Even if you don’t recognize Halsey’s name you’ve probably heard her voice on a song you probably hate: the Chainsmokers’ “Closer.”
But though that inane, inescapable electro-jingle about interstate mattress larceny is the biggest hit the 23-year-old singer has attached her name to, on her own she’s a pretty cool pop anomaly. A lyricist with a gift for expressing how everyday romantic missteps can make you feel like a hopelessly unsalvageable freak, she heightens the intensity of her fucked-upped-ness without quite exploding into karaoke-ready melodrama, her voice serrated with a slightly bratty edge that sounds like strip malls and Marlboro Lights.
Halsey has credited her success to the fact that’s she “just someone that people found minutely more interesting than the average person," as she told Rolling Stone with an air of proud self-disparagement in a lively 2016 profile (which also contains the most accurate distillation of teen life in her native New Jersey you’ll ever see in print). In that spirit, let’s say her fans, who all but filled the Xcel Energy Center Saturday night, are just a bunch of someones who feel minutely more out of step with the mainstream than the average pop listener – not weird or pretentious enough to check out St. Vincent a few blocks away at the Palace Theatre, for sure, but discomfited by a sense that most pop is glossing over important details about their lives.
Halsey’s latest, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, is one of the few albums by a solo female artist to reach number one this year, and it’s produced a couple terrific and middlingly successful singles that have secured her a regular KBWB presence. (In fact, she was just announced as a last-minute add to this year’s Jingle Ball lineup.) From an unlikely home at Astralwerks, a label whose commercial heyday ended roundabout the time MTV pulled Amp off the air, when she was still in elementary school, Halsey has carved out a relatively autonomous space for her smartass bisexual self outside of the ever-more-restrictive assembly line of modern pop, flaunting a foxy, glam look and a bridge and tunnel heart.
The stage décor at the Xcel was grand but simple, just a full set of massive white stairs, like the entry to a temple or a museum or a courthouse, with screens above displaying pointlessly eye-popping graphics. As smoke steamed along each stair step, Halsey strode down from above singing “Eyes Closed,” a typically Halseyish lyric about fucking the wrong person. She moved on to pair of defiant songs from her 2015 debut, Badlands, first facing up to her demons on “Hold Me Down,” then facing down an “old man sitting on throne” telling her to “keep her pretty mouth shut” and not be so “mean” on “Castle.” (Though about a third of her set was drawn from that first album, she’s smartly jettisoned “New Americana,” the klutzy anthem for a generation “raised on Biggie and Nirvana.”)
For a solid two hours, Halsey held the stage on her own (with the occasional support of just a single backup dancer), her stage moves tending more toward purposeful stride and emphatic crouch than choreographed steps. (The band was tucked away semi-visibly on either side of the stage, except during a mid-show mini-set of ballads, when a white piano was placed center stage.) Her hair was cornrowed and dangling in braids, and her outfits certainly were outfits. She first appeared in a glittery ensemble of translucent hot pants, midriff-baring top, and fringe jacket over a solid white bikini. She later changed into a red booty-flaunting unitard with matching knee-high boots, then displayed her high-end mallrat chic flair in a white hoodie with orange stripes.
A gabby and intimate stage presence, Halsey could be earnest when the mood required. “If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, this is a safe space for you,” she announced before “Strangers,” which she recorded as a duet with another out bisexual pop star, Lauren Jauregui of Fifth Harmony. But she could undercut that earnestness as well. She introduced “Bad at Love” by asking “How many of you guys have recently suffered a breakup?” Cheers, followed by the punchline: “There aren’t many other reasons people come to a Halsey concert.” And then a twist: “But I want you to consider: What if you were the fucking problem?” In fact, her only misreading of the crowd was the question “Do you prefer being called ‘Minneapolis’ or ‘St. Paul?’” (I expect better of a Jersey girl who almost certainly has seen a show at the Meadowlands where some singer asked ‘How you feeling, New York?’”)
Without a Max Martin sanding down the coarse spots to engineer soaring aerodynamic megapop – though she teamed up with some marquee producers on her followup, much of Badlands was crafted by an off-brand Norwegian named Lido -- Halsey’s songs are often neither immediate nor subtle, a bad combination for a pop tune in the streaming era when another option that’s either more overwhelming or more artful is just a click away. But when you’re forced to sit with them – in a concert setting, for instance – they broaden and envelop and take shape. The two songs she closed with, “Gasoline” and “Hurricane,” sound a little over-emphatic on Badlands, but at the Xcel they were just the sort of climactic anthems a finale called for.
But the most striking part of the show was the ballad section I parenthetically mentioned earlier. Halsey showed off a richly dynamic voice on the self-lacerating “Alone” (“As soon as you meet me/ You’ll wish that you never did”) and the empathetic “Sorry” (“Someone will love you/ But someone isn’t me.”). Between these two songs came the moment I’d dreaded – and maybe Halsey did too.
When she reached the banal singsong coda to “Closer,” Halsey altered the line “We ain’t never getting older” to “We just keep on getting older,” then paused to explain why. She’d hoped to bump the song from her set this tour, she said. (“What?” gasped the young woman in the row ahead of me.) Reading somewhat wishfully between the lines, I chose to hear an annoyance from Halsey that her biggest hit was so lame, but maybe she was just sick of it.
But then, she said, fans at meet and greets told her how they’d heard the song at unexpected moments, and she reconsidered. “I am so fucking honored to be soundtracking your lives,” Halsey announced, acknowledging how pop trifles bloom with unexpected significance as they infiltrate our daily routines. And cripes, pop doesn’t get much more trifling than “Closer.” I didn't sing along. But I understood why everyone else did.
The crowd: Almost entirely women, ranging from moms and middle schoolers up to Halsey-aged pairs and groups, with a smattering of gay men in their teens and twenties.
Critic’s bias: I’d agreed to review this show without realizing it meant skipping both St. Vincent and the Mountain Goats – two more critic-friendly and age-appropriate shows. Both, I’m sure, were fantastic, but honestly I learned more from this one, as songs I half-liked won me over completely when performed in front of an adoring crowd, and I got to zero in on the appeal of pop star whose success I’d puzzled over for a while. I’m a fan now.
Overheard in the crowd: “I know it’s an iPhone ‘ten’ but I like saying iPhone ‘x’ ‘cause it’s fancier.”
Random notebook dump: An arena full of teens and twentysomethings singing along doesn’t make Post Malone’s “Rock Star” sound any less dreary or scummy but it makes Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” sound more triumphant than ever.
Hold Me Down
Heaven in Hiding
Walls Could Talk
Bad at Love
Angel on Fire
Is There Somewhere
Now or Never
Hopeless (video intermission)