The most insufferable discourse awards of the year go to: “Solar Power sucks because Jack Antonoff produced it,” and “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is only good because Halsey worked with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from Nine Inch Nails.” Not only are these statements over the top, but there’s also a level of sexism, albeit most of the time unconscious and these comments rob artists of their agency. I’ve seen various conversations like this, but never to this point where people everywhere undermine a songwriter’s prowess due to their relationship with a producer’s work. Let’s not forget, Lorde demonstrated storytelling beyond her years from her beginnings with The Love Club EP in 2013. Halsey, who uses she/they pronouns, hasn’t found the same critical acclaim thus far, but fans who have followed their career recognize their growth since they released the Room 93 EP in 2014.
Before Antonoff’s work with Lorde, Clairo, and Lana Del Rey this year, he was hailed as a kind of music production prodigy. People have recently forgotten his work on Taylor Swift’s latest albums, folklore and evermore (and 1989, Reputation, and Lover), which were enthusiastically received by Swift fans. Likewise, Lorde’s Melodrama was labeled a once-in-a-generation pop album, with Antonoff receiving glowing admiration alongside her. Maybe this pedestal journalists and pop music fans placed him and Lorde on has contributed to the toxic conversations we have now.
Lorde has attempted to talk down the masses throwing hate at Jack Antonoff for her songs that they dislike. Speaking to The New York Times this August, she set things straight: “I haven’t made a Jack Antonoff record. I’ve made a Lorde record, and he’s helped me make it and very much deferred to me on production and arrangement… To give him that amount of credit is frankly insulting.” She also criticized a “retro” and “sexist” narrative that speculated on the pair’s romantic or sexual relationship. All producers, especially the well-known and busy producers, have noticeable hallmarks. Antonoff is no exception.
You hear Max Martin’s fingerprints all over tracks by Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Coldplay, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and even more. No one begrudges Manchester Orchestra for working with Catherine Marks again, or mewithoutYou with Will Yip, because we understand that these producers know and respect the artists they work with, push them when necessary, and ultimately accomplish their task of realizing the bands’ visions. Why aren’t we applying this same logic to producers who primarily work with non-male solo artists? We should be cheering on producer-artist relationships when it’s clear that the artist feels safe, empowered and making the music of their dreams.
So, it’s inevitable that listeners will hear similarities with the artists Antonoff has worked with when he has such a packed schedule and music made in quarantine is shouldered with reflective stories. Swift, Clairo, Del Rey, and now Lorde drew from more intimate influences. Still, they are all collaborative projects where Antonoff has assisted them in establishing the sonic palette they’re after. If there’s anything to critique him on regarding the mix of Solar Power, I have three minor complaints: why call a hired gun drummer like Matthew Chamberlain (Pearl Jam, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos) and not let us hear him? Why drown Lorde’s unique, beautiful tone with double-tracked harmonies? Why can’t we identify Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo on backing vocals? Those harmonies work for some but do a significant disservice to a singer like her.
The album was inspired by the ’60s and ’70s, stoned by the beach vibes and artists of Lorde’s childhood, such as S Club 7, Natalie Imbruglia, and Nelly Furtado. I wouldn’t say I like Solar Power, but it has nothing to do with Jack Antonoff. It comes down to personal taste. I was never going to enjoy such low-stakes, quiet music from Lorde. No matter how I feel about the album, Solar Power is the record she wanted to make. She wouldn’t have released it if she wasn’t proud of it. Her debut LP, Pure Heroine, was remarkable in exploring alienation from her hometown and people her age in a minimalist fashion. Her sophomore album, the bombastic Melodrama, tackled her first major heartbreak.
Meanwhile, Solar Power is far less relatable. She went from universal lines like, “I’m not proud of my address/in a torn-up town, no postcode envy” to out of touch with reality: “Teen millionaire having nightmares from the camera flash” and “supermodels all dancing around a pharaoh’s tomb.” Who can see themselves in superstardom?
Within If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, Halsey outlined the triumphs and horrors of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood leading up to the birth of their baby, Ender Ridley Aydin. Some 4 billion people worldwide who have carried a baby in their belly know the joys and hardships Halsey’s fourth album delves into. If I Can’t Have Love… is also about empowerment, a reclaiming of their bodily autonomy, “The dichotomy of the Madonna and the Whore,” plus “The idea that me as a sexual being and my body as a vessel and gift to my child are two concepts that can co-exist peacefully and powerfully.” The stunning album art – which magazines knocked back from promoting because they didn’t want a maternity cover – “celebrates pregnant and postpartum bodies as something beautiful, to be admired.” Joining an already rich, sonically diverse discography that challenges taboo topics such as bisexuality and female pleasure, the record aims to eradicate the stigma around breastfeeding and pregnant bodies.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have been regarded as legends in the industrial rock and metal world since the ’90s – Reznor was described as “the most vital artist in music” by Spin Magazine in 1997. In 2010, Reznor and Ross began composing film and television scores. They have scored a multitude of David Fincher films, including The Social Network (2010), Gone Girl (2014), and Mank (2020). Their menacing scores added an unsettling atmosphere to each film, and I guess that none of these films would be the same without the music. There’s no doubt that their partnership with Halsey has influenced If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, but the inspiration goes beyond soundscapes.
For Halsey, working with Reznor and Ross has gifted them with a newfound belief in their abilities. “7 years ago, I was 19 and in an apartment in New York working on my debut album and waxing poetic about wanting to make a record that felt like “industrial pop à la Nine Inch Nails,” she shared on Instagram. They weren’t brave enough at the time to pursue the sound they wanted – perhaps, the record label wasn’t too keen on the idea, either. “Years went by of fading confidence while shrinking beneath the weight of my imposter syndrome… [Trent and Atticus] saw a festering crack in my armor and forced it open from miles away. This is the album I have always wanted to make but never believed I was cool enough. There are not enough words to thank them for taking a chance on me and lending me their genius talent.” If I Can’t Have Love… is beyond a musical success. If a piece of art can channel your wildest dreams, fears and restore faith in yourself, it’s a miracle.
Musically, thematically, and vocally, this is the album Halsey has worked up to for their entire career. I only have one gripe with the production choices on the album: when the wall of sound hits (usually on the guitar tracks) and Halsey’s vocal is consequently buried beneath the noise. For me, that doesn’t detract from a song like “You asked for this,” but for people unaccustomed to shoegaze, it’s disappointing to lose their voice in the mix.
There have been flashes of a more “alternative” sound from Halsey over the years. Starting with their Blink-182 covers during their Tumblr reign, then “Castle,” the dystopian opener to Badlands; the overall aesthetic of Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, an Alanis Morrissette feature on Manic, the frantic standalone single, “Nightmare,” and her wild Birds of Prey musical contribution, “Experiment on Me” all hinted at a darker direction Halsey has always been interested in and more than capable of following. Reznor and Ross believed in them and formed a team with undeniable creative chemistry. There are ominous pianos, homages to The Smashing Pumpkins and My Bloody Valentine, tender odes to their child and partner, and forceful drum and bass all over this album. It’s thrilling to listen to, and contrary to the “Trent and Atticus made her music good” conversation, the album is totally Halsey’s.