When Gil-Scott Heron declared, “The revolution will not be televised” in 1970, he couldn't have seen the internet coming.
And yet, the late jazz poet's reflections on the gap between entertainment and real social change can help us understand the meteoric impact electronic media has had how we make, access, market, consume, and interpret art. It might even help us understand Halsey.
The 22-year old New Jerseyite (born Ashley Nicolette Frangipane) has spent the past four years in a steady, social media-fueled apotheosis, ascending from the depths of the blogosphere to the top of the Billboard charts on the backs of two catchy, if anodyne, tracks: the ornery 2015 millennial anthem “New Americana” and last year’s unavoidable collaboration with EDM douchebags the Chainsmokers, “Closer,” which may as well have been focus grouped.
The '90s kid persona that emerged through Halsey’s two big hits was less self-portrait than caricature: a high-strung, left-of-center oversharer peddling cultural references (Nirvana, Biggie, Blink 182) via melodramatic, melismatic confessionals, all in a glossy package. For her new sophomore LP, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, Halsey has widened her lens and expanded her horizons, with a little help from Shakespeare. Inspired by Romeo and Juliet (she recites its prologue to open the album), these 13 tracks follow two star-crossed lovers as they come together and fall apart in a post-apocalyptic realm that’s not so far from home.
A reputable cast of producers (Benny Blanco, Ricky Reed, Greg Kurstin) decorate Halsey’s high concept with a lush R&B palette of glittering synths and sultry guitar licks. These rich arrangements make its star’s crackling alto all the more devastating, even as it approaches mimicry, on “Don’t Play” and “Lie,” which are half-rapped like Rihanna; on "Now Or Never," which features a chorus that has Halsey engaging in Sia-worthy vocal gymnastics; and on first single "Eyes Closed," co-written by (and vocally modeled after) the Weeknd.
For all its dramatic flair, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is best when Halsey abandons Verona altogether and shifts her focus to narratives yet to be written. The album's best moment comes near the end with "Strangers," a dancefloor-friendly duet with Fifth Harmony's Lauren Jaregui that details a turbulent lesbian relationship: "She doesn't kiss me on the mouth anymore," sighs our heroine. "'Cause it's more intimate than she thinks we should get." Though pop stars have waxed sapphic before (Katy Perry and Demi Lovato come to mind), "Strangers" marks the first time two high-profile artists -- both openly queer -- have tackled the subject as a matter of the heart, not just as some party game or frolic for the male gaze.
If only the rest of Hopeless Fountain Kingdom took the same revolutionary risks.