I’m bringing back this classic series. Not because of popular demand, because HAH!, NO ONE READS THIS BLOG, but because I feel like doing it again.
Here is what I listened to last week.
Halsey has been around for a while, making the rounds on tumblr every few months for her endearing teen-girl-in-her-bedroom sound and a winning softgrunge selfie aesthetic. She’s recently garnered lots of attention for being “discovered” on Soundcloud and following the suburbs-to-stagelights Lorde Trajectory while still keeping her Insta game hella real. I say all this to emphasize that she didn’t come out of left field. Her theme has been pretty consistent for almost two years now.
So if Halsey has had all this time to refine her sound and carve out her own niche, how does Badlands sound so familiar? Halsey obviously has good taste in her influences, but this album never manages to make it to a place where it progresses the paradigms laid out for her by her idols. Instead, it stagnates in the zone of imitation and ends up coming off as cheap–a trap many young artists fall into, especially on their first albums.
Badlands isn’t bad, really, how could it be? Halsey draws (in a very savvy way) on some of the most innovative young female popstars today: Lorde (see: “Strange Love” and compare to Lorde’s “Tennis Court”), Taylor Swift (see: “New Americana” and “Colors, Pts. I and II”) sans the perfectly manicured image, and enough of a Lana Del Rey touch to make her seem deep, but not enough to make her dangerous. The highlight of the album is the song “Ghost”, which first appeared as a demo on Halsey’s Soundcloud in 2012. The hand of record company execs is a lot less heavy in this track, and feels much more authentic than something like “Castle” or “Strange Love”, which both feature the hopeful popstar demanding more cred than she’s yet earned.
The whole blend should be thrilling to me, as someone who loves each of these artists tremendously, but something just feels…off. It hits the uncanny valley of pop music where it’s not close enough to the influences to be imitation, but not unique enough to be innovation. Halsey chose this sound for a reason, though; there’s something going on in this area of pop and there’s lots of room for progress and derivation, but this album doesn’t get it quite right, and Badlands will likely and unfortunately fade into the background noise that accompanies any musical paradigm shift.