Lyrics for a New Generation: Halsey’s New Americana

Described as “a social commentary on pop culture, “ Halsey’s New Americana represents today’s generation as one that embraces and encourages diversity. Disguised as a pop anthem, this track is not simply about fun lyrics and an upbeat tempo, but also the inequities of politics, society, and the music industry. When discussing the idea behind her song Halsey claims, “It’s about America’s tendencies to latch onto diversity and how pop culture has shaped us as a nation. Music is a universal language, and what music has done for our current generation is diversified it, because the music that you grew up on instills a lot of morals and a lot of beliefs in you” (Last.fm, “The Last Word”). It is well known that America has often struggled with diversity. In recent years, countless people, regardless of their age, gender, or race, have come together to politicize the relentless persecution of African-Americans and homosexuals. Within her lyrics, Halsey recognizes the work being done to improve the nation. She appreciates the efforts of the role models who fight for the oppressed and promote the healing powers of music. Filled with intertexuality and allusions, “New Americana” follows a thematic progression that covers gender, class, politics, pop culture, and sexuality.

In the first stanza of her song, Halsey creates an image of an ambitious and independent woman who has attained professional and financial success. She defines what it means to be a woman in the twenty-first century: “Cigarettes and tiny liquor bottles
 / Just what you’d expect inside her new Balenciaga
 / Viral mess, turned dreams into an empire
 / Self-made success, now she rolls with Roc-A-Fellas (“Halsey Lyrics”). As a result of her hard-earned achievements, she is able to associate with important figures of society; the Roc-A-Fellas she socializes with are a reference to the producers and publishers of Jay-Z’s label Roc-A-Fella Records as well as the powerful and wealthy Rockefeller family. Although she can afford expensive designer handbags and exudes confidence and stability, she is still subject to social criticism and destructive habits such as substance abuse. Halsey uses this character to deconstruct the stigma that women are inferior to and less competent than men in order to empower them to take charge of their future. Furthermore, she proves that success is not dependent on perfection. Even the most accomplished individuals have flaws.

The satirical pre-chorus of “New Americana” brings to mind Herbert Spencer’s notion of “survival of the fittest” in which only the strong survive. The allusion plays a powerful role due to the parallel it draws: “Survival of the richest, the city’s ours until the fall / They’re Monaco and Hamptons bound / But we don’t feel like outsiders at all” (“Halsey Lyrics”). The lyrics claim that in America, physical and intellectual strength pale in comparison to that which accompanies money. Wealth is defined not by intrinsic qualities but materialistic possessions. Because the wealthy leave every summer to attend parties at the Hamptons or relax on the beaches of Europe, those less fortunate are free of judgment and materialism until the fall when they return. Alternatively, “until the fall” also foreshadows the inevitable crash of the economy. Despite the influence of the elite, the underprivileged people do not consider themselves outsiders because they know the secrets of the city and how to fight for survival. Furthermore, social media offers them such insight into the lives of the rich and famous that they feel a false sense of inclusivity.

Several times throughout the song, Halsey states that she is part of a new generation of Americans that are progressive thinkers. This idea is explicitly stated in the chorus: “We are the new Americana
 / High on legal marijuana
 / Raised on Biggie and Nirvana
 / We are the new Americana” (“Halsey Lyrics”). In her opinion, “these kids … are part of a generation where pop culture is so influential that diversity doesn’t scare them the way it scared our parents and their parents. We’re more accepting of different walks of life … the ‘New Americana’ is racially ambiguous, people are proud of their culture … possibly not from a binary of gender” (Garibaldi, “Divergent Vibes”). Essentially, the new generation is more quick to embrace different identities. Because Halsey is biracial, “raised on Biggie and Nirvana” is her way of communicating that her father is African and her mother is Caucasian. She also uses the phrase to describe how her audience was exposed to black and white culture through the contemporary music shown on MTV. She advocates for diversity calling it: “‘being woke’: knowing the difference between … transgender … transvestite … non-binary … genderfluid … asexual. Knowing when its cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation, or cultural sharing. We’ve been raised on such a culturally diverse conglomerate” (Lobenfeld, “Halsey on Being”). Overall, Halsey is thankful for the outspoken people who are trying to affect change. As marijuana has been legalized recreationally in four states and medicinally in many more, Halsey is bringing attention to this important issue. She is not glorifying its use, but rather discussing the reality of this controversial topic. As a result, she is pushing the boundaries of what artists can say through their music and criticizing the negative stigmas that follow marijuana users.

Although the man in the second verse is handsome and masculine like his father, he is not attracted to women. Halsey explains the stigmas surrounding athletes as she sings: “Young James Dean, some say he looks just like his father / But he could never love somebody’s daughter / Football team loved more than just the game / So he vowed to be his husband at the altar” (“Halsey Lyrics”). Interestingly, the man is not the only member of his football team that identifies himself as homosexual. This is unfortunate as football players are stereotypically seen as strong robust heterosexuals. The comparison to James Dean is notable as both men share many qualities. Suspected of homosexuality, though attractive and masculine, Dean too became a symbol of rebellion. The major difference being that the 1950s were not accepting of non-normative orientations, whereas today’s culture celebrates them as unique and exciting. The subject’s vow to marry his partner, alludes to the 2015 legalization of same sex marriage in the United States. Although not everyone in America is supportive of this legislation, Halsey’s song reveals her excitement that attitudes towards non-normativity are slowly changing.

A reworking of Biggie’s song “Juicy,” Halsey’s bridge is a direct reference to her heritage and the musical preferences of her audience. The original lyrics read, “You know very well who you are / Don’t let ‘em hold you down, reach for the stars” (Roth, “Halsey Transforms Biggie”). Halsey’s version is somewhat altered: “We know very well who we are
 / So we hold it down when summer starts / What kind of dough have you been spending? / What kind of bubblegum have you been blowing lately?” (“Halsey Lyrics”). Her manipulation of these lines combined with her own lyrics encourages youth to recognize the power of their voice and their potential for greatness. Furthermore, her writing is testament of the benefits of living in a mixed home that embraces and normalizes diversity. Halsey repeatedly forces her audience to confront their class issues and question how they are spending their money and what industries they are supporting. Her reference to bubblegum can be interpreted in a number of ways. Most importantly, it is the name given to a type of marijuana that is sweeter than its counterparts. It can also be suggestive of the baseball culture, wherein fans commonly enjoyed Big League Chew bubblegum to emulate the chewing tobacco of their favorite athletes (“Big League Chew”). Finally, Halsey could be alluding to the “bubblegum pop” music that dominates the charts despite deeper, alternative songs. Tired of the formulaic style and structure that guarantee a top hit, she hints that her audience defies the norm and supports her diversified sound. The idea of recreational use of marijuana brings to the forefront the moral and social fabric of the times.

For Halsey, “New Americana” and its record Badlands was not about achieving status and fame, but rather gaining recognition for her talents as an artist. Refusing to conform to the sound and style of mainstream pop, Halsey aims to be as authentic as possible. To achieve this feat she sings about relevant issues, despite them being controversial, in order to elicit a response from her audience. “New Americana” is the ideal manifestation of this as it “touches on … the power of a youth collective and how they can make a change and become victorious when organized for a united cause. [The song] is political, racially charged, and mildly disturbing. But not to mention incredibly beautiful” (Halsey, “New Americana”). For Halsey, the song is also about empowering those who are different and encouraging the public to do so as well. It is not enough to simple hope for a better America. Youth must unify and reflect the change they hope to see in their social and political spheres.

Bibliography

“Big League Chew: Big League Chew History.” OldTimeCandy.com. Old Time Candy Company. 2016. Web. March 25 2016.

Garibaldi, Christina. “Halsey is Giving us Some Serious ‘Divergent’ Vibes in her ‘New Americana’ Video.” MTV.com. Viacom International Inc., 25 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 March 2016.

“Halsey Lyrics ‘New Americana’.” AZlyrics.com. Azlyrics.com. 2016. Web. 24 March 2016.

Halsey (baby h). “New Americana touches on a few subjects: police brutality, the martyr-ship of artists and the paradox of how an artists supporters more often than not save them, and the power of a youth collective and how they can make a change and become victorious when organized for a united cause. Its political, racially charged, and mildly disturbing. But not to mention incredibly beautiful and visually stunning.” 19 Sept. 2015. 4:37 pm. Tweet.

Last.fm. “‪The Last Word: Halsey on her debut full length ‘Badlands.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 28 May 2015. Web. 24 March 2016.

Lobenfeld, Claire. “Halsey on Being a Gossip Magnet, Growing up Emo, and How People Missed the Satire in ‘New Americana’.” PaperMag.com. Paper Magazine, 15 Jan. 2015. Web. 24 March 2016.

Roth, Madeline. “Exclusive: Halsey Transforms this Biggie Cover and Its Everything.” MTV.com. Viacom International Inc., 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 March 2016.