review: 'if i can't have love, i want power'
thoughts from an advanced screening of halsey's visual album
“all of this is… temporary.”
this refrain remains constant throughout the materials for halsey’s fourth album, if i can’t have love, i want power. from moment one — that is, when halsey took their fans on a wild digital goose chase to an 18th century-themed finsta — to the credits rolling on her visual album, i’ve mulled this phrase over, searching for its significance. what i’ve found is that life itself may be temporary, but (Black) femme queer existence evinces universal truths about parenthood, power, sexuality, liberation, and the collision of these four concepts.
we can’t dig into iichliwp without touching on halsey’s own narratives around sexuality.
just as halsey did for her film, i’m issuing a trigger warning for mentions of blood, (sexual) violence, death, and pregnancy-related trauma.
it’s always top of mind for me — awhile back, i catalogued the times halsey has spoken up about their reproductive health for insider. they’ve suffered miscarriages. once, they went onstage to perform immediately after, bloodied diaper and all — a moment about which they opened up via poem at the women’s march.
that poem also touched on the terror of abortions and their experience as a survivor of sexual assault. they’re open about their struggles with endometriosis and in many ways, they’re a champion for AFAB people loudly and tenaciously advocating for their reproductive health.
when halsey announced their pregnancy, joy filled my every capillary. i wasn’t just content that some fave was checking a milestone off their bucket list. i was glad someone — who had gone through life’s wringer and, instead of being bitter and destructive, committed to healing others with her catharsis — was getting the happy ending she deserved. see: “more” from the manic album.
but what defines “happy?” especially when you’re a neurodivergent, mixed, (gender)queer person?
“this album is a concept album about the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth. it was very important to me that the cover art conveyed the sentiment of my journey over the past few months. the dichotomy of the madonna and the whore.
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.” — halsey on instagram
blood, fire, trees, tenderness, ink. the imagery of @iichliwp coalesced when the trailer dropped in july. and boy did halsey deliver: the film follows a queen in the throes of a difficult pregnancy under horrifying circumstances.
no spoilers, but going beyond what you could guess from the trailer: she’s a suspect in the death of her (abusive) partner, the late king. she copes with her pregnancy as a widow (a layered grief) in a multitude of ways. whether they are “healthy” is for the viewer to decide. there’s also a strong supernatural element — succubi, conjure women, wives’ tales, magical herbs, and incantations.
and who better to score a thriller like this than trent reznor and atticus ross? for context, these two composers are responsible for the buttock-clenching tension of the girl with the dragon tattoo, watchmen, and gone girl to name a few.
as a nine inch nails fan and a soundtrack nerd, i had high hopes when reznor and ross were announced as producers. halsey’s howling, sonorous vocals married to tinkling pianos, dissonant synths and skin-buzzing guitars — delivered in an imax theatre (!!!) — made for immersive, gut-wrenching joy.
touching again on the idea of “universal truths, explored in a fantastical way,”
the racial realism and sexist double standards of the royal court are pretty easy to understand. but as someone who is decolonizing their spiritual practice, i was heartened to see this quiet reminder about gendered labor.
that all kinds of undervalued or devalued labor tends to fall into the category of “women’s work,” from cooking and cleaning, to spiritual protection. often, men recognize that these practices and mechanisms are essential, but continue to negate the value of them anyway.
the easter eggs, pun intended, are a testament to intention.
halsey’s paintings, poems, music videos, and songs tend to be intertextual, and her iichliwp era is shaping up to be no exception. along with the body politic, the experience of being partnered to abuser is explored in iichliwp. it’s something explored in “without me” — re: on-the-nose casting for a particular ex — and in parts of i would leave me if i could, halsey’s poetry anthology.
there’s a poem called the lighthouse. it describes a man that’s “almost 7 feet tall / with black oily hair / that stuck to his forehead in patches / like a rorschach test when he’d sweat.” there’s also a track on the album called “lighthouse,” which i believe encompassed some parallels about a similar, bedeviling man.
on a lighter note, i was delighted to catch a reference to 16 missed calls, a poem that peeks into a rager of a weekend. i heard an interpolation of the lines “it’s only been 3 days / but i’m told that / jesus did a lot over the weekend / when we thought he was dead.”
halsey once told glamour, “the biggest lesson i learned was to make art, not headlines.” with that in mind, iichliwp felt like a call-to-action. a prayer to be moved, a prayer to push through, a prayer to sit still, a prayer to bravely meet yourself with compassion in your “ugliest” moments. because when it’s all said and done, something beautiful can be born from it. ✧