From going viral after penning a Haylor parody song to gaining sudden mainstream attention after being featured on The Chainsmokers's “Closer,” Halsey’s unique journey to pop stardom underlies their complex role in the music industry. Halsey describes themselves as an “anti–popstar,” but their music isn’t indie enough to be classified as alternative—yet isn’t quite top 40 radio fodder either. They recently gained some chart–topping power with the number one single “Without Me,” but their main focus has been crafting whole albums and not quick singles.
What results are moments of brilliance that are sometimes overshadowed by their efforts to please the general public. Their sophomore album hopeless fountain kingdom is the best example of Halsey attempting to establish their honest voice, aiming for an ambitious Romeo and Juliet concept album. However, catchy yet incohesive tracks result in a disorienting listening experience. After years of trying to find this balance, Halsey has finally achieved it on If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, this time partnering with collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from the band Nine Inch Nails.
Halsey often expressed their struggles and vulnerability in their previous work, and If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is no exception. After their first child was born on July 14 of this year, Halsey revisited the challenging experiences throughout their pregnancy and the new expectations they face as a mother. On the opener “The Tradition,” Halsey critiques this new way of life as they feel powerless in their relationship. They repeat, “It’s in the blood and this is tradition,” throughout the chorus, referring to the façade they put up when “she got the life that she wanted / but now all she does is cry.”
The unforeseen responsibilities they face after coming from “the loneliest girl in town” who is “bought for pennies” doesn't match their expectations, and they feel that this is rooted in the rest of society’s ideals. While not all lyrics describe Halsey’s own experiences—the album is accompanied by an hour–long IMAX visual film—a lot of the themes can still be traced back directly to their life. They aren’t the naïve child they once were; now they must “ask for forgiveness, never permission” and defy the ever–increasing pressure society places on them.
For Halsey’s standards, “The Tradition” is still sonically safe. A somber piano creates a medieval–esque aura, but Halsey sounds very comfortable in this new sound. Reznor and Ross begin to push Halsey’s boundaries on “Easier than Lying,” with its dark, brooding bass, and “Bells in Santa Fe,” with its glossy, glitchy beats. Even though these tracks clearly stand out from the rest of Halsey’s discography, their voice is just as emotional and powerful, filled with rage or regret depending on the occasion. The more alternative and rock instrumentation seems like a natural progression from their 2019 single “Nightmare,” a creatively deviant, perfectly structured pop rock song that was cut from Halsey’s third album Manic because it “just [didn’t] fit.”
Along with the shift in sound, Halsey establishes new themes in this upcoming chapter of their life. On “Bells in Santa Fe,” they angrily lament how they feel “useless” unless it is to “keep your bed warm,” which seems ironic given Halsey’s appearance as the Virgin Mary on the cover of the album. Additional religious imagery is scattered throughout the track, such as Jesus needing a “three–day weekend” or having “better lips than Judas.” They no longer see themselves as a spiritual figure selected by the Holy Spirit, and instead as a means to please other men. Halsey then retracts what they said, claiming that they don’t “really mean it” because no one “would choose this.” Now that they are a mother, they recognize the power they have in the cycle of life, further demonstrating their commitment to expose society’s flawed ideals and uplift others in their situation.
If the indie influences weren’t apparent already, they are fully present on “You asked for this” when Halsey goes full–on shoegaze and dream pop. With their voice enveloped in deep reverb and electric guitars saturated with never–ending cymbal crashes, the my bloody valentine–esque song accompanies Halsey’s urges to escape the dreads of reality in favor of a better world. Throughout the chorus, they repeat how they want to “go on and be a big girl,” echoing the problematic expectations that they must be mature and grown in order to be worthy. Even when they’re pregnant, they are crushed by the standards they must live up to.
While “honey” may be the most traditional pop track, the story it tells is surely not generic. Halsey reminisces over a romantic partner who once was “sweet like honey” but now is like “blood in” their mouth. This contrast could be a turn–off for many, but Halsey craves this rush of emotions and rollercoaster of a relationship. They love “every second,” and even if they think “she stings,” the lover will always be theirs.
But the following track “Whispers” presents an alternative perspective on these types of chaotic love affairs. When thinking about a different partner, they describe a voice “that says, ‘You do not want him’” yet always goes back to saying they want to “fuck him.” Halsey also references the struggles they have with bipolar disorder, saying that they’ve “got a monster” that “eats personality types,” leading to the varying ups and downs exacerbated by the challenges throughout childbirth.
In terms of vocal delivery, production choice, and lyrical content, “I am not a woman, I'm a god” is undoubtedly Halsey at their best. Their confidence oozes from their tone and matches the sharp staccatos of the bass. There’s no room to go against Halsey because they know they’re right; they’re steadfast in their belief that they are “a martyr,” while also acknowledging their vulnerability in “having problems.” The track serves as a climax on the album because Halsey is finally able to recognize themselves. They feel “better all alone” and they just “wanna feel somethin'," and they’re able to accomplish this through their honest confessions. Ariana Grande’s “God is a woman” and Tommy Genesis’s “a woman is a god” touch on similar subjects, but even if Halsey is jumping on the bandwagon, their track remains very personal to them.
Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is assuredly a career highlight and a new milestone for an artist who is continuing to identify themselves. In an interview with Zane Lowe of Apple Music, Halsey mentioned their struggles while being pregnant as a singer, saying that they even had to call their record label because it “impacts” their “product.” They call for a world where women and mothers are treated fairly and release their frustrations through the unease of distorted synths, minor keys, and ghastly beats. Halsey shows that they don’t need love—they’re already powerful and assertive enough without it.