By Deepa Lakshmin
Halsey’s magic number is 17. It’s tattooed on her right knuckles in blue and black ink, a permanent reminder of her life before Hollywood. At age 17, she graduated high school, left home, and first started writing original music. Under the Tumblr handle se7enteenblack, she gained thousands of followers by freely sharing her songs, poetry, and photos. She was also 17 when she attempted suicide and spent 17 days in a psychiatric hospital, an experience she’s openly discussed.
Seven years and two albums later, the number 17 remains significant as Halsey’s music career reaches new heights. Her empowering single “Nightmare” arrived May 17 — two weeks after she sold $17 tickets to two intimate homecoming shows at Manhattan’s iconic Webster Hall. She dedicated one concert to each of her previous albums: Badlands (2015) and Hopeless Fountain Kingdom (2017). Ahead of releasing “Nightmare,” Halsey gave fans — and herself — the chance to reflect on how far they’ve come and how much has changed over the years.
“I literally recognize every single person here,” Halsey said onstage halfway through performing Badlands. Was she exaggerating? Maybe, but this was an especially loyal crowd who camped outside the venue overnight. Some had been at Webster Hall for her very first headlining show in New York in April 2015, mere months before she sold out Madison Square Garden. Others had followed her since her Tumblr days. That was a very different time, but some things never change.
The “Nightmare” music video introduces Halsey’s new era and hints that her forthcoming third album will arrive this October. Full of fire, blood, and flying fists, the feminist anthem is arguably Halsey’s angriest song yet (“‘Come on, little lady, give us a smile’ / No, I ain’t got nothing to smile about,” she sings) and dropped three days after Alabama voted against abortion, which she denounced on Twitter. It’s about screaming so loud to make people pay attention, but look beyond the rage, and you’ll see glimpses of Halsey’s past tucked between fiery scenes with Blondie, Cara Delevingne, and Suki Waterhouse.
From Hopeless Fountain Kingdom to Badlands to Room 93 — her 2014 EP led by “Ghost,” the SoundCloud song that sparked her career and led to her record deal — Halsey literally keeps a musical “record of the wreckage” in her life, as she reveals in the chorus. When Halsey sings about being a “real nightmare” in the bridge, for example, the lyric parallels another symbol of chaos she identifies with: hurricanes. Her 2014 song “Hurricane” — which also includes the phrase “little lady” — is about a boy she followed to New York at, you guessed it, age 17. “Do you call yourself a fucking hurricane like me?” she sang again on 2015’s “Gasoline.”
Eagle-eyed fans have spotted other callbacks in the video. At 2:44, when Halsey is tangled up in pink ropes inspired by Japanese bondage, the visuals mimic a similar magazine photoshoot she did in 2015. And licking the microphone cord at 1:37 is her signature and extremely unhygienic move stretching back years.
What makes Halsey unique is how she transitions from one era to the next, blending hers together rather than erasing old parts of herself. Could you imagine Taylor Swift — after killing off the Old Taylor for Reputation — playing exclusively Red album cuts at a concert? Or post-Joanne Lady Gaga performing Artpop in full? Halsey, by contrast, closed both Webster Hall shows with “Is There Somewhere,” a song off Room 93 that never made it to any of her albums but is forever beloved by stans who’ve been cheering for her since day one. (It similarly speaks volumes that she did not play “Closer,” the Chainsmokers collaboration that earned Halsey her first No. 1 hit, once.)
She painted her way through her Saturday Night Live performance of “Eastside,” her collaboration with Benny Blanco and Khalid, as a nod to her artistic childhood growing up in New Jersey. In the same episode, she called out G-Eazy for allegedly cheating on her via a haunting performance of “Without Me.” (Mentioning “scissors” in “Nightmare” is also a reference to their “Him & I” collab.) She speaks frankly about her experiences with bipolar disorder, endometriosis, and the miscarriage she had at the beginning of her career. In fact, she’s making a mini-doc about reproductive rights and broadcasted a pro-choice message during her first live performance of “Nightmare.”
“It’s really fucking hard every day to be the person that you guys believe that I am,” she revealed onstage. “It’s not easy all the time. Sometimes I fuck it up and I make mistakes… I have absolutely no idea why you picked me. And sometimes I look at other musicians, I look at my peers, I look at my idols, and I think to myself, wow, they are made of some kind of stardust that I am not made of and never will be made of.”
Channeling pain into art isn’t anything new, but Halsey’s approach — revisiting old albums, infusing elements of her 17-year-old self into everything she releases today — feels like a refreshing reminder that no matter how many times we cut our hair, move to new cities, or delete old Instagram posts, our past follows us and influences who we are today. The lines between “eras” in life are often blurry. As Halsey proves, if we embrace the things that haunt us instead of running from them, we can turn them into something beautiful.