sexual assault last month, is an extreme example. Halsey’sÂ compelling identity may have won her a place in the mainstream, but if her music is disposable, how long will it last?