In a world laden with the rather surface level lyrics of the likes of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber, Halsey’s “New Americana” epitomizes some of the depth issues in modern music. Jessicah Lahitou asks for more.
For many of us who grew up during the 90s, mainstream music has been one long disappointment ever since. There have been high notes of the indie underground variety (I’m looking at you, Sufjan). But the pop music/radio ruling scene has just sucked. Apologies to all the Taylor Swift and Katy Perry fans, all those Beliebers and whatnot, but I was reared on more earnest stuff.
Nirvana. Tupac. Alanis. Sheesh, even Sublime had lyrics that made you stop and consider. Loads of hit songs felt curiously free to explore themes other than today’s musical homage to dysfunction: love, heartbreak, partying.
One of those themes revolved around society, and what it meant to be a male teenager or a black man or a white woman or a… pot-smoking slacker in the USA. It’s been a question conspicuously absent from any Top 40 countdown in recent memory.
Last week, I realized — twice! — while listening to the radio that I was actually feeling from what I heard. A feeling other than some stray fragment of the ‘ol twenty-something urge to dance. A feeling coupled with thought-provocation.
Ergo, a sincere thanks to X Ambassadors and Halsey for giving us two contemporary sort-of responses to that underlying question of what being American means, and what it means right now, and what it means to who. And I will also give this disclosure: if I’m picking between Renegade or New Americana – if it’s me – I’m all in on the Renegade side.
Some of that answer is the unavoidable result of growing up in Colorado, and being thus heartily attached to the whole notion of pioneers. It’s a myth, or so I’ve heard. But to all those who think we mortals can’t glob onto myths, I present ComiCon.
Much more of that comes from the totality of Renegades.
The song promotes a quiet defiance, of the old-school rebellious variety. James Dean seems to haunt the entire track, though X Ambassadors reference Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick by name, two film directors who both broke rules of their industry without much hand-wringing or apology.
Then I watched the Renegades music video and straight-up cried. It features blind and disabled athletes kicking ass, alongside the band’s own blind keyboardist. And sometimes, this sort of thing can feel sentimental and pity-ridden. But my tears were the same as those that came on up when I watched Shaun White’s first pipe run in the 2010 Olympics.
It’s the only natural reaction to seeing human beings – our fellow creatures – reach this Promethean level of being. It’s inspiration served without any chaser, and you’re gonna feel the sweet sting.
As for the other thought-provoking song, Halsey’s New Americana. As defined by Webster’s, Americana: materials concerning or characteristic of America, its civilization, or its culture; broadly: things typical of America.
And what does young Halsey (a whopping twenty years of age) have to say about “things typical of America?”
It is a curious mixture. A celebration of nouveau-riche excess coupled with homosexual acceptance. I’m almost certain this hasn’t been done before, outside of maybe The Great Gatsby, if you’re willing to go there with the “Nick Carraway loves his neighbor” crowd.
If Halsey is simply describing what she sees, then I cannot fault her. Does our culture idolize material wealth? Yes. See: Kardashians, Real Housewives, most programs airing on Bravo. Are we granting equality to homosexual love? Yes. See: Modern Family, US Supreme Court, most programs airing on Bravo.
And yet the evening-up of the two, or to put it another way: the total lack of a value-differentiation. This bothers me. Vacationing in the Hamptons with your bitchin’ couture purse is not exactly as noteworthy as same-sex marriage.
The chorus of Halsey’s New Americana repeats one observation and one claim, and both are also troubling. First off, in Halsey’s world, we’re all high on legal cannabis. For those unaware, marijuana remains illegal in a majority of states, and is (perhaps surprisingly) still illegal at the federal level. Therefore, it would be fair to assert that at least 50% of all listeners are demonstrably not high on legal marijuana, even if they are otherwise baking.
I’m a bit ashamed to admit it is the second half of the chorus that upsets me more. For how can it be someone a full decade younger than myself claims her peeps were brought up listening to Biggie Smalls and Nirvana? When my nerdy middle-school self at last tuned into FM radio, I was even then late to the Rap and Grunge movements. Both Kurt Cobain and Christopher Wallace (a.k.a The Notorious B.I.G.) were already gone. And that when I was but thirteen myself!
Halsey tells us her parents listened to these albums, and so she was thus “raised” on them. Well, fine. My own mom loved Fleetwood Mac and my dad had a passion for Steely Dan. We children were accordingly familiar with Stevie Nick’s soulful crooning and the multiple aggravations of jam-banding.
However, it would be absurd to extend a particular musical schooling to my entire generation.
Also: there is an actual group of people who were—collectively—raised on Biggie and Nirvana. They just happen to be substantially older than Halsey and her crew. A quick glance at the radio hits when Halsey was thirteen suggests her generation was raised more on Flo Rida, Katy Perry, and that paragon of male virtue, Chris Brown.
So who cares if a twenty year old wants to co-opt my beloved 90s icons? Am I being some sort of cultural hoarder? Am I perversely early in becoming ageist?
But Halsey’s lyrics bring me back to the observation that mainstream music has let us all down. When a pop artist scarcely out of her teens, seeking something of substance, must reach back to music released before her birth, we have a problem.
There are millions of kids without the musical input of parents with good taste. And there have been precious few artists willing to sing their songs. The songs of 2006, or 2009, or 2015.
It’s time for the next Notorious B.I.G. and the 21st century’s Nirvana.
It’s time for some renegades, already.
Photo Credit: Getty Images