Halsey in Hindsight: Her Long and Winding Road to 'Manic'

Aidan Cullen


When the 19-year-old Halsey uploaded “Ghost,” her debut single, to SoundCloud in early 2014, she “had no interest in being a singer.” The whole exercise was supposed to be a lark; it was the first song she’d ever recorded with a producer.

But “Ghost” was precocious, sounding like three songs in one, with lustful, sung-rapped verses, an emo-inflected pre-chorus, and a wistful refrain: “I’m searching for something that I can’t reach…” It set off sparks immediately. Five record labels contacted her within hours; she’d sign to Astralwerks later that year, with great expectations. Was it a fluke, that her first song led to an immediate windfall? Or was this the storybook beginning to the music career she’d secretly always wanted? Sitting in those label meetings, Ashley Frangipane made up her mind: “From that day on I’ve been an artist.”

If there’s been one constant throughout Halsey’s career, it’s that she’s impossible to pin down -- including on her six pre-release singles from her highly anticipated third album Manic, out today (January 17). Through all the ups and downs, let’s look back on how Halsey’s grown as a young woman, public figure, and artist.

In October 2014, Halsey released her debut EP Room 93, a tentative expansion of the teen-dream sounds of “Ghost.” Her early music, amplified by her active social media promotion and Astralwerks’ promotion, found a loyal following, fast. Her timing was perfect. In the wake of Lana Del Rey and Lorde, there was a thirst for music with bigger hooks than indie and art-pop, but darker moods than the typical Top 40 of the day -- and Halsey, heavily endorsed in the months to come by Spotify (and later Beats 1 and Apple Music), was anointed the next big thing.

Their gambles paid off immediately. Upon its release in August 2015, Halsey’s first album Badlands debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 -- an instant commercial success without a traditional radio hit. A concept album about the inhabitants of a dystopian wasteland, Badlands aimed high, but was ultimately just as interesting for its occasional stumbles. “Castle” and “Hold Me Down” open the album with grandiose electro-pop and combative lyrics, nodding to the opposition she’d already faced as a woman in the music industry. Those more cinematic tracks are impressive, but looking back, Badlands is at its best when the stakes are lower, where she’s more precise with her words. “Roman Holiday” is Springsteen via Taylor Swift’s 1989, adventurous and romantic: “Late December, with my heart in my chest/ And the clouds of my breath/ Didn't know where we were running to/ But don’t look back…” “Colors” is even better -- a starry-eyed ballad juxtaposed with lyrics about falling out of love with someone.

Despite the concept, there’s no strict narrative -- the Badlands are a metaphor for Halsey’s oft-distant, isolated mental state. As a result, she often expresses her feelings in the abstract, before the listener had a sense of the real person behind the Tumblr-poetry imagery. That distance is never clearer than on the album’s divisive second single “New Americana,” the first Halsey song many listeners heard, where she declared her intentions with a children’s choir over a martial beat: “We are the new Americana/ Raised on Biggie and Nirvana/ High on legal marijuana!” She called it satire, but the song felt relentless, not sympathetic, and its teen-dystopia video came at the tail end of Hunger Games and Divergent franchise fatigue. 

Despite the hype, and some notable negative reviews, Halsey was making music that reflected her honest point of view -- even if she didn’t always have the perspective to fully articulate her themes. Badlands wasn’t the destination -- it was the start of the journey.

The same year, Halsey was the sole woman to land a coveted guest spot on Justin Bieber’s Purpose -- though on “The Feeling,” she’s more of a dreamy, disembodied presence than a real personality. In mid-2016 came another duet -- The Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” which changed everything. “Closer” was more self-aware than many gave it credit for: it was a deliberate anti-love song, delivered by two unlikeable, yet sympathetic narrators trapped in a cycle of self-loathing memories. Halsey more than held her own; her high belt at the end of the bridge provided the song’s much-needed climactic moment of release. “Closer” was her first song to top the Billboard Hot 100, staying there for 12 consecutive weeks -- and was eventually certified Diamond. 

The song’s massive success could easily have defined Halsey’s career for life, but she used her newfound household-name status to vault the perception of her own music beyond alt-pop, into the stratosphere. On 2017’s Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack, Halsey quietly upstaged Zayn and Taylor Swift. “Not Afraid Anymore” was as dramatic as anything on Badlands, but she sang with a redoubled confidence, showing off a newfound vocal strength.

After Halsey started teasing her upcoming second album, titled Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, things immediately felt different. Unafraid to come off as pretentious, she revealed the album’s gender-swapped Romeo & Juliet story through an elaborate alternate reality game: setting up Twitter and Spotify profiles for its characters, mailing clues to fans. The album opens with her reciting Shakespeare’s prologue to the play, but beyond the high concept, Halsey had truly found herself.

Hopeless Fountain Kingdom feels smaller in scale than Badlands. Gone are the windswept, movie-trailer soundscapes, replaced with more taut, rhythmic beats. Halsey was working with more established pop producers -- Greg Kurstin, Benny Blanco, Ricky Reed -- alongside her frequent collaborator and ex Lido. Their then-disintegrating relationship sparked many of the album’s songs, though Halsey uses many of her lyrics to excoriate her own flaws.

Success accelerates any artist’s timeline, but especially pop stars, who inevitably use their experiences as direct fuel for the music. “Bad at Love” and “Alone” celebrate Halsey’s newfound success, but mostly lament how fame amplifies her insecurities. Sometimes, she sounds powerfully small, like on “Sorry” -- a piano ballad that’s almost intimidating in its candor: “My ignorance has struck again/ I failed to see it from the start/ And tore you open ’til the end…” 

The album’s stakes feel more personal throughout, even as Halsey’s sonic universe has expanded. She’s often called herself an “anti-pop star,” yet she’s unafraid to wear her influences on her sleeve: “Now or Never” nods to Rihanna’s “Needed Me”; “Walls Could Talk” to Destiny’s Child and Blackout-era Britney; “Eyes Closed” is a co-write with tourmate The Weeknd, that borrows his chilly musical demeanor. Best of all is “Strangers,” which pulses with the longing of Depeche Mode or the Human League; a duet with Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui where two women fall out of love. 

Hopeless Fountain Kingdom’s moves toward mainstream pop don’t erase Halsey's essential character; they amplify it. Her voice and presence, always unmistakable, ties it all together -- even when her sci-fi concepts fall by the wayside. Kingdom became her first album to top the Billboard 200 -- and what’s more, she was the first woman to top the chart in 2017.

It’s been a long two and a half years since albums two and three. In the time since, few artists have moved as fluidly as Halsey through so many aspects of popular music. Her first single of 2018, “Eastside” with Benny Blanco and Khalid, paid tribute to each artist’s humble beginnings and first crushes. On a much grander stage, she played herself in A Star Is Born, handing the best new artist Grammy to Lady Gaga’s character Ally, in a canny bit of pop meta-commentary.

When Halsey first released “Without Me” in October 2018, it was a departure -- a one-off single written and recorded in the immediate wake of her breakup with G-Eazy. By his side, she’d sung “Him & I,” a somewhat facile duet about loyalty in love. Apart, she channeled her bitterness into the most cutting lyrics she’d ever written. “The biggest lesson I learned was to make art, not headlines,” she told Glamour -- though she made headlines too, casting an uncanny lookalike of her ex in the music video.

“Without Me” hit several musical sweet spots at once: psychedelic clean guitars, hazy alt-R&B production, and emo’s romantic venom, tempered by pop melodicism. It nodded to the past, interpolating Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” without lapsing into nostalgia. It even managed to accommodate a remix featuring the late Juice WRLD, making Halsey one of the first female pop acts to nod to the SoundCloud rap scene. All of the above made “Without Me” her first solo single to top the Billboard Hot 100 -- and both it and “Eastside” spent a full year on the chart. 15 months later, “Without Me” still feels relevant enough to warrant a spot on Manic’s tracklist.

In mid-2019, Halsey delivered her second definitive solo single in a row. On “Nightmare,” she united the personal and political like she’d never before. Fueled by a lifetime of feminist rage, she swung for the fences, pairing explosive, shout-along choruses with resolute hip-hop verses: “I’m tired and angry, but somebody should be!” She spends the video “defining and redefining her womanhood”: moshing, satirizing her public image, even locking eyes with Deborah Harry. Halsey’s ultimate decision to leave “Nightmare” off Manic was surprising -- ironically, she was already through with making “angry dark music.”

Throughout 2019, Halsey was defined by her collaborations too. The angsty “11 Minutes,” with Travis Barker and her then-boyfriend Yungblud, brought her lifelong pop-punk influences to the forefront. It was soon followed by her most bubblegum song ever, BTS’s “Boy with Luv,” where she felt right at home performing alongside the K-pop superstars. On Post Malone’s “Die for Me,” with Future, Halsey cussed out G-Eazy with surgical precision. She closed out the year as a ghostly vocal apparition on Bring Me the Horizon’s “¿,” where the UK pop-metal band went full EDM.

In her public performances, Halsey proved herself a polymath. She hosted Saturday Night Live to positive reviews, delivered one of her strongest live vocals on “Without Me,” and sang “Eastside” while painting a portrait, not missing a beat. When she performed at award shows and TV tapings, each staging was totally different. She even announced Manic via a seven-and-a-half hour livestream of her painting a giant version of the album cover. Halsey was coming full circle, once again the precocious art nerd of her teenage years.

Each of Manic’s pre-release singles has been fascinating in its own right. “Graveyard” paired acoustic guitars and upbeat percussion with portentous lyrics: “I would have followed all the way to the graveyard/ Oh, ’cause I keep diggin’ myself down deeper…” Halsey called “Finally // Beautiful Stranger” “the first love song that I've ever written,” a pure-hearted country ballad. Its mirror image, “You Should Be Sad,” was a country breakup song worthy of Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert.

Halsey took a backseat on “SUGA’s Interlude,” where the titular BTS rapper delivers two existential verses; a rare, but very welcome Korean-language contribution to a Western pop record. But best of all was “Clementine,” a magical, storybook lullaby about wanting to escape. In her dreamiest video to date, she dances in an aquarium with her younger brother Sevian, letting us see Ashley Frangipane like never before.

Next to Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, it feels like we now expect every pop star’s music to tie in with their personal development. But it’s rare that the mere leadup to an album feels as enlightening as Manic’s has. Without hiding behind concepts, costumes, or allowing herself to be defined by others’ labels, Halsey’s found a way to integrate every part of her once-chaotic psyche. As she told Rolling Stone last year, “The only remaining naiveté of my adolescence is the feeling that there’s nothing that I can’t try.” Whatever you think of Manic, there’s no doubt Halsey will have made exactly the record she wanted to make.