Halsey’s “Nightmare” — Bad Dream or Reality?
It’s time for women to stop smiling and start showing some teeth.
If last week left you wishing for a raging anthem for women, then you are in luck because Halsey’s latest single and accompanying video, “Nightmare” delivers the answer to your battle cry. But make no mistake, there are no tears shed here. Halsey’s message is loud and clear — it’s time for women to stop smiling and start showing some teeth.
Most who are familiar with Halsey’s previous work know it to be melodic and haunting. “Nightmare,” while haunting in its own right, is a whole different beast. It is a departure from her usual style and taps into a deeper vein as she goes for blood with this piece. Powerful as the lyrics are, the video is where the heavy hitting comes in catapulting her and her work to a whole new level.
The opening footage is interspersed with Halsey and other women lined up in mug shots, which seems to timely reflect the criminalizing of women, as the song attempts to lullaby us with the classic prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” She sings it in such a way that it smacks of the old nursery rhyme about what little girls are made of, “sugar and spice and everything nice.” While “nice” is the persona she adopts as a red-haired, scantily-clad Halsey beams at the camera posing in what appears to be a nod to the era of “Mad Men,” it becomes quickly apparent that it is the women who are mad now.
The sugary opening is abandoned almost immediately and replaced with an almost punk-ish, pounding beat and a powerful, booming Halsey vocal.
“I keep a record of the wreckage of my life, I gotta recognize the weapon in my mind.”
Halsey’s weapon of choice is her words and what follows is an arsenal of them.
She talks of “tasting blood” and as the frame is filled with her mouth beaten and bloodied it is not hard to think of the many times women are left biting their tongues until they bleed, afraid to speak up — whether it’s about the abuse or harassment they have endured, or simply asking for what they want or rightly deserve, like equal pay or the right to govern their own bodies maybe...
“I’ve been polite, but won’t be caught dead letting a man tell me what I should do wit[h] my bed.”
While the video is an all female cast, several scenes depict women, including Halsey, dressed as men as she sings of having the rug pulled out from beneath her, being lied to, trusting men, and like every woman knows all too well, being “broke down and put myself back together again.”
It is an ode to the strength and resilience of women, but interestingly masked in the masculine persona she dons in that scene juxtaposed with images of the more feminine perception of power — a dominatrix.
While it is likely that no woman is a stranger to “manning up” to fit into this man’s world, perhaps the most powerful lyric comes not from talking of being destroyed by men, but of women’s battle with self-destruction as an image of a woman’s body marked up for plastic surgery is splayed across the screen.
“Stared in a mirror and punched it to shatters, collected the pieces and picked out a dagger. I’ve pinched my skin in between my two fingers and wished I could cut some parts off with some scissors.”
The irony of her words is particularly striking since the very bodies we passionately fight to protect are the same ones we mercilessly dissect and butcher to fulfill an appetite for an image we can never seem to satisfy. And it is confusing and hard to know who we should be angrier with — the propaganda that feeds us this expectation or ourselves for shamelessly binging on it. Even worse, if it isn’t ourselves we are devouring with hatred and contempt, then it is each other.
Yet through all that we endure, whether it be at the hands of ourselves or others, we are continually summoned to “give us a smile.” As Halsey points out, however, it can sure feel like we don’t have much to be smiling about.
The next verse makes good on her pledge to stop smiling, singing of how society expects women to be kind, yet views our kindness as a weakness, or “worse, complacent.” So, show her teeth she does.
“I could play nice or I could be a bully. I’m tired and angry, but somebody should be.”
It is in this verse that Halsey delivers her message with a powerful punch. We watch women attack each other as a busload of young schoolgirls are delivered dazed and zombie-like as they are driven to join the ranks of the women before them. The set is on fire as the chorus rings again drilling the reminder that the weapon lies in our minds and demonstrating that, perhaps if used, it would surely leave the world as we know it scorched and in ruins.
Her tone then softens a bit. As she is exquisitely tangled in her web, she returns to her melodic voice of past songs, her words haunting as ever as she urges us to use our awareness as weapons, risk being difficult, and stop pretending that we don’t see the harm in how the world chooses to see and treat us.
“Someone like me can be a real nightmare, completely aware. But I’d rather be a real nightmare than die unaware…But I’m glad to be a real nightmare so save me your prayers.”
As the chorus erupts again, there is a profound power in the imagery of the schoolgirls as they break free running and screaming toward the fight. One can’t help but hope that it is a foreshadowing of a stronger generation of women to come — a generation who, instead of keeping a “record of the wreckage,” will write a new narrative and redefine women in the world today. After all, as Halsey so eloquently reminds us, we don’t “owe” anybody except ourselves “a God-damned thing!”
Halsey’s “Nightmare” is “no sweet dream” to be sure. It is a loud and clear sounding of the alarm that this has been a woman’s reality for far too long and that it’s way past time to wake the fuck up from this nightmare and do something about it.
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