The year is 2015. Seventeen-year-olds are finding comfort in the digital walls of Tumblr; scrolling through photos of fuzzy streetlights, girls in short tennis skirts with cigarettes and couples candidly making out. Somewhere nestled between the desire and the fashion is poetry, written not traditionally but scribbled from someone’s personal diary. It’s raw, it’s haunting, and most of all it’s incredibly relatable. “You were red, and you liked me because I was blue,” reads the iconic lyric from Halsey’s ‘Colors.’ “You touched me and suddenly I was a lilac sky, then you decided purple just wasn’t for you.” You’ve entered the Badlands.
Right from the beginning, Halsey just got it. A loyal submissive to Tumblr’s notable aesthetic, she knew what people wanted. She was there among the millions of other profiles, posting covers of her favourite songs and connecting with people all over the world under the username ‘se7enteenblack.’ She’d share her poetry and people would like it. People would repost it; they’d fawn over her voice, her words, her edgy nature and Harry Styles fangirling. So, it’s no surprise that by the time her debut album Badlands rolled around in August 2015, she had a massive legion of fans. Ones that had been with her since the start and ones that had only strengthened from her EP Room 93 dropping a year before. Halsey was their leader, the person who embodied their digital kingdom the most, and she took that throne and extended it as high as she could.
Five years later, Halsey would become one of the biggest pop stars in the world. And while Badlands seems like a lifetime ago, it’s still one hell of an album. It’s Halsey at her most Halsey, an independent, blue-haired indie-pop princess who dreams of dystopian worlds to escape her reality. Badlands was her history. It was her way of capturing her mental state as a lonely 20-year-old at the time, and that’s exactly what people wanted. They didn’t want squeaky clean pop stars talking about how great life was, because sometimes it just wasn’t. And Halsey knew that. She had spent her years from 17-20 homeless, infatuated with a drug-addict boyfriend, and struggling with her newly diagnosed bipolar disorder. She was so real and so relatable that she just quickly became everyone’s cooler, older and wiser sister.
Over a tasteful palette of synth-pop production, Halsey (in her typical fashion) beautifully turns her turmoils into art. She deals with her past romances in both whimsical and heartbreaking ways, wrapping herself in a rose-tinted haze to try and romanticise all the ugly parts. “Do you remember the taste of my lips that night I stole a bit of my mother’s perfume?” she asks hopefully in ‘Roman Holiday.’ “All we do is drive and think about the feelings that we hide,” she mumbles on ‘Drive.’ She’s so representative of her own generation that it hurts. These are easily our stories and our experiences too. Our lonely moments, our mischievous nighttime endeavours, our wobbly, first real romances. “We wrote a story in the fog on the windows that night, but the ending is the same every damn time,” sings Strange Love.
Then there’s the downright new generational anthem ‘New Americana’ that asks the youth to chant “high on legal marijuana, raised on Biggie and Nirvana.” An absolute piss-off-you-parents track, it sees Halsey summoning her Tumblr minions for battle; a battle she’s continued to fight for the last five years. “We don’t feel like outsiders at all.” And, how can we? We did build this new world after all.
But out of all the themes on Badlands, perhaps the greatest is Halsey just simply not giving a single s**t. Here was a fresh, young female trying to break into the pop world, and she was doing it her own way. On the booming ‘Castle’ and the sultry ‘Hold Me Down’, she’s sticking her middle finger up to the patriarchy and trying to navigate her own fame and identity in a male dominated world. The uplifted-from-Room-93 ‘Hurricane’ brilliantly gets a room full of teenage girls to scream “don’t belong to no city, don’t belong to no man” and the fan-favourite ‘Gasoline’ deals with people’s perceptions of her sexuality and mental health. It was all incredibly refreshing at the time and it made people feel as though they were well and truly understood. Through all the woes of adolescence, Halsey was there outstretching her hand and ready to guide you through to the other side.
The power of Badlands is ongoing. You see it in new, emerging stars and in the pink-haired young girls that walk fearlessly down the street. And, most importantly, you still see it in Halsey. As she continues to climb the ladder of success, her untouchable swagger still remains. She can still mend your broken heart with delicately stitched words, and she can still ignite a wildfire of feminist rage from an entire arena. Having an idol like that helping you grow up is lifechanging, and it keeps Badlands forever frozen as a figurative place to go back to. We may belong to no city and we may belong to no man, but we’ll always belong to the Badlands.
Listen to Halsey go back to Badlands on her ‘BADLANDS (Live From Webster Hall)’ live album, out now.