Halsey‘s “Nightmare” arrived just in time.
A feminist anthem that’s rooted in her emo past, the single debuted on May 17 alongside a video that capitalizes on the singer’s penchant for chameleonic style. Originally intended as a black and white video with slivers of red throughout, “Nightmare” ultimately became a full-color visual feast in which Halsey keeps redefining her womanhood: one minute, she’s a punk singer and a riot leader, then a glamorous model and a primped-up, fed-up housewife. Her looks change, but her attitude doesn’t — through flame-throated cries, she embodies a universal fury that’s timelier than ever as women continue to battle the patriarchy, one “You Smile, Asshole” sign at a time.
“She really wanted to show how multifaceted women are,” said director Hannah Lux Davis, who worked with Halsey last year on “Alone” and recently helmed Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” and “7 rings.” “We could be fighting in the street for sport and we could be in lingerie, really sexy and feminine and clean. That was the biggest thing that she wanted to say — just showcasing all different sides of what a woman is, and how every side is just fucking awesome.”
That awesomeness takes flight during the video’s opening scene, when Halsey launches her assault by screaming in the middle of a mosh pit. The chaos was shot on 16 millimeter film, which gave it a rough, grainy quality that only gets more raw with a close-up of Halsey’s bloody lips as she spits on the camera.
“It was just really in your face and aggressive,” Davis told MTV News. “[Women] can be really raw and rough and even ugly. She sometimes would say, ‘I want to do this take really ugly.’ And she would squeeze herself, or make a face that was just not necessarily the cliché hot thing to do.”
Take, for instance, the scenes of Halsey dressed in a black dominatrix outfit, sneering at her voyeurs from a blue-lit, mirrored room while licking the wall and thrashing her body around. The singer committed so fully to the physical shoot, that Davis said she had bruises “all over” her body afterwards.
“She’s incredible. She’s fearless. Working with somebody like her is so insane,” the director explained. “She just has zero regard for her body and just throws herself around in a way that’s crazy. In one shot, she was thrashing so hard that she fell to the floor on her butt. I just remember being like, ‘Oh my god, I have to use that, it’s so rock and roll.’ She’s a really smart girl and I feel like she gets how powerful this video can be, and so she really put it all out there.
“That was something that surprised me, I think, because the artist brings so much to it,” Davis continued. “You can plan and plan and plan, but you never really know that final, secret-sauce ingredient that they bring until you’re shooting it.”
After a gritty, punk-indebted opening, the second verse abruptly switches scenes to a skyscraper, where Halsey and a gang of girls are dressed in lingerie, diamonds dripping from their necks as they execute precise choreography. It’s a juxtaposition that Davis admits was intended to “shock people,” and it also necessitates a close look from viewers, who can see that Halsey’s reading a newspaper with the headline “IT’S OUR TURN” printed on it. (The paper is also titled Manic, which fans have theorized is the name of her next album; to that, Davis only said, “I personally can’t comment. But Easter eggs are definitely a real thing.”)
Speaking about the eye-grabbing headline, Davis explained, “It’s sort of subtly — or I guess not so subtly — saying, it’s in our hands now. We need to take over and let the women take the reins at this point, because it’s our bodies and our choice. I think putting them in that setting, especially coming off the punk stuff and the police lineup, just felt like a bit of that visual shift and shock that we were going for to sort of grab your attention.”
That second verse also has some of the most biting and brash lyrics of the song, including, “I’ve been polite but won’t be caught dead / Letting a man tell me what I should do with my bed.” It’s a message that feels especially prescient now — the video was released at the end of a week in which the biggest news story in the U.S. was the restriction of women’s rights, as Alabama effectively outlawed abortion. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for a rallying cry like “Nightmare.”
“It was something that all women were probably like, ‘Ah, this is what I needed right now,'” Davis said. “I heard that from a lot of people. It really struck a lot of chords. That’s really what you hope for when you’re creating something like a music video or a song — for it to hit, and to strike that chord in pop culture.”
She continued, “And I think it was really smart of Halsey to have a woman direct it. If you preach girl power and if you’re going to have songs that are about women, for women, and fighting for women, you better have a woman director. … There are some artists who have these girl power songs and they have men direct them. I just think that’s crazy. There are so many female directors who are amazing. And I’m not just talking about me. I’m just saying, in this day and age, there’s no excuse.”
Davis is especially cognizant of the importance of hiring women behind the scenes — “Nightmare,” for example, employed a female editor, choreographer, production manager, set dresser, and stylists. Not only that, but there’s not a single man in the video itself; it boasts an all-female cast, and Davis said that Halsey “was really adamant about making sure that all types [of women] are represented.” That included models Cara Delevingne and Suki Waterhouse, who joined Halsey for some fierce power suit-wearing, and Blondie’s Debbie Harry, who appeared onscreen as a way for Halsey to honor the iconic women who have paved the way for her.
“She was so fucking cool,” Davis gushed of Harry. “Leading up to the shoot, and all around the shoot, I had done a bunch of research on her, and I was listening to her music and just really trying to get into the whole spirit of the project. I was so blown away. She was so cool, and she’s just a true rock star.”
With “Nightmare,” Halsey is proving herself one of the natural predecessors for women like Harry. It’s the first taste of an era that she’s described as “loud,” and one in which she seems to be harnessing the “weapon in [her] mind” to its fullest potential, aided by collaborators like Davis who take her message and translate it to vital, must-see art that shines in this nightmarish moment.
“She’s definitely coming into this new era really confident and secure and knowing who she is,” Davis teased of what’s ahead. World, you’ve been warned.