Halsey reads the comments, all of them. She knows what every random kid online thinks of her, and unwise as it may be to take on that psychic burden, it's hard to blame her: The 21-year-old, Jersey-bred alt-pop singer-songwriter had an online fan base built on pure charisma well before she signed a record deal. But in the six months since the release of her gold-certified debut, Badlands, and the much-hyped, divisive single "New Americana" (about being in a generation "raised on Biggie and Nirvana"), she's become an old-fashioned rising star, complete with an upcoming sold-out show at Madison Square Garden. "I have to remember for every kid saying something awful, there's a kid saying something great," says Halsey, who couldn't even mourn David Bowie on Twitter without haters accusing her of faking it. "Because I have this incredible sold-out tour."
Some artists have mixed feelings about their breakthrough song. Is that the case with you and "New Americana"?
It's a cool song. I love performing it. But it wouldn't have made it into the album if I had my way. It was this tongue-in-cheek song that kind of got shoved down people's throats. It became this cultural anthem that it wasn't supposed to be, and it got so blown out of proportion. People would kind of say I was the voice of a generation, and I'm standing behind them, fucking drawing a line across my neck going, "Eh-eh, eh-eh, no, no, that's not what I'm trying to say here." I almost think the fact that so many people hated it so much is largely responsible for my success, because it made people talk about it.
What are you doing duetting with Justin Bieber on his new album?
You hear, "Oh, Justin would never put a no-name like Halsey on his record. [Bieber's manager] Scooter must be representing her," which isn't the case at all! But they asked, and, like, pop music is fucking fascinating to me. I also learned how quickly I could go from having never met someone to having the world think I'm dating them. My mom texted me, "Are you dating Justin Bieber?" I was like, "Mom, what the fuck? Don't you think I would tell you?" But when we performed on the Today show, it was just so real, so emotive, so evocative — two people connecting in this love song. There was a moment where I think he and I were both kind of like, "Are we … are we … is this real?"
You're a big rock fan, so why is there almost no guitar on your album?
Every song on Badlands I wrote on a guitar, and there will definitely be more guitars on my next record. A guitar can be so human, so sorrowful, so angry, and I wanted to figure out how to achieve that vibe without having to actually use guitars, because Badlands is a very futuristic record — and making it that in an era of futuristic music is a really hard thing to do! There's something very old-fashioned about a guitar, to me. That's probably a shitty term to use. I mean more "nostalgic," and that's just because in my adolescence, I listened to guitar-type music. Music is cyclical — guitars are going to come back, and it's going to feel very fresh.
Do you think the lines between genres are more permeable right now?
Genre in 2016 is just absolute bullshit. Half the records on hip-hop radio are pop records at their core, and half the records in fucking alternative radio are pop. And pop radio doesn't even know what the fuck it's doing. I end up pleading my case to alternative programmers — you're telling me that my music is too dark for pop, too pop for alternative, and urban radio won't touch it — so we have a record that doesn't fit in. And what is more alternative than that?
"Genre in 2016 is just absolute bullshit."
What do you have in mind for your first headlining arena shows?
I just went on tour with the Weeknd, and he used tons of fire. I was like, "Ooh, I need that!" But I want to build a show that's a grand, cinematic experience without hiding behind production elements as a crutch, without using those things to cover up my lazy ass. You still have to be able to perform your fucking ass off.
You happen to be biracial, bisexual and have bipolar disorder — but it drives you crazy that people think you've called yourself "tri-bi," right?
I fucking hate it, the idea that something like that would be trivialized down to a fucking hashtag. I mean, there's a ton of biphobia — people refuse to accept bisexuality as an actual sexuality. And I'm biracial, but also white-passing, which is a unique perspective. So these kids say, like, "Oh, fucking tri-bi Halsey! She'll never miss an opportunity to talk about it!" I want to sit them down like a mom and go, "Six months ago you were begging for an artist that would talk about this shit! But then I do, and you say, 'Oh, not her. Someone else.'"