If there is a conventional route to becoming a pop star, then Halsey—the 21-year-old singer-songwriter who has become one of the more sought-after mainstream artists in the country over the past 18 months—has not taken it.
Sure, there were familiar beats within Halsey’s come-up: the rabid social following, the fast-growing festival crowds, the prime opening slot on a major tour. From her teenage days on MySpace to her headline-grabbing slot at South By Southwest 2015 to her no-holds-barred collection of interview quotes, Halsey has shrewdly positioned herself as an uncompromising artist with alluring stories to unspool.
Yet a pop artist with an abundance of buzz almost always requires a signature single to introduce himself or herself to casual fans and become a household name. Recently, Twenty One Pilots started getting the thinkpiece treatment once “Stressed Out” became a smash, and Fifth Harmony broke through in primetime because “Work From Home” ruled Top 40 for months. For so many music fans, pop radio is still the key to unlocking the unknown and transforming a blogosphere darling into an arena headliner.
But that’s the thing about Halsey: She just headlined an arena without anything resembling a crossover hit. And now that she has one—“Closer,” her collaboration with The Chainsmokers, hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week—she is one step closer to unabashed superstardom.
Prior to the release of “Closer,” Halsey appeared strangely snakebitten when it came to crafting a viable Top 40 entry. “Ghost,” her debut single self-released in early 2014, beguiled her thousands of online followers and major label executives, but did not crack the Hot 100 chart. “New Americana,” a millennial anthem/cultural lightning rod, mustered a No. 60 peak, and follow-ups “Colors” and “Castle” also failed to chart in the U.S. Her highest-charting single to date, the Justin Bieber collaboration “The Feeling,” hit No. 31… but compare that to Bieber’s three No. 1 smashes from his Purpose album, and the duet’s radio performance comes off as lackluster.
Paradoxically, Halsey’s profile exploded as her underperformance at radio persisted. Her debut album, Badlands, scored a big sales debut upon its release last August; she joined the Weeknd on tour; she showed off a sharpened live show at Coachella, where she brought out Panic! at the Disco leader Brendon Urie; and she quickly sold out New York’s Madison Square Garden, nine months before arriving at the arena. Halsey has been smart with her media opportunities and authentically unfiltered on social media (she’s got over 3 million Twitter followers), coming across as an artist aware of how to play the game but refusing to buckle to any music industry processing. It’s an attractive combo that allowed Halsey to shine and thousands to sing along to her Badlands tracks, none of which dented radio, at MSG earlier this month.
“Closer,” released on July 29, is the sound of Halsey’s manifest destiny, the inevitable smash that had to come from an artist this popular. Halsey’s team-up with The Chainsmokers arrives after the production duo cranked out two gargantuan 2016 hits with “Roses” (featuring Rozes) and “Don’t Let Me Down” (featuring Daya); Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall are hitmakers with a knack for making relatively unknown female vocalists become inescapable.
Halsey is the most high-profile collaborator The Chainsmokers have worked with thus far, and although “Closer” is a duet, her influence pulses through the downbeat dance track, its lyrics full of romance and self-admitted errors. “Pull the sheets right off the corner / Of the mattress that you stole / From your roommate back in Boulder / We ain’t ever getting older,” they sing on one of the year’s most evocative choruses to grace the upper reaches of the Hot 100. Pairing Halsey’s confessional songwriting with The Chainsmokers’ contemplative synth-pop was a no-brainer move, and now the song is each artist’s first No. 1 hit in only its third week on the chart.
From here, Halsey only gets bigger. “Closer” was designed as a stopgap between her first and second albums, and when she returns with the follow-up to Badlands, it will be one of the more feverishly anticipated projects of whatever year it lands in. Halsey has checked off the one pop-superstar box that had daunted her thus far, and she did so with proven collaborators but without bending toward anyone else’s style. No matter how she got to this point, make no mistake: Halsey did so on her own terms.
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