It’s been nearly two years since Halsey released her sophomore album, 2017’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, and since then she has achieved an enviable level of ubiquity on Top 40 radio, guiding multiple singles -- “Without Me,” “Bad at Love” and the Benny Blanco-Khalid collaboration “Eastside” -- into the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. While she has mostly operated atop rhythmic pop production, her songwriting has become more ambitious: “Bad at Love” documents romantic struggles across gender lines in an important moment for LGBTQ representation in modern pop, while “Without Me” is a seething breakup track with a chorus that slices its target with rhetorical questions and a show-stopping bridge borrowed from a Justin Timberlake hit.
“Nightmare,” however, is immediately Halsey’s most daring single to date, both in terms of subject matter and production, and her most vital. The barbed assault on patriarchal expectation -- “I’ve been polite, but I won’t be caught dead/ Letting a man tell me what I should do in my bed" -- showcases the trap percussion that she’s veered toward on previous singles in the verses before pivoting to a brash alt-rock chorus, all cymbal rides and fire-throated shouts with an indistinct portion of electric guitar fuzzing out the mix. The chorus sounds beamed in from a different artist’s catalog — Paramore, maybe? Mid-period No Doubt? — and dives into the alt-rock approach that Halsey dipped a toe into with her recent Yungblud collaboration, “11 Minutes.” Her signature hits aren’t usually ripe for head-banging, but she gamely adopts the abrasiveness, taking the kinetic energy of the production and fashioning it into a rallying cry.
There are other moments on “Nightmare” where the instrumentation is stacked into a tower before dropping out altogether, and others where Halsey must halt her rapid-fire delivery and make room for a few seconds of silence. As she navigates the song’s unorthodox structure, Halsey peppers in some killer lines (“No, I won’t smile, but I’ll show you my teeth,” “Stared in the mirror and punched it to shatters/ Collected the pieces and picked out a dagger”) that exalt autonomy, sexual freedom and self-acceptance. These are difficult landings to stick, both as a singer and a songwriter, but Halsey handles the stylistic curveballs like a pro and delivers her message concisely.
After aiming high earlier in her career with a song like the pseudo-generational anthem “New Americana” and falling short in terms of lasting emotional resonance, Halsey has gotten to a point where she has the skill and confidence to handle the sonic intensity and thematic enormity of a song like “Nightmare.” That confidence has extended to the new single’s music video, directed by Hannah Lux Davis and featuring an all-woman cast that includes appearances by Cara Delevingne and Debbie Harry.
Halsey spends the entire video defining and redefining her womanhood: she’s a punk leading a mosh pit, then a primped-up housewife furiously sliding a vacuum, then a dominatrix spitting at her voyeurs, then a glamorous model reading a newspaper with a headline that screams “It’s Our Turn.” There is destruction all around Halsey, but never a step of uncertainty. The camera hovers around her and Delevingne as they share a sultry look, but then they powerfully reject that outside gaze. The implication could be drawn that Halsey is roleplaying as some of the more iconic pop stars of the decade in the video -- Lady Gaga in “Bad Romance,” Rihanna in “S&M,” Beyonce in “Why Don’t You Love Me” -- but she’s also synthesizing the features of her own pop approach into an indelible visual moment.
The song and its corresponding video arrive at a time in which Halsey is in the middle of a hit streak, and it will be interesting to see whether pop radio welcomes a song as charged and unabashedly pissed-off as “Nightmare.” Its timing in the context of Halsey’s career as a massive pop star is surprising, but it also feels prescient given recent current events. The song release capped off a week in which the biggest news story in the United States was the restriction of women’s rights, as Alabama effectively outlawed abortion and other states made legislative moves to do the same. Several musical artists voiced their anger at the news, while Halsey herself tweeted on Thursday, “Watching our own government be immune to our experience, and the social temperature regarding abortion is another fatal failure for humanity.”
“Nightmare” and its video, then, serve as an inadvertent catharsis following a national story that has proved deeply upsetting to women across the country. Halsey’s latest single is that “angry anthem,” at a time when many needed one. Maybe it will prove too offbeat to command the same Top 40 attention as “Without Me” or “Eastside,” but what the song may lack in mainstream potential, it makes up for in cultural significance.