Since the release of her 2014 EP Room 93, Halsey has specialized in cinematic pop anthems and alternative R&B cuts, all anchored in her sweet but biting lilt and vivid coming of age anecdotes. Her latest single, “Nightmare” — produced by frequent collaborators Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat — signals a noteworthy creative shift. Instead of the dark pop of her debut, Badlands, or the electro-pop-R&B hybrid of Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, “Nightmare” is a clear nod to Halsey’s emo roots.
As a teen in New Jersey, Halsey has said she “grew up ritualistically attending Warped Tour and lurking LiveJournal.” You can hear echoes of those early experiences in this single, whose head-banging chorus and shouted bridge channel both Taking Back Sunday and Joan Jett. This turn is likely unsurprising to her most dedicated fans: She’s dropped more than a few hints of her old/new emo aesthetic in the past few months, with the release of “11 Minutes” with Yungblud and Travis Barker, talk of a potential collaboration with Bring Me The Horizon and a rock-heavy one-night-only performance of Badlands at New York’s Webster Hall earlier this month.
The lyrics of “Nightmare” are just as remarkable, sharply departing from the tone of her recent hit breakup ballad “Without Me.” “I’ve been polite, but I won’t be caught dead/Letting a man tell me what I should do with my bed,” she spews here. It’s a necessary gesture of rage and empowerment at a moment when abortion bans are running rampant in America and women, immigrants, the LGBTQ community and others are being treated like second-class citizens. “Nightmare” is timelier than ever as women — Halsey included — continue to battle the patriarchy and their own frustrations. The singer, who has detailed her own experiences with assault and miscarriage publicly at the 2018 Women’s March, is justifiably fed up as she sings, “I’m tired and angry, but somebody should be.”
One of the song’s most jarring lines is something every woman has heard in some form from a male catcaller: “Come on, little lady, give us a smile.” Halsey declines with “No, I ain’t got nothin’ to smile about” over a percussive trap beat. It’s a universal truth that shows how suited she is to shine in this nightmarish moment.