Over the course of its 40 seasons, Saturday Night Live has seen 37 musicians handle hosting and musical-guest duties, whether it be in separate episodes or both in one night. This Saturday, Halsey becomes the 38th, taking on both duties for the night and joining the widely varied musician-as-host ranks spanning Katy Perry and Jack Black to Miley Cyrus and Mick Jagger. When the pop star known to the government as Ashley Nicolette Frangipane (“Halsey” being an anagram of her first name) was announced as the long-running sketch-comedy show’s double-topliner at the end of last month, it was more than a little surprising.
But the big-leagues call-up that Halsey’s imminent SNL stint represents is not wholly without merit. For starters, 2019 has already seen her greatest success yet in “Without Me,” an inescapable interpolation of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” that, although originally released in the fall of last year, spent some time as the No. 1 song in the country before being unseated by Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings.” The chart-topper marked her solo debut on the throne and her second No. 1 appearance overall (the first being her guest spot on the Chainsmokers’ 2016 superhit “Closer”); Halsey’s 2015 debut Badlands entered the Billboard 200 at No.2, the highest-charting album at the time for dance-focused label Astralwerks. Her sophomore effort, 2017’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, broke the 26-year-old label’s record by debuting in the top spot.
Setting aside the fact that charting high in the late 2010s involves myriad factors compared to previous eras of the music industry, Halsey’s actually enjoyed more quantifiable success so far in her career than other, more famous musicians who have taken SNL’s hosting reins. MC Hammer, who pulled double-duty in 1991, never pulled off a chart-topping hit of his own; two of his most well-known songs from his parachute-pants’d glory days, “U Can’t Touch This” and “2 Legit 2 Quit,” stalled out in the nether regions of the top ten, despite the former topping the charts in multiple countries abroad (hello, Sweden!). The same goes for 2004 double-dipper Queen Latifah — although, granted, at that point in the Queen’s career she’d more than established herself as an actor and comedic talent.
To this point, Halsey has established herself as neither; her acting debut came in the form of a brief credited cameo in A Star Is Born, in which she presented the Best New Artist Grammy to the ascendant Ally (Lady Gaga, who hosted and performed on SNL back in 2013