The ultimate power of Manic is the way that Halsey advances the argument that these are fascinating times for pop music. More than at any point in history, inner torment and raw emotion trump sugar-barbed hooks and radio-ready choruses.
Think about it. From the last great wave of female pop stars—led by Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera—right up to early-edition Miley Cyrus, everything was disingenuously prepackaged sex and stupidity, a formula that’s been time-tested through the ages. Over the course of her career, Halsey has given every indication that she’s nobody’s puppet, the woman born Ashley Frangipane refreshingly open about her sexuality, her mental health battles, and her status as an freak-flag-waving outsider that dates back to high school.
The first thing that hits you about Manic is the song titles: “I HATE EVERYBODY”, “You Should Be Sad”, “Graveyard”, and “killing boys”. Halsey’s core demo might be the tweens and teens of North America, but that’s not going to stop her from giving their upstanding parents something to worry about. While the track listing sounds like someone’s made a mix tape of the best of Seattle grunge, RATM-indebted rap rock, and Swedish death metal, the 25-year-old singer takes a more eclectic route. When teasing the album, Halsey promised that she’s be indulging in every one of her favourite pleasures: Southern trap, progressive hip-hop, unfiltered country, Hiwatt-jacked rock, and black-skies doom pop. Mission accomplished on Manic.
Witness the way sheets of six-string distortion flare up out of nowhere in “You Should Be Sad”, a song that seems easygoing enough until you lock onto lyrics like “I’m so glad I never had a baby with you.” And note the gothic mortuary synths that bubble beneath the glitter-bomb pop of “3am”. “Finally//beautiful stranger” is made for sunset Lynchburg lemonades on deep south porches, “Still Learning” uplifting enough to make everything somehow seem better even when it’s obvious that’s anything but the case. Tellingly, when Halsey teams up with a guest star on Manic, it’s not Ariana Grande or Taylor Swift or crazy ’ol Miley, but instead Alanis Morisette, who shows up on “Alanis’ Interlude.”
Morisette went stratospheric in the ’90s by angrily ripping through her personal diary for landmarks like “You Oughta Know”. On Manic, Halsey gives every indication she’s learned from a master. For a clinic in opening yourself up in the most crazily vulnerable of ways proceed directly to the album’s gorgeously winsome final track “929”. It’s there Halsey rips back the veil in a way that we've been conditioned to never expect from our superstars. Things start with her laughingly intoning “I really was born at 9:29 AM on 9/29/You think I'm lying but I'm, I'm being dead serious/Okay, I'll prove it”.
Over three detail-packed minutes she makes zero effort to hold back, with the revelations including: "Lost the love of my life to an ivory powder" and “I remember the names of every single kid I've met/But I forget half the people who I've gotten in bed and “When the headlines just don't paint the picture right/When you look at yourself on a screen and say/'Oh my God, there's no way that's me.'"
Most devastating of all in “929” might be her dead-perfect advice on celebrity culture and idolatry, Halsey nailing things with “They said don't meet your heroes, they're all fuckin' weirdos/And God knows that they were right.”
She could be talking about herself, and probably is. And that more than anything shows that, man, we’ve come a long way.