Middle School Gothic: A Trip to the Badlands



Jessica Anthony

2014 was a strange year. Vine was still alive, grunge fashion was at its height, and indie/alt pop was having its moment in the mainstream. At the epicenter of so many of these trends was the website Tumblr, known for the droves of teenage girls who populated the site and posted all about their trendy grunge outfits and the latest up-and-coming indie singers. It was an arms race to see who could put the best lyrics on a pastel pink background, and one of the biggest names in the game was on the verge of becoming a star.

Halsey had been on the website since 2012, but in 2014 she uploaded an original song called “Ghost” to Soundcloud, which started a record label bidding war. She eventually signed with Astralwerks and released her first EP, Room 93, which every self respecting Tumblr Girl had on repeat 24/7. However, the story really took off later in 2015 when her debut album, Badlands, finally landed. It debuted at number two to mixed but mostly positive critical acclaim, foreshadowing a prolific career to come.

The album itself was a concept album based in a dystopian future (also very much of the time, considering the teen dystopian literary genre was at its peak), with an alternative gritty pop sound. Despite the fact that Halsey has never named Lorde or Lana Del Rey as a musical influence, the whole album very obviously follows in their tradition, offering a darker and synth-heavy musical narrative that stood in opposition to the happier dance music being marketed to teenagers at the time. Songs like “New Americana” and “Hold Me Down” attempt to redefine the teenage experience as one full of trouble and rebellion, with edgy beats and painfully clunky lyrics.

Revisiting the album feels like being transported back in time. Badlands was such a product of its time, from the indie “cursive” voice and grungy production to the lyrics that were made to be edited on to pastel backgrounds on Tumblr. “New Americana” was a particularly painful song to revisit, and it became readily apparent why Halsey herself calls it the worst song she’s ever written.

Although the initial impulse is certainly to cringe, there’s a level of sincerity that holds the project together even today. In particular, the song “Haunting” still holds its weight, with inventive production and clever lyrics that have withstood the test of time. Even “Gasoline,” though blunt with its themes, feels incredibly authentic, as Halsey boldly airs out the worst aspects of her personality for the world to see. The Johnny Cash cover, “I Walk the Line,” also provides for a standout moment simply for how creative this reimagination of a song is, especially because nobody would have seen it coming from her.

Listening to Badlands almost seven years later felt less like listening to an album and more like a time capsule. It feels so inextricably connected to the Tumblr era, from the themes of rebellion and dystopia to the pastel grunge cover art, that it becomes almost impossible to judge the music by more current standards. Badlands does not exist without its cultural context, which is fantastic for the purpose of nostalgic listening, but unfortunately means that most of the songs simply feel out of place with today’s music landscape.