Hopeless Changes Over Time: A Halsey Concert Essay

The title states, Hopeless Changes Over Time.

The Prologue

I spent the whole summer of 2017 trying to convince myself I’d survive the year without attending Halsey’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom concert in Detroit. After a few months traveling the States with my girlfriend, I reserved my savings for student loan backup payments between paychecks. I couldn’t justify dipping into the savings for myself after taking several vacations back-to-back. I caved two weeks before her performance at the Little Caesars Arena.

The lights in the arena shrank to black, and the low, recognizable hum of the album’s first track vibrated my sternum. I recited the words in my head, engrained from my ninth grade English class. Two households, both alike in dignity. A squeal from my friend pierced the low hum.

1. Eyes Closed

A week before the show, balcony tickets dropped to $30, so I convinced my sister to join us too. She liked Halsey, but wasn’t familiar with all the newest songs. The week prior, I shared the album, and she spent the days leading up dedicating them to memory. After the concert, she said “Eyes Closed” was a favorite.

I had one of these songs too, a new favorite. A post-concert favorite. “Eyes Closed” wasn’t the one, but I appreciated it more. I could hear more of her voice with her on the stage. Lines that served once as backdrops (My lover / my liar) thundered forefront into my ears.

2. Heaven In Hiding

I don’t know if I believe in heaven. I’ve never been overly-religious, but for most of my life I’ve believed in a god. The more I’ve grown into the comfort of my identity, though, the less clear God became. I have a new god now. My god is:

settling into my skin and feeling at home for the first time, or

finding a love in the heart of a woman across the ocean, or

the sound of Halsey’s voice tonight, or

rainbow flower crowns and sun-baked pavement.

3. Strangers

How many of you are part of the LGBT community?  Even there, I hesitated beside my sister and best friend. The first two people who knew the truth. I wondered if I would leave free of that pause, someday. When the audience roared, I joined in; that fleeting moment exhaled, deflating my lungs.

And how many of you are here as a proud friend of someone in the LGBT community?  My sister and my friend yell into the crowd, their voices becoming indistinguishable in the thundering cloud of pride. This show is a safe place for everyone to be who they are, without any judgement. This song is for the LGBT community.

The scenario this song describes has never happened to me. I’ve never fallen in love with a straight girl; I’ve never slept with a girl who was scared she might be gay. But when I look at the screens behind Halsey, I’ve had that. I’ve had the soft open lips of another woman lingering on the open space between us, waiting for me to close it. I’ve had hands tangled in long hair and soft, deep breaths and eyelashes against my cheek. And I’ve waited a long time for these moments, to see and hear myself reflected in spaces where the rest of the world can see and hear it too.

4. Hold Me Down

This was the first Halsey song I ever heard. It was the winter semester of my second year at college, which was the point in my life where I was done questioning who I was, but still winced at the unconformable way my newfound identity felt on my shoulders. I first heard this song at an amateur drag show.

Back when I was a baby gay, I used to think everyone could tell I was gay based on my clothes, so I abstained from flannels and most shirts with collars during this awkward period. But on drag show day–put on by a queer group on campus–I decided to wear floral-print skinny jeans and a cuffed short-sleeved button-up. I saw a classmate there—a gay classmate—who came up to me and said, “I like your outfit,” which is practically queer for, “Hello my fellow gay.”

That was the first time I didn’t panic. I became one with a roomful of 100+ people–most of them queer–and it both excited and soothed me. I belonged there, watching a drag performer lip sync “They rush me, telling me I’m running out of time,” amongst a crowd of people like me.

And here I was again, belonging with the people surrounding me. Belonging with the words Halsey shares with me again. “They shush me, walking me across a fragile line.”

5. Castle

Hold Me Down and Castle are two songs that I’ve heard Halsey sing live before. The year previous, I saw her at Detroit Masonic Temple. That year was a lot different than this. That year had a crammed venue with sweat-drenched bodies bumping together and fists held above our heads when we chanted along with her. I get why people would’ve liked that better. You’re closer to Halsey; you’re closer to each other. But whenever the ceiling lights strike the arena, I can see our magnitude, assembled inside the castle walls.

