It’s been a while since a big female pop star came from nowhere to join the A list, and this year the contenders have been lining up. Artists such as Alessia Cara and Hailee Steinfeld are in strong positions, each with a brilliant debut single, but over the past few months, one of their rivals has stormed ahead: Halsey.
The music industry has been whispering about Halsey’s impending stardom for a few months, but last week it was made official. Her debut album reached no.2 in the US Billboard 200, and in the UK it charted at no.9. The latter stat might not seem that impressive, especially as another young female artist, Ella Eyre, charted at no.4 with her own debut that week. But Ella had been on the UK music scene, promoting that album for about two years, and I dread to think how much her label have spent. Halsey just rocked up, seemingly from nowhere (yes, we’ll get to that in a minute!), and debuted only a few places behind.
In the past few weeks, I’ve seen many articles discussing Halsey’s rise to fame. These are intelligently written, interesting pieces, but unfortunately no amount of research can qualify a writer who doesn’t relate to the teenage audience of the digital age to interpret Halsey’s success. I’m not a teenager either, but as someone who works closely with youth-oriented artists and is fascinated by how young people interact with music and the media, I’d like to believe I understand them better than most. However, for a bit of extra research, I spent last night surrounded by Halsey’s adoring fans at her second ever UK gig, a sold out show at Koko in Camden.
One recent article that particularly stood out claimed Beats 1 was the driving force behind Halsey’s breakthrough, even suggesting they now “own” her. Her success couldn’t be traced back to traditional media such as radio, press or even music blogs, but somehow the writer of this article forgot about the biggest influence over the lives of young people today… social media! He and his adult male tech-savvy peers (the only ears that count, obviously) may have first heard Halsey on Beats 1, but her album had massive pre-order numbers before Apple’s radio station even launched. And anyone who knows the first thing about teenagers’ music consumption habits today knows they struggle to see the point of streaming services and online radio when YouTube already exists. Apple were hedging their bets when they chose Halsey as a guinea pig to prove they could launch a new star – she was already a sure thing before Beats 1 ever played New Americana.
To analyse Halsey’s success, we need to start at the beginning: Her first hit. You probably think the first Halsey song you heard was Ghost, Hurricane or, if you’re a disciple of Zane Lowe, New Americana, but actually there’s a good chance you heard her back in 2012. At the time, the 17-year-old Halsey, then recording under her real name of Ashley Frangipane, was a big fan of One Direction. Like many Directioners, she wasn’t pleased that Taylor Swift was dating Harry Styles. Showing the first signs of a smart marketing brain, Ashley recorded a parody of I Knew You Were Trouble, with new lyrics expressing everything the angry 1D fans felt about Taylor.
The Haylor Song wasn’t a lighthearted joke, as popular parodies usually are, but an almost jaw-dropping musical interpretation of the vicious social media rants that the power-crazed Directioners were known for at the time. Naturally, it went hugely viral, first on Tumblr and then on YouTube. The original video upload by Ashley has now been removed (you can see its YouTube embed ghost in this Huffington Post article), but of course it was re-uploaded by fans and is the first result when you search Halsey’s real name.
A viral hit is great exposure for an artist, but few manage to capitalise on it. Halsey did so, in a slow yet strategically brilliant way. She gained a following initially as a One Direction fan who liked to sing, but over time, she used the platform she had given herself to transform into a singer who liked One Direction, and eventually into a popular recording artist with no particular public association to the band she should thank for her opportunity to succeed. Halsey is the perfect example of a clever, digital native teenager achieving what major label marketing teams dream of, simply because she understands her audience, her own generation, in a way they never could.
The Haylor Song gave Halsey an audience, but it was her personality that turned her followers into fans, and ensured that their numbers multiplied, in contrast to the decline in interest you’d expect in the years after a viral hit. When asked about how she got started in music in a Reddit AMA last December, she said: “I really just used social media to my advantage. I became sort of a tastemaker who was trusted in what was “cool” in fashion, music, etc, so when time came to release my own content, people trusted it would be good.” When I read this, my immediate thought was that it couldn’t be the whole story, and sure enough a little more Googling revealed she was the girl behind The Haylor Song.
