Now or Never: Halsey’s Liminal Romeo and Juliet
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventure piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
This two-hour traffic of the Elizabethan stage is beautifully saturated into the 6-minute-long music video for ‘Now of Never,’ a track from Halsey’s 2017 Hopeless Fountain Kingdom (HFK). A concept album like its predecessor Badlands, HFK is a musical compendium of the singer’s personal experience of being in a relationship, visualised through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Her adaptation of the play is less traditional and more experimental as she draws inspiration from the Bard as well as another infamous interpretation, Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet. Both sources provide her with a deluge of material, but far from being mimetic, Halsey’s HFK subverts, transgresses, rebels, and challenges all that has so far been taken for granted. Out of its bevy of music videos, ‘Now or Never’ stands out as a film complete on its own, with the potential of being independent. As a strong narrative of love, conflict, and violence, it is an ambitious and radical retelling of the ‘conceited tragedies of Romeo and Juliet.’
Fair Verona is replaced by the Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, an otherworldly land of in-betweens. Its two sparring houses are the Aureum and Angelus clans, too bad to go to heaven and too good to go to hell respectively. Although the binary ideological affiliations of the two clans are rooted in Lurhmann’s adaptation, Halsey is not afraid to have fun with the ramifications. Subverting gender dynamics, she dawns on the role of Romeo as Luna, of the unruly, wild and raunchy Aureum, and her love interest, Solis (Don Lee) is the Juliet of the kempt and traditional Angelus. Luna’s clan is seen in the iconic Hawaiian shirts and Solis’ house is hauntingly sheathed in all white. The video runs on two timelines: the past, revealed in the intimacy of the two lovers, and the present, in a dramatic convoy of vehicles and the chill of an impending disaster in the air. With no dearth of guns, opulent art direction, or religious paraphernalia, an affinity to Lurhmann and Shakespeare is made explicit. Oozing with symbolisms (the ‘bee’ and ‘angel’ medallions) and prophetic moments (the tarot cards), the narrative is rich and layered, coming to its climax in a peripeteia-esque moment reeking with the putrid stench of betrayal. The end is a fascinatingly interesting departure from the original plot.
Halsey picks up a popular (perhaps the most popular) love story and moulds, twists, and transforms it into an unprecedented exploration of love and a harsh polemic on violence. Her music video, in all senses, is dangerously liminal. By playing with the gender dynamics of the protagonists, she collapses the Manichean discourse of the man/woman divide – Luna and Solis are both Romeo and Juliet. Unlike the traditional Juliet who is cloistered in domestic spaces, asphyxiating her potential as a character, Luna is spatially free and independent; she is an agent. Her association with the Aureum clan questions the idolization of Juliet as the pure virgin. Instead, it is Solis who bears the white angelic wings. The vulnerability accorded to his character is an open attack on the machismo associated with manhood. Halsey’s Luna and Solis exist in the liminalities of gender identities.
In creating these characters, Halsey destabilises the entire foundation of Shakespeare and Lurhmann’s works. She also challenges the very plot of their stories – the fortune-teller Luna visits tells her that there is another way. But before Luna is made aware of the flicker of hope, she is dragged away and the light is snuffed out. Halsey doesn’t stop here, she goes a step further. During the final showdown, after watching her loved ones perish, Luna hops on a motorbike and runs away. Paralleling and simultaneously questioning Romeo’s exile, Luna, a victim of the unnecessary violence of HFK, takes the reins of her future into her own hands and decides to leave. The binary oppositions of the two houses also come into question as it is Aureum’s Tybalt who remains loyal while the betrayer belongs to the ‘white’ Angelus. In the final scenes of the video, Luna is shown chopping off her blue hair, a remnant of her past life. This conclusion emanates the possibility of a different ending (which we get in the final video of the album ‘Alone’). The romantic tragedy becomes a sort of bildungsroman, her personal story of growth culminating in the cultivation of a new ‘self’.
Halsey’s notion of romance – of love – is a crucial theme of this story (and the album as a whole). She has talked about her experience of being in a relationship that consumed her just like Romeo and Juliet’s; theirs is a story that begins with Juliet dwelling on her and Romeo giving up their names and abandoning their houses—in essence, assassinating their identities—and ends with their literal suicidal deaths. This is what Halsey described her relationship as: “Like wanting to change so I can make it work for them and wanting to let go of parts of me. And it felt in a way like I was kind of killing off a version of myself.” René Girard, the French philosopher, formulated the theory of the triangular desire; the third vertex of which is a desire for the image of the self as it is reflected in the eye of the lover. This in turn results in the commodification of the self. Halsey describes the dilemma of her ‘self’ in the best possible way - “Who am I without the gaze of another person?” As Luna runs away from the gruesome battlefield, she begins the process of separating her ‘self’ from Solis and begins a genesis uncontaminated of the ‘Other.’ In her final act, she claims her agency and reclaims her identity, making the video her very own personal and profound revolution.
The revolution ripens with the successive videos of HFK and Halsey gives Luna the augured different ending. The final video, ‘Alone’ is an ode to an emancipated self, to the difference between being lonely and being alone, and to the act of letting go. It is through Halsey’s cunning wit that her Luna finds her ‘self’ in a scene that parallels the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet, the beginning of their all-consuming love. ‘Now or Never’ is an important marker of transition in the larger narrative of HFK; liminal in its themes and meta in its execution. In a small music video, Halsey has brilliantly and beautifully transformed the age-old, canonical love story, problematizing binaries and redefining love.