Halsey’s ‘Manic’ executes self-scrutiny in exploration of musical identity

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Grade: 4.0/5.0 

Halsey’s career has been marked by a multiplicity of identities. Her debut album Badlands introduced her as the queen of early-2010s Tumblr aesthetics and text posts. “Without Me” solidified her pop culture persona, putting her at No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Songs Chart. She’s even dipped her toes into K-pop after releasing “Boy With Luv” with BTS.

Even with the various characters she exhibits, the themes in her music remain consistent. Her work is continually full of pointed lyrics that don’t shy away from referring to her past or referencing the infidelities that often go unspoken. Halsey’s work on Manic is an explorative look into the artist she’s created. On the album, she doesn’t remain confined to any set persona or genre, reveling instead in the range of her capabilities. 

The album centers on Halsey’s ruminations about love and self-sabotage. One of the strongest works on her album, the introductory track “Ashley” critiques her identity in the mainstream media as an ever-changing artist. The song, titled after Halsey’s given name, looks at her inability to find comfort in simply existing. She wrestles with how the world has perceived her work and her identity, even questioning in the song’s lyrics, “Is it really that strange if I always wanna change?” 

It’s a bold choice for an introductory track. “Ashley” is a haunting initiation with its overly critical study about what the world has known Halsey to be. It’s like a hard pill to swallow, a self-exposition that is intensely raw and biting. 

Love is constantly inspected throughout the record, whether it be self-love or love in a romantic sense. With “You Should Be Sad,” Halsey transforms into a country star, strongly reminiscent of Carrie Underwood’s iconic single “Before He Cheats.” The song, inspired by artists like Underwood and Shania Twain, has the commonplace twang of country music. With the Western swing of an acoustic guitar, Halsey doesn’t let up on the details of a former flame’s infidelity. Even in “Killing Boys,” she again invokes Underwood by inquiring, “Tell me, have you ever keyed a Ferrari before?” 

“I Hate Everybody” is chock-full of Halsey’s signature indie-girl voice inflections, reflecting on her inability to love someone properly. As a result, she simply resigns to feeling disdain, saying, “I’ll hate everybody.” Harshly picking apart her romantic patterns, she begs for the love she desperately wants. She longs for codependency to absolve her self-sabotaging, overtly critical self. She pushes for a relationship, insisting, “If I could make you love me/ Maybe you could make me love me.” 

Yet this anguish is instantly contrasted in “Killing Boys” and “Suga’s Interlude.” “Killing Boys” features a sample from the cult classic film “Jennifer’s Body,” in which Megan Fox’s Jennifer Check is determined to target teenage boys to feed her demonic, flesh-eating tendencies. In homage to the film, Halsey vows to not let love consume her. 

With “Suga’s Interlude” placed directly after “Killing Boys,” she’s suddenly and gently holding herself accountable for the emotional turmoil of less-than-successful relationships. Compared to her crooning, rapper Suga from BTS is rapidly spitting out his lyrics. He considers the unpredictable nature of BTS surviving in the industry, as well as if his dream career was worth the chance. “May my leap not be a fall,” he pleads. In a similar sense, Halsey begins pondering the possibilities beyond an exasperated love life, asking, “I wonder what’s in store/ If I don’t love it anymore?” 

Ending with “929,” Halsey weaves a long-winded conversation that often gets interjected with questions like “Who am I?” She warbles through a confession of wrongdoings, a desire for a renewed relationship with her father and, despite claiming she was born at “9:29 a.m. on 9/29,” she admits that she made her entrance into this world at “9:26 a.m.” It’s a humorous ending point for the record, a reminder that in spite of pieces about heartbreak and self-reflection, she doesn’t forget her comedic persona in the mix. 

Manic is an acute self-analysis that is at times weighed down with mediocre ventures into new genres. Although the album does explore what the artist’s career as Halsey has accomplished, the themes can get muddled in confusing tracks that oscillate between genuine vulnerability and a caricature of what the music world perceives her to be.

Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected].