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"If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power": A Perspective On Historical Motherhood

by Alisan Keesee 19 days ago in album reviews

Halsey's new album crafts an image of modern motherhood from the good, bad, and ugly narratives of the past.

Warnings: Contains spoilers for both the "If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power" album and film. References to miscarriage, pregnancy, rape, domestic abuse, and related topics.

Halsey's new album, "If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power" came out on Friday, August 27th. Before the release, the album was touted as an ode to both the joys and horrors of pregnancy and motherhood. Halsey has been very open in the past few years about having multiple miscarriages and their desire to be a mother. This album appears to combine past tragedies, present fears, and the absolute love of a mother.

However, it is unfair to speculate on what Halsey herself has felt throughout her experiences with her body through pregnancy, giving birth, and now as a new mother. But, the overall themes of the album, I believe show a much larger commentary on motherhood and how it has changed--and remained stagnant--throughout history.

First, let's look at what exactly the themes are. Obviously, I've already discussed that the album is both an ode and lament to pregnancy, motherhood, etc. But, the album also takes an element of horror and darkness. With a sort of dark synth-pop sound meshed with traditional tenants of rock, the album has both a gritty and childlike feel to it.

Personally, I feel juxtaposing these themes creates a unique sound that works with the lyrics to examine to create an almost timeless feel. Much like motherhood itself.

Two days before the album's release, Halsey released a short film also titled "If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power". In the film, Halsey plays the role of a queen whose husband (the King) is murdered. The nobility do not want her to take over the crown, her galavanting lifestyle, and her non-noble background.

Halsey soon discovers that she is pregnant with the King's child. This delays some of the plans to execute her, but does not stop them. In the end, Halsey gives birth to the baby and is executed. Just before her execution, she is seen smiling and laughing. While I cannot be sure, I believe this is because the baby is not the King's at all, but rather the child of herself.

Earlier in the film, there is a scene where an alternate Halsey comes into the Queen's room. It is implied they sleep together and that she is some sort of magical being, whether it be some sort of manifestation of Halsey herself, or something simply using her face, I do not know.

This possible twist is part of what makes this new era so interesting when placed in the frame of historical motherhood. Choosing a royal theme for the film seems entirely purposeful and meant to focus on the historical notions and stories of motherhood.

The baby in the film turns out to be a boy. Therefore, he will be raised as the next King. The title "If I Cannot Have Love, I Want Power" references this cycle seen in history time and time again.

In the film, Halsey's character is beaten and raped by the King. She does not love him and he does not love her. She does not have love and she has little power, even as the Queen. But, the one thing in the world that gives her power is her ability to have a baby--a future monarch.

Looking throughout history, we see nearly this exact story play out. Arguably, the best known cases come from the British monarchy. First, King Henry the VIII executes Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn's daughter, Elizabeth, then goes on to be one of the most successful and well known Queens in the world.

During Queen Elizabeth's reign, her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots is eventually executed for treason (though we now know this was a ruse. It is also important to note that Elizabeth had kept Mary alive for over a decade and only signed the execution because she was misled into believing Mary was conspiring to have her killed). Mary's son, James, then goes on to succeed Queen Elizabeth as James the I and VI, once and for uniting England and Scotland.

While their mothers may have been spurned, exiled, or even killed, their children often venerated them. They named their own children after their mothers, built statues, named bridges, roads, and dedicated ships in their honor. We can see this even today. Recently, Princes William and Harry unveiled a statue of their mother, Princess Diana. Prince Harry also gave his newborn daughter the middle name of Diana.

Additionally, if you are a fan of history (or period dramas), you may know of the way that the wives and mistresses of a monarch often vied for their children to gain power. They themselves had reached the pinnacle of power they could without being a mother. The only way to have more power was to have their child on the throne.

Entire shows have been written about royal women attempting to use their children to build or maintain power. Catherine de Medici, Cleopatra, Eleanor de Guzman, Wu Zeitan, and countless other women in history used their ability to have children and their children to gain and hang onto power.

Outside of history, within religion and mythologies, women are nearly always the goddesses of fertility, pregnancy, and children. Even goddesses are mothers. The power and magic of childbirth was not lost on ancient peoples, nor is it lost on modern ones. Yet, women still find themselves not in control of this magic they wield.

Historically, the ability to have children and their children were often the only powers women had. And, if you couldn't have children? Were not in the right position to have legitimate children? Or, did not have the right children? It may eventually lead to your death.

That's a dark reality. One that Halsey explores. Infertility and the desire for motherhood shine brightly through this album and film. Halsey owns her sexuality and nakedness, something that the character in her film is largely unable to do. First, her body belongs to the King, then her child, and finally, to Death.

These historical notions of motherhood are not fully obsolete. Halsey--who publicly suffered when infertility--faced criticism when she was pregnant and for the album. Some believing she was too young, not in a good place in her career, working too much, that it was too risky, etc.

Not only are these criticisms completely unwarranted, they are the modern day's attempt to police women and mothers. From breastfeeding becoming political to women being undervalued in the workplace due to their possibility of pregnancy, these notions still continue today.

"If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power" is an ode and a lament of pregnancy and motherhood. But, it is also Halsey taking back her narrative, taking back her body, and not allowing anyone to take away her power, regardless of if she is a mother or not.

album reviews

Alisan Keesee

I am a 24-year-old Seattle based writer who lives alone with my cat. Originally from a small, unincorporated Washington town, I have a penchant for boybands, black coffee, and true crime. I am a graduate of Western Washington University.

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