First-round Grammy voting is currently underway, and running through October 10th. For our 2020 Grammy preview, we asked a series of likely contenders to reflect on their past experiences at the ceremony, look ahead to the future, and break down the albums and singles that could earn them a statue come February.
In 2017, Halsey began a string of Top 20 singles that moved her from pop-music insurrectionist to a defining voice of radio — seven in all, including the breakup ballad “Without Me” (released in the wake of her split from G-Eazy), “Boy With Luv” (her candy-coated feature with BTS), and “Nightmare,” a ferocious indictment of misogyny where she promises, “I won’t smile, but I’ll show you my teeth.” Neither is slated for her third album, which she promises finds new horizons for her kaleidoscopic talents. “I’m exploring a lot of genres,” she says. “I just have so many tentacles right now. I did a K-Pop record, an EDM record, a hip-hop record, a pop record. The only remaining naiveté of my adolescence is the feeling that there’s nothing that I can’t try.”
In “Nightmare,” you say, “I’m tired and angry, but somebody should be.”
I was coming off the cusp of “Without Me.” It was a very honest moment reflecting the immediate events in my life. And through the process of having the world have an opinion [on] your recovery from emotional trauma, you’re reminded a lot about misogyny. How often women are demonized: their anger is unjustified, their rage is unwelcome, their betrayal likely self-inflicted in some way. I wrote this song based on my experience as a “famous” person, being on red carpets and having people say, “Why don’t you smile?” Or me posting photos of myself in a bathing suit and having people be like, “I thought she was sad about her breakup. Why is she out here acting like a slut?” It dawned on me that this experience is not unique to me as a woman in the public eye. This is something I’ve experienced my entire life. I wrote “Nightmare” with the intention of giving women a song they could yell to about it and vent their frustration.
The song was received as a shift toward rock and politics, but both things have been in your music from the start.
“Nightmare” was a crossover moment for me, where I needed my radio fans to understand me if they don’t have the entry point of track 13 on my first album where I’m saying, “Are you insane like me? Been in pain like me? Do you tear yourself apart to entertain like me?” There’s a true reckless abandon in my shows. I’ve spent five years performing in front of young women and that is their moment to let go of whatever is bothering them in their daily life.
Is it about waking up to the nightmare we’re living in, or becoming a nightmare once you’re woke?
It’s about becoming a nightmare once you’re woke. It’s about the reclamation of that expression. Since I was a kid, if I wasn’t cooperative, or pleasant, or convenient it was, “That girl’s such a fucking nightmare.” Why? Because I won’t go on a date with you? Because I won’t wear my hair the way you want? Because I’m not going to sit and be quiet while we’re having a political discussion at the dinner table? As soon as a woman becomes opinionated or outspoken or in any way or rejects the expectations you have of her, then she’s a nightmare. I’ve seen AOC called a nightmare online I don’t even know how many times. It was that moment of: good, let’s be nightmares! A couple of weeks after this record came out there was this monologue in The Handmaid’s Tale, something along the lines of: “If they call us nightmares, then let’s be exactly that. Let’s make their lives a living hell.”
Where are you with your third album?
I’m finishing it up right now. It’s a lot different than I thought it was going to be, that’s for sure. I think people heard “Nightmare” and they’re like, “OK, Halsey’s pissed, and she’s going to be making more angry music.” It was almost like I got it off my chest, and I didn’t need to make as angry music. I think I have this expectation of myself that all of my music needs to be like dark and cinematic and angry and aggressive. I was cast into this badass role, which can be exhausting sometimes. Sometimes I find myself in the studio, and I’ll have a song that’s really sweet, and I’ll be like, “I can’t put that out. People want to hear me sing with my middle finger in the air.” I think I’m expressing my angst in a different way. This album is highly conversational.
When you say conversational, I immediately think of the poem you read at the Women’s March in New York in 2018.
That was part of what motivated the shift. It was one part Women’s March, one part SNL. When I hosted and musical-guested SNL, it was the scariest week of my life, but if musicians had approval ratings, mine was the highest it’s ever been. People don’t usually like me, and that was the week that it was like, “Halsey, we get her. Love it! Watched her for an hour. I understand now.”
OK, so here’s what I’m learning: I’m difficult to digest in three minutes, because I’m really talkative and opinionated. But if people get a longer period of time to get to know me, the result is more positive. I was originally planning on making a really short album, and I started making a really fucking long album. It’s counterintuitive in 2019 to do that. Everyone wants short albums for playability. I’ve never really worked that way. The album is the point of why I do this. But I realized that approaching what you do with a sense of humor and having a more conversational nonchalance about what you’re going through can be helpful. People can relate to you. It’s less of, “Oh, God, now I have to listen to this album and dissect it and get to know Halsey. Fuck.” Instead, it’s more like, “Just sit down and talk to me. I’m cool.” I have nothing to hide or compensate for. That’s what made it easy to write such a conversational album. I’m not trying to sell you anything. I’m just telling you what’s happening.
You were nominated for a Grammy in 2017. What are your memories of that night?
One of the most important things in my life was watching Adele start over. It just taught me nothing is that serious. The year before I did the same thing at Madison Square Garden. I was three songs in and everything failed, so I had to start over. And I beat myself up over it. Then I watched Adele do it, and I thought, “OK, this happens to everybody. I can’t beat myself up for it anymore.”
The coolest thing for me was that I brought my dad. My dad is a massive Metallica fan, and we sat in front of Metallica, so he kept trying not to turn around the whole show, looking over his shoulder. I was like, “Dad, they can tell you’re doing that.” That was the year that Metallica and Lady Gaga performed together. I remember the pyro. It was just fucking cool.
Everybody is nervous and trying to pretend like they don’t care [about the Grammys]. But everybody does care. A lot. I understand the sentiment of not making music for awards. At the same time, there is something really powerful about being validated by a organization that you — probably since you were a small child — has been considered the pinnacle of the power of music. There’s still something amazing about that.