On Halsey's Refusal
Music listeners put artists in a box. They hear a record or two (or even just a few songs) and chalk up that artist for that specific sound and style. For an artist they like they wait for said artist to release new records with that same sound and feel disappointed, or even betrayed, when the artist decides to curate a new sound. Matthew Bellamy of Muse was once asked who he thinks the harshest Muse critics are to which he replied: "hardcore Muse fans". Bellamy acknowledges that Muse's sonic shifts over the years have left a significant amount of fans upset. I myself am ever so guilty of this too and have criticized a large number of incredible groups for deviating from the sound I thought they were only good for. Further, the music industry as a whole is guilty of this behavior. Artists are signed and promoted for the sound the industry deems them good for. The bottom line of this is that changing sound and style is commonly not an option for artists who want to ensure their success and support from their fans and the industry as a whole.
New York's Halsey (real name Ashley Frangipane) rose to huge success in the late 2010's as a pop singer. After having three successful pop records in a row from 2015's "Badlands" to 2020's "Manic", features on ultra successful pop tracks by other artists such as the Chainsmokers' "Closer", and amassing over 38 million monthly listeners on Spotify alone Halsey was clearly at the top of music industry by 2021. Although having some stylistic differences throughout the first three records by 2021 Halsey seemed boxed in by the industry and fans with both expecting her to release another, now somewhat predictable, pop record.
Ultimately Halsey's fourth record, "If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power", cultivated quite the shock and astonishment in the industry and fans from its dark, dissonant, and haunting sound. Written and produced in a surprising collaboration with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Nine Inch Nails), the record is unapologetically harsh and different. It feels like an odd coming of age record that's filled with the intense, scary thoughts and uncertainties that such maturing brings. From the opening dissonant piano ballad "The Tradition" to the post-hardcore, soaring guitar sound of "You Asked For This" to the full explosive rage in "Easier Than Lying" the record purposefully strays from sounding like anything even slightly expected of it. Above many Nine Inch Nails influenced sounds and styles Halsey's impressive voice takes on a different, more raw and penetrating sound that presents her lyrics in a much more emotional way than her previous records (still good records though nothing against them).
This record is much more than just a collection of unfamiliar sounding songs for Halsey listeners and the pop industry. "If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power" is Halsey's daring refusal to stay within the pop boundaries that were prescribed to her by listeners and the industry. Halsey pushed herself into an unfamiliar sound with collaborators that were seemingly on the other side of the music realm to create something daringly unique while knowingly risking the future of her success and fanbase. It's a stark reminder that artists, and anyone for that matter, can always redefine themselves and reach out in any new direction. Further it prompts the idea that as artists and people if we are only good at and stick to one sound, one hobby, or one anything then we are doing ourselves and the world around us a disservice in prohibiting all that could have been.