At the same time as Ashley was turning herself into an online brand and self-styled tastemaker, she was also exploring opportunities to pursue a career in music. She had a failed audition for X Factor USA, got herself a manager and worked on defining the sound of her original music. By the time she premiered her song Ghost, she was already a minor internet celebrity. She was also very communicative online, which meant her followers saw her music as the work, not so much of their idol, but their coolest friend. This gave her an advantage over other new artists, and ensured her songs got enough buzz to attract the attention of radio (Sirius XM were big early supporters) and record labels. She had interest across the board, but chose to sign with Astralwerks, an indie-esque label that is actually owned by Universal.
Although The Haylor Song was the initial catalyst for Halsey’s success, I think the real defining moment was when she debuted her original music. She had already been cultivating a distinctive online persona for a while, and the attitudes and opinions on her blog and social media were consistent with those in her song lyrics. Halsey is the antidote to perfectly composed, polite and politically correct stars like Beyoncé and her original, now strangely appropriate, nemesis Taylor Swift. She represents a female character that has little presence in pop music at the moment: the intelligent, outspoken rebel. At a time when issues around gender, sexuality and race are more important than ever to teenage girls, especially those that frequent Halsey’s original online home of Tumblr, it feels like there’s a big gap where this pop persona should sit. And that, if anything, probably explains why Halsey has been escalated to the top so quickly.
In terms of her image and persona, the most obvious recent predecessor of Halsey is Charli XCX, who also fits the description of the intelligent, outspoken rebel. Charli may be popular, but she hasn’t conveyed her identity in as clear and simple a way as Halsey (there’s nothing subtle about these music videos), and her music isn’t as well targeted to the audience, which is why I think Halsey will usurp her success in a matter of months. If Halsey’s persona is comparable to any artist resident on Planet Pop, I’d say she’s a new generation’s answer to Pink, though I doubt she would find the comparison flattering. Halsey might seem edgy now, but it won’t take long in the mainstream pop world for those edges to be smoothed out. And if Halsey’s edges refuse to be smoothed, once the novelty of her character wears off, the obnoxious side to her personality will get her in trouble. Those reckless tweets that seem honest and brave coming from a hot up-and-comer could read as unpleasant and ungrateful from a worldwide star.
She also has musical obstacles to overcome. To an adult pop fan (for example, me!), Halsey’s album Badlands is pleasant but average. Each of her songs sounds like a different established artist, such as Lana Del Rey, Ellie Goulding, or even ironically Taylor Swift, yet somehow the tracks also sound very samey. The singles are her strongest songs by far, but they’re not spectacular to my ears. There’s a clear disparity between the quality of Halsey’s music and the adoration of her fans. But having seen those fans react to her in a live setting, I’ve come to understand that they are fans of Halsey as a person, and her music is a product that they love by association. They consume her music in the same way that they would buy a t-shirt from her merch stand (the queue for which was epic at last night’s gig), like her social media posts, read her interviews and watch her perform on TV. These are simply acts of creating attachments to a person they admire and want to feel connected to, a nominated leader of a tribe they want to belong to.
It may be that Halsey is just “having a moment,” and she’ll never get the hit single that so far has eluded her. It may be that everyone in the UK with any interest in an intelligent, outspoken rebel pop star was at those two sold out London dates, and the rest of the music-buying public aren’t that bothered. But from the evidence I saw at last night’s gig, Halsey has the ability to connect with a demographic that is highly valued by the advertising and entertainment industries, teenage girls who are influential to their peers. She has very passionate fans who will certainly be spreading the word, and actively growing the Halsey fanbase within their online and real life communities. While the Halsey story has been ongoing for the past three years, a new chapter has begun that’s going to prove whether a girl who can strategically drive herself to stardom is also able to manage and retain the level of success she has achieved.
Click here to read more of my Popping the Question posts, including my thoughts on Taylor Swift’s year as a pop superstar, the artist-fan relationship, originality in pop music and much more.