Halsey’s “Nightmare”

She’s angry, she’s tired, she’s over it, and — damn it, aren’t we all?

Image: Halsey gives “Nightmare” live debut at free pop-up show

Last Friday at midnight, Halsey released the music video for her new song called “Nightmare”. The song, which has become an anthem for the anger, hurt, and frustration so many women are feeling in these past weeks, touches on many issues — particularly those concerning the expectations placed both on her personally and on women as a whole. The video also deals visually with representing many of the expectations women have faced through historical and cultural shifts. As of writing this piece, Halsey has not confirmed any of the references in the video, but by mere speculation and personal analysis, the message is loud and clear.

The song begins with Halsey’s voice reading out a children’s prayer from the 18th century, “As I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep/And if I should die before I wake/I pray the Lord my soul to take.” While some have made the connection between this bedtime prayer being said at the beginning of a song titled “Nightmare”, it may also be a reference to the use of Evangelical teachings and phrases to justify the illegal control and oppression of women’s freedoms and the pigeon-holing of women into very specific gender roles.

The lyrics of the song reveal Halsey leaning in to the anger and frustration many women are feeling. Lines like “I don’t owe you a goddamn thing” and “I gotta recognize the weapon in my mind” feel like Halsey not backing down from expressing her own feelings, as women are often expected to do, but rather she is fighting back and finding strength in herself. Other lyrics such as “C’mon little lady, give us a smile/No, I ain’t got nothing to smile about” and “I’m tired and angry but somebody should be” are subverting the expectations placed on women, like the expectation to smile when we don’t want to smile and to hold in our feelings when we’re upset or angry. Halsey is pushing back against all of these expectations placed on women, and placed on her. In leaning in to her own anger, she’s encouraging other women to do the same.

In several scenes in the video, Halsey is referencing specific eras in women’s history. Wearing a leopard print leotard and perfectly curled hair, she is referencing the pin-up girl era of the 1950s when gender roles were at their peak inside the home, but outside, pin-up girls represented the male fantasy. Halsey is playing on both ideals, acting out the role of the dutiful housewife by frantically sweeping the floor while also wearing an outfit reminiscent of the fantastical pin-up girl. While societal standards dictated that women were designed to be wives, mothers, and caretakers, destined to remain in the home and under the thumb of their husbands, there were also women who were expected to maintain the sexual fantasy. Neither woman had a say in which role they were cast in, but by Halsey taking on both, she is showing the duality of woman, who can be nurturing and motherly, but also a sexual being.

In a black and white scene, Halsey dons plaid pants and heavy army boots, both of which are symbols of the punk rock movement, and perhaps more specifically, the riot grrrl scene. Originated by Bikini Kill, women found punk rock to be an avenue for them to take back the narrative regarding their own representation and use their art and their platform to change the image of what a strong woman looks like as well as encourage other women to decide for themselves what makes them strong. Much like Halsey herself is doing in this song, Bikini Kill front woman Kathleen Hanna often spoke about her own experiences with sexual assault, rape, and catcalling, thus opening a dialogue amongst women about their trauma, which was highly unorthodox in the era pre-Me Too. Halsey, by speaking openly about being catcalled, her experience with endometriosis, and sharing the trauma of having a miscarriage while on stage, is carrying the torch from Bikini Kill, creating a safe space for women to share their stories in the pop arena.

Halsey is also shown in a neon blue mirror box wearing an all leather outfit, possibly representing not only the BDSM community, but also the LGBT community, both of which use leather as a community symbol. Halsey, identifying herself as bisexual, is extremely supportive of the community and feels it is important to recognize ALL women when discussing women’s issues, not just the cis white straight women. In representing all women, Halsey is also saying that no matter how you identify, there is still a dominant aspect of a woman’s personality, which is her sexuality, which has often been mythologized and even suppressed. The claim that “women don’t enjoy sex” has been floating around the internet as many white conservative males are revealing to us on Twitter that their experiences have been less than fulfilling for their partners, which has led them to believe that they have never met a woman who has enjoyed sex. I truly feel sorry for those women.

In another scene, Halsey is seen wearing a school uniform and surrounded by children in similar attire. This is a commentary on yet another male fantasy, the naughty schoolgirl. Perhaps the image most associated with this is Britney Spears’ look from the “…Baby One More Time” music video from 1998. The trope surrounding the naughty schoolgirl fantasy stems from our societal sexualization of young girls. Around the world and throughout history, young girls are often seen as sexually desirable despite not being old enough or mature enough to understand what that means and why they’re being seen that way. This creates a culture that is unbalanced in power from the get-go with older men preying on vulnerable young girls who have been taught to trust grown-ups. From Nabokov’s Lolita to the child bride culture of early American history which is a continued practice in many other parts of the world, our male dominated society preys on young girls’ sexuality. Instead of allowing kids to be kids (as we often say about young boys), young girls are seen as sexual objects — submissive and inexperienced.

The video ends with a cameo appearance from Debbie Harry, front woman of ’70s punk band Blondie and a personal punk hero. Harry, who represented a new kind of rough and tough woman for the punk scene, actually named her band Blondie after catcalls thrown at her from passing truck drivers. She doesn’t say anything in the video, but she doesn’t have to for her presence to be noted. Harry became the prototype for female icons such as Madonna, feminist bands like Bikini Kill, and even for Halsey herself. In a conversation between the two female rockers for TeenVogue, Halsey said “It wouldn’t be possible for me to do what I do without the foundation [Harry] laid for unapologetic women who are artistic and have a personality.”

Halsey has always been outspoken on issues that matter to her, whether it be her personal struggles or any of those that other women can look at and say “Me too”. It should be no surprise to anyone that Halsey is again using her art as a platform for a wider cause. It’s part of who she is and a testament to the platform she has that she is able to speak her mind freely and others will listen and follow. While this song was undoubtedly written and completed before any of the recent abortion bills hit the floor, this song still serves as an anthem for women who are frustrated and scared of what will happen next. And while the future for women’s rights is uncertain, no longer are the days of one-note women, Halsey shows. She is creating music for women that are dynamic, complex, and multifaceted, women like her, women like me, and women like you.

wannabe music writer | photographer | pittsburgh

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