Halsey songs are recognizable, but it’s not because she’s an especially strong songwriter. She’s a distinctive vocal talent, but not exactly a great one. Song after song on her 2015 debut Badlands leans on the same set of ultra-contemporary production elements: warehouse-sized echo on the beat, sparse instrumentation, a pervading sense of surreality. Halsey’s neither the only nor the best artist doing it; “Now or Never,” the lead single from her new album hopeless fountain kingdom, sounds like someone left a can of Rihanna’s “Needed Me” on the counter until it went flat.
None of these criticisms are untrue of “Strangers,” Halsey’s new duet with Lauren Jauregui of Fifth Harmony, but unlike every other Halsey song, it’s good anyway. Soft, ’80s-inspired synths create something you could call “airy,” rather than hollow. Halsey alone tends to sound clunky and affected, both vocally and lyrically. On “Strangers,” which she co-wrote with pop whisperer Greg Kurstin, she sounds engaged, enraptured.
Meanwhile, Jauregui just sounds fantastic: “I must have crossed a line / I must have lost my mind,” she rasps in the second verse. The best moments of “Strangers” are Jaruegui’s ad-libs, the way she slurs the word “innocent” with the kind of spontaneous passion Halsey never allows herself. Every single one of Halsey’s choruses is supposed to be identically massive and generation-defining, but with Jaruegui to back her up, “We’re not lovers / We’re just strangers / With the same damn hunger” becomes genuinely slinky and addicting.
“Strangers” is about lost love, and it’s sung by two women who are both openly bisexual. (Jauregui came out late last year in the single most 2016 method possible, an open letter to Trump supporters.) To state the obvious, a song like this is long overdue.
“I just love that Lauren and I are two women who have a mainstream pop presence doing a love song for the LGBTQ community,” Halsey told an interviewer recently. “It’s unheard of. It’s very rare to see it from a female perspective.”
It’s not unheard of. Tegan and Sara have been making unabashedly pop music for a few years now. Aspiring star Hayley Kiyoko has a devoted queer following on Tumblr for this very reason. Kehlani’s “First Position” is about hooking up with another woman. Carly Rae Jepsen’s music doesn’t always feel very straight. But when it comes to mainstream pop hits about queer women, the biggest successes belong to singers who flirt but don’t commit. The two most memorable are “I Kissed a Girl,” Katy Perry’s scrunchy power-pop smash from 2008, and “Cool for the Summer,” Demi Lovato’s steamy single from 2015. To find a hit song where two women sing about being in love with each other, you practically have to go back to “All Things She Said,” the song that broke faux-lesbian duo t.A.T.u. in 2002.
The more direct precedent for “Strangers” is “Cool for the Summer.” Lovato’s is a more elegant version of the modernized ’80s style, and Halsey would be lucky to approach its commercial success. But “Summer” conceals its bi-curious intentions in plausible deniability and Katy Perry-style “taste for the cherry” metaphors. It’s a bop, but I must’ve heard it in the background a dozen times without realizing that, oh yeah, it’s probably kinda gay.
Halsey and Lauren Jauregui aren’t playing coy, or apologizing to their boyfriends, or whispering “don’t tell your mother.” The very first line of “Strangers” is “She doesn’t kiss me on the mouth anymore,” and for once, Halsey’s chronic aversion to subtlety is fucking working. “Strangers” is the best Halsey song, and it’s not even close.