6. Angel On Fire

Around this point, Halsey asked us if we bought her album, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. As you could imagine, everyone screamed. Then she asked, “How many of you downloaded my album illegally?” To my surprise, the audience screams just as loudly as we did the first time. “That was a test, to see how honest you were. Well…you passed!” We laughed together, her and us, all knowing we’ve done things we aren’t proud of. But this isn’t one of them. “I don’t care how you got my album, all I care about is that you are listening, and that it meant something to you.”

It all means something to me, even the ones that aren’t me at all. Eventually, these things might fade, but the moments still matter. Maybe one day when my kids are gathering CDs for their vintage ‘10s collection, I’ll give them my deluxe Badlands album and tell them that this was the first time I saw myself, track 10 “Strange Love,” and the mirror that Halsey gave me in that song started a different collection that I keep filed behind my headphones.

7. Now Or Never

The overarching narratives in most of Halsey’s songs are experiences that I have only heard about, but never really felt for myself. Most songs juxtapose a cathartic violence against enchanting beauty, like a piercing whistle of gunfire near rolling sea waves. And maybe I’ve never had this kind of circular love, or an unforgivably aggressive breakup, but I do know this kind of internal violence.

This is a violence that lives in romanticized roses growing inside my decaying ribs, a suffocating storm of petals climbing up the walls of my dry throat, speaking blue lies when colorful thoughts erupt behind my poker face. This isn’t a violence that I feel regularly anymore. But the scars it left are all too visible to me, even though a lot of people can’t see them, not even the people beside me. But I think that maybe Halsey can.

Interlude: Good Mourning

They told me once, “There’s a place where love conquers all”

A city with streets full of milk and honey

I haven’t found it yet, but I’m still searching

8. Roman Holiday

When the first chords of this song boom into the arena, my sister gasped. “This one is my favorite!” Shocked, I gasped too. “Roman Holiday” is fromthe previous album, and last year she didn’t perform it at the Masonic Temple. But now isn’t too late. The lights of the arena flicker at us in shades of yellows and greens, like we’re on an evening city street hitting all the go signals. Unstoppable.

9. Walls Could Talk

I constantly overplayed this song because of how much it reminds me of old Britney Spears. Remember when Britney Spears kissed Madonna at the VMAs at the beginning of the century? I used to think about that a lot.

10. Bad At Love

The audience began the first verse with her. Got a boy back home in Michigan / And he tastes like Jack when I’m kissing him. I think, like many of us there, I would’ve loved this song simply because Halsey acknowledges the existence of Michigan in the first line, but it gets better by the second verse.

Got a girl with California eyes / And I thought that she could really be the one this time. Before the release of Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, Halsey uploaded a video on snapchat of her singing these very lines. That was the first time I heard Halsey use female pronouns in a love song. After devouring every gender-neutral love song she offered in her last album and watching pride flags block my view of the stage at her last concert, I’d really been waiting for this one.

I’ve been waiting all my life to hear a song like this on the radio. In the weeks leading up to hearing Halsey perform this song live, I heard her sing it on Good Morning America, I heard it on car commercials, and I heard it on the radio countless times. And if only this song had been on the radio 5-10 years ago, maybe my lost-identity crisis would’ve been cut short. Or bypassed altogether.

No, this song isn’t about bisexuality. It’s not a stance. It’s not an identity. It’s not marked with a political agenda. It’s more. It invites the young, questioning girl and her mom to listen to a story together on the way to the grocery store. The whole song plays and they both enjoy it.

11. Alone

Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is a concept album about two lovers. “Alone” takes place at a party, as told from the second character in the narrative. We already heard about this party from the first character in the album’s fourth track, “Heaven In Hiding.” Did you notice?

I bring this up because I didn’t notice either. Perspectives change entire situations, entire people even. I imagine it like this:

1. Third person, limited. She seemed like a nice girl with a good work ethic; she was pretty shy though, and she kept to herself. Her life was pretty quiet.

2. First person. My life demanded constant evaluation with every decision I made, from the length I trimmed my fingernails to the distance between my knees wherever I sat down. My mind held a circular map of my past, water-damaged and pasted together after the times I’ve shredded it, screamed at it, abused it, and cried over it. My life was not quiet.

12. Closer

When the curtains revealed a piano onstage, I knew the next song. It’s “Sorry,” I told my sister.

A single spotlight flooded Halsey on the otherwise black stage. The pianist began the song and I could tell that I was wrong. Halsey’s voice started slow, but rich, bursting with the lyrics that every person in the room knew. But this time, there is only Halsey. No bass, no synthesizers, no Chainsmokers. She told us that because of how popular this song became, she imagined it playing at somebody’s wedding and somebody’s prom. It played at my work sometimes too, in the buffet cafeteria on my college campus. She said that she is honored to be soundtracking our lives.

13. Sorry

Sorry is a word that I am all too familiar with. Someone gave me advice once to try to say thank you instead of I’m sorry, and it works sometimes. And sometimes it doesn’t.

I am sorry.

I’m sorry that it took me so long to find myself.

I’m sorry that I let it mean too much to me.

I’m sorry that I ignored the signs.

I’m sorry about the chaos and the crying.

I’m sorry that I wasted my childhood on someone who wasn’t me.

I’ve had unknown lovers like the ones Halsey sings about.

I’m sorry about them too.

14. Lie

Another word I know too well; I used to tell them all the time. “That boy is totally cute. Jasmin is just my friend. I would love to go to prom with you. I’m not gay.

The biggest lies are the ones I told myself. “All I’m saying is if you don’t love me no more / Lie.”  For a while, I stopped loving myself. (Did I ever love myself?) I tricked myself into thinking that I liked who I was. I liked feeling on the outside of everyone’s jokes. I liked feeling disconnected. I liked feeling distant.

(Who likes that? Not me.)

15. Don’t Play

Welcome to my new rally cry. Halsey performed this song with her dancer on a very small square stage on the opposite side of the arena, much closer to my seat. This was Halsey’s heaviest dance performance all night, she was physically closer to me than she had been all night, and she changed her outfit into an oversized jersey-type shirt–without much for pants. I couldn’t lie about being gay right now even if I wanted to.

When I first heard Halsey, back during that drag performance when I was still uncomfortable, that was the first time I truly said, “fuck it.” Two summers after that, I flew to England for a two-month vacation, where the only person who really knew me was my current girlfriend. In England, I was myself for the first time. And I loved who I was. Why was I lying? A pride flag cape pinned to my shirt and soared behind me as I overlooked the Thames. When I came back home, I went to my first Halsey concert, where a pride flag waved on the screens behind her as she sang “New Americana.” The boys standing in front of me were kissing between songs and flying a flag above their heads.

This is who I am now. I had some space to deal with it. I was done playing games with my family, my friends, myself. I was done telling tired lies that even I stopped believing. They can love all of me or none of me.

16. 100 Letters

Halsey told us about a past relationship that we get snippets of in her song. She said that he would make her feel smaller, so he could be bigger. “After I broke up with him, I found a letter in my pocket that said, ‘You’re beautiful. I love you.’” The crowd made a soft “aw” sound. Unfazed, Halsey continued. She explained how the notes made it difficult to stay strong and stay big. Every time she put on a new pair of jeans, there would be a new note in the pockets. Eventually, she gathered up all her pants and took them to the laundromat and let all the letters get washed away. “If someone ever makes you feel small so they can feel big,” she told us, “Let them drown.”

17. Young God

She sang the first lines of this song. He says, “Oh, baby girl you know we’re gonna be / legends.” I sang the words too, but the Badlands album sometimes tastes bitter and the words sound like my own guilt.

I used to get angry at Halsey. I used to sit in my bedroom and listen to the Badlands album on repeat with the friend sitting next to me at both concerts. I used to tell her, “She’s bipolar, you know?” I used to listen for it in some of her songs. I think I found it in Control. “She’s bisexual, you know?” I used to strain my ears to hear it somewhere, coming up empty most times.

18. Coming Down

I was angry at these songs. The ones where Halsey uses religion to tell us about her relationship with someone with male pronouns. Those songs weren’t for me.

I found myself in all her gender-neutral love songs, the ones where I could say, “This could be for me.” But some days I couldn’t. I used to get angry for not having a song for me. Definitely for me. Explicitly for me. Unquestioningly, for me.

Halsey loved men. She sang about it. Halsey loved women. She hadn’t quite sang about it back then. She never had to. She doesn’t have to now. Her life is not a spectacle for me to consume and demand more of. The fire of society’s expectations,

and disproval,

and support,

and stereotypes,

and judgement,

and fear,

and acceptance,

and ignorance,

and progress,

and not enough progress,

and “increased visibility,”

and “bury your gays” on my TV,

and my favorite youtubers,

and other places of the internet,

and the queer discourse,

and unconditional love,

until it becomes conditional,

and the sexual revolution,

and no sex education,

and AIDS victims,

and marriage equality,

and homeless students,

and elected officials,

and assassinated officials,

and safe spaces,

and dead teenagers,

and protests,

and civil rights,

and bathroom bills,

and Betsy DeVos,

and pride parades,

and gay nightclubs,

and mass shootings,

and electroshock therapy,

and pink triangles,

and concentration camps,

and love,

and hate,

was not Halsey’s fault. Eventually, I let go. I hated myself for wanting more.

19. Is There Somewhere

Maybe you don’t know this song—It’s off the EP. My fingers fumbled, racing to point my phone camera at the stage. She sang all four verses just like I recognized it, building up to the instrumental section before the outro. When the buildup broke, she jumped down the stairs of the stage, running through fans in the pit with her arms spread like angel wings. She flew up the steps into stands of a lower-level section right of the stage, hugging and caressing people as she climbed further up the stairs. When she cascaded down, she reached far into the crowds, leaving varied memories of what the brush of her skin felt like. She ran through the audience on the floor, knocking down barriers that keep them in rows. The song broke into the outro, and she ignored the cue to sing. People on the floor clung to her as she clung to them, breaking another row barrier before using the runway to get back onstage. “I have a question for you, Detroit,” she told us. “Can we pretend that we’re in love?”

20. Colors

Last year, this was Halsey’s final song. She performed it with the same amount of vibrancy that I remembered. The screens behind her showed tiny pills falling onto open tongues, where blues and pinks splashed upon contact.

My whole life came in variations of these shades. I’d lived on an artist’s palette, on the spectrum between pink and blue, drowning in the darker hues and tracking blue on my shoes. My feet dragged through the variations of purple, where I scraped off the cerulean remains. Every day blue becomes less of my color, even though my childhood was drenched in it. Now I dive into puddles of fuchsia, where I cradle the sounds of Halsey’s female love songs to my ear, savoring the way it sounds. Pink has never sounded so comfortable.

21. Gasoline

The anticipation of this song roared amongst the crowd. We all chanted the lyrics like we are sharing a final prayer. She asked us questions we’ve heard so many times before. Are you deranged like me? Are you strange like me? / Lighting matches just to swallow up the flame like me? / Do you call yourself a fucking hurricane like me?

I am deranged.

I am strange.

I light matches.

I swallow flames.

Do you call yourself a fucking hurricane like me?
Do you call yourself a fucking hurricane like me?
Do you call yourself a fucking hurricane like me?

22. Hurricane

Before all of this, before the stage, before the songs, before Halsey, my mind might’ve resembled a hurricane, but I was never the storm she described. The seed of my natural disaster grew inside as I ventured into shades of purple, when I started trying new colors because blue never felt quite right. This was a long and violent storm. The storm made me angry at people who didn’t deserve my anger, sorry for reasons I should stop apologizing for, and lie to every single person that I knew.

23. Hopeless

The screens showed us black and white versions of tonight. The fans of past concerts smiled and cried and sang and screamed. They held hands and waved flashlights on their phones. They lined up to see Halsey and photographers snap pictures they’d cherish for a lifetime. They laughed together and they held pride flags over their heads. I could see myself there, from the drag show, from the Masonic Temple, from that arena.

Halsey’s last words to us revived an echo of my own prayers, “I hope hopeless / Changes over time.” This hopeless did change.

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