Join us at PAPER in June and July as we celebrate Pride online with a series of digital-only covers, features, and galleries celebrating and supporting the diversity, beauty, resiliency, and humor of the LGBTQ community. For our latest digital cover, we spoke with pop star Halsey about bi-acceptance, over-sharing on the Internet, and being wrongly deemed a "Lez Bro."
Born Ashley Nicolette Frangipane in Washington, New Jersey, Halsey's ascent to pop stardom began on the same proving grounds as many other Millennial moguls: Myspace, Tumblr, YouTube and SoundCloud. As the story goes, she amassed 14,000 Myspace friends by age 14 and 16,000 YouTube subscribers by age 18, with acoustic Taylor Swift covers and One Direction parody songs, connecting directly and deeply with her fans with the kind of candor, over-sharing, and immediacy seemingly tailor-made for social media's youth culture hothouse.
At the age of 20, she uploaded her first original song, "Ghost," to SoundCloud which immediately went viral and brought no fewer than five record labels banging on her door. In 2014, she signed with Astralwerks, and released two inventive concept albums, beginning with her debut EP, Room 93 ,and her 2015 album, Badlands, that framed semi-autobiographical tales of young love, fast times, and heartbreak within sprawling dystopian sci-fi narratives. Her new album, the Billboard 200 chart-topping hopeless fountain kingdom, is equally ambitious, using the tale of Romeo and Juliet as a metaphor for the way your identity can warp inside an all-consuming relationship.
Halsey is often compared to Lana Del Rey, another star born on the web, because of her cinematic arrangements, tales of doomed romance, and grandiose melodrama. However, where Lana mythologizes, never straying too far from the confines of a carefully crafted aesthetic, Halsey remains blunt, confessional and wryly self-effacing with an emotional authenticity not typically heard in her contemporary counterparts. To say Halsey lets herself be an open book would be an understatement.
As a biracial, bisexual feminist who also openly discusses her bipolar disorder with no firewall and no filter, Halsey represents a triumvirate of identities rarely seen in the Top 40. Ironically, she is best known for her feature on a hyper-conventional frat-pop mega-hit with The Chainsmokers, "Closer," but with hopeless fountain kingdom, all of that is set to change.
Here, we talk to the singer about her new album, her same-sex love song, "Strangers," with Fifth Harmony's Lauren Jauregui, and the rewards and pitfalls of radical vulnerability.
Like your first album, Badlands, hopeless fountain kingdom is a concept album with its own characters and its own universe. Can you tell me a little about the inspiration behind your latest record?
Badlands was a record about a place, as all my records are. I was in a really, really, really depressed place when I was writing Badlands, and I wasn't sure how I was gonna escape that mentality because when you're depressed, that becomes your identifier sometimes. You're the depressed girl. When you see your friends, you complain about how you're feeling. When you talk to your parents, you're telling them about what you're going through and your lack of motivation or whatever. And then the idea of becoming happy—while it's nice—it's scary. Because if you become happy, then who do you become? Because who you are is depressed. Do you know what I mean?
It defines you.
Yeah. You can feel like it's defining you. So Badlands was about that place. Hopeless fountain kingdom is kind of like this purgatory. It's a place where all the odds are against you. Myself and my lover are from two different worlds. We're not supposed to be together. It's never supposed to work out, but in all of our fucking young ignorance we feel like we're destined to beat the odds and make our love work. We find out at the end that after all the drama, after feeling like we would have literally died for each other, that all [we] needed to do to make [our] relationship work was just live for each other.
Let's talk about "Strangers." It's really crazy, to think that the song might just be the first straight-up, same-sex love song on Top 40 radio. From two women that are actually bisexual.
That song, like many of the songs on this album, just happened. I was going through something [when I wrote it]. The first lines are "she doesn't kiss me on the mouth anymore/because it's more intimate than she thinks we should get," because I was thinking about this person I was spending time with. We were having sex and going to dinner and whatever, but I asked myself, "When was the last time I kissed them on the mouth? I don't even remember."
[Originally] it was me singing myself, and then I was like, "No, this needs to be a duet." I struggled with it for a really long time. I'm not gonna put a straight male on it because he can sing, "She doesn't kiss me, whatever," but it's not gonna be the same and I'm not gonna put a straight female on it, because then that's just exploitive and weird and makes no sense. The fact alone that I was even struggling to find queer women in my field to get on the song...
It definitely says a lot about the industry.
And then I thought of Lauren Jauregui, who's a friend of mine, and the best thing about it is that it wasn't a compromise. It wasn't like, "Oh well, Lauren's openly bi, so we'll just put her on it." [Including Lauren] made the song better. Her voice brings an entirely new perspective. She's an incredible artist and the way that she delivered a lot of the melodies...she really, really made it her own. It just felt so right.
What kind of response have you been getting?
The response we're getting from fans makes my fucking life. The amount of kids who just have just messaged me saying "Thank you for this"... And I get it. I'm a young, bisexual woman and finding that kind of representation in music is really complicated. You don't want to be limited from listening to music that is relatable to you because you're a pop music fan. Pop music can often be really ostracizing. It's just a shame that it's so hard for marginalized or minority people to get the same pop music experience as people who are heterosexual or generally part of the majority. They deserve the same pop music experience.
Generally the closest thing to queer representation you get in pop are songs sung by straight women, and they're more about experimental hookups...
Oh, yeah. Bisexuality as a taboo. "Don't tell your mom" or "We shouldn't do this" or "This feels so wrong but it's so right."
"My boyfriend won't mind."
That narrative is so fucking damaging to bisexuality and its place in society. That's something I've had to fight my whole life and something I still fight. I still see people on the internet saying, "Of course Halsey says she's bisexual. It'll help her sell albums." I never came out as a musician because I was already out when I started making music. I was out in high school! I was in high school with people walking past me in the hallway calling me, "Dyke," you know what I mean? That was just a part of my reality. It was also part of my naïveté. When I first started making music, I didn't think, like, "Oh, well people are gonna be mean to me because I'm not straight." BuzzFeed wrote this article and they were like, "Is Halsey really bisexual? Because when she did the VMAs with the Chainsmokers, she had long hair. Was that because she wanted the public to see her as straight?"
I'm sure your labels get policed a lot.
It was interesting to me because, for a lesbian writer, it seemed really bi-phobic. It seemed like, "Well, I don't wanna claim her because she's dated a guy, or because she's doing this romantic collaboration with a guy." And then she's like, "Well, she hangs out with all these dudes, so is she fucking all of them or is she pretty much just a Lez Bro?" Obviously, she didn't say it in those words, but she did actually say "Lez Bro." There's bi-phobia from the straight community and from the LGBT community. There's a lack of acceptance. It happens in TV all the time when people write bisexual characters as going through a phase or struggling with something. It's part of some mental breakdown or rebellion storyline, and that just sucks.
And then when you end up with either a boyfriend or girlfriend, it's like, "Oh, you've finally made up your mind."
Yeah. It's like, "Oh, I used to be gay and now I'm straight." Well, that's literally not how any of this works, because you can be married to a man and still be a bisexual woman.
You have always been very forthcoming and honest about your life experiences, your sexuality, your bipolar disorder, your past, and I think that's something that your fans really love about you. Is that vulnerability a comfortable place for you?
I think that being open is a nice thing, because it keeps me honest. That's a weird thing about having bipolar disorder, too, because people with bipolar disorder—and I'm saying this in a loving way—they just don't know how to keep their mouth shut about what's going on, because it's a defense mechanism. You're seeking validation, you're trying to keep your perspective of yourself, you're trying to keep yourself from disassociating by keeping the people around you aware of who you are so that they can remind you when you forget. I'm telling the world who I am so that I never get the chance to forget. It leaves no room for dishonesty or anything like that, which is really ironic because people think it's some kind of act.
That's so ironic.
Yeah, it is really ironic. Sometimes you put something out to the world and as soon as it's out there, you go, "No, wait, come back, come back, come back." That's the biggest mistake you make; you forget that when you give it to the world, you're also giving them the opportunity to have an opinion, which is obviously what our discourse-driven, social-media platform, open narrative, open dialogue generation loves so much. You can get burned.
But at the same time, I have a responsibility to stay honest because that discourse is exactly what drives artists away from being honest with their fan bases.
Do you ever regret anything that you've shared in the media?
Yeah, almost to the point where it makes me not wanna tell you what I regret. I spoke out about a miscarriage that I had on tour to Rolling Stone about a year and half ago. I did it because I have an interest in women's health. I think the problem is that with a lot of these sexually active young people between ages of 13 and 23, right now, the only thing they know about Planned Parenthood is that Planned Parenthood is constantly defending itself. I came out about it because for me, I needed people to know that Planned Parenthood is a facility for the people. So I came out about the miscarriage to talk about that, and also because how often do you read a miscarriage story in the press that's about a 20 year old girl? I was scared and not married and alone and it's not...It's a very socially unacceptable situation to be in.
It's like stigma on top of stigma.
So, the reason I wish I didn't [reveal that] is because people were really violent about it. A lot of people were like, "Oh, you're lying. You had an abortion." I did a show in Toronto and a couple people came to the concert and held up a bunch of bloody baby dolls in the crowd.
What? Oh, my God.
Yeah. And then my WhatsApp got hacked and people started sending me messages with pictures of fetus parts and really gory, bloody disgusting, the shit of nightmares. Every now and then a Twitter account will pop into my mentions that's dedicated to documenting how many days my baby's been dead. It's really fucking dark.
That's completely fucked.
Those are the moments where I'm like, "This is one thing maybe I wish I kept to myself." But I didn't and it's out there. And I have to own it now and hopefully use it to help other people feel like they're not in a position where they're alone, and feel like their life is gonna go on.
Well, on a lighter note, are you excited about going on tour?
I am extremely excited. There are very few things in this world that I like more than being on tour. It is my favorite part of what I do, is getting to play a show. I have become so comfortable on stage that I could stop a show and FaceTime my mom. There's very few things that could scare me about being on stage, because I've embarrassed the shit out of myself. My wigs have come off. I've been standing up there in a wig cap looking at the room like I was in a bad dream and I was naked in front of the class. I've tripped. I've fallen. I've said stupid stuff. I've forgotten the words. I've sang poorly. I've become so comfortable up there that it's my favorite place to be. It feels like going to church. You can look around and know that you have a bunch of people who feel the same way as you and believe in the same things that you believe in. I've had people say to me, "Hey Halsey, I am a young lesbian woman and your concert was the first time I ever felt comfortable enough to kiss my girlfriend in public."
The cool thing about music, is that so many people say that that feels like a safe space for them because they can look around a room and at least know they have one thing in common with everything around them, and that one thing in common is that they really love...
And that's so fucking special. That never, ever, ever will get old to me, ever. Music is fucking nuts, it's the most accepting and powerful language in the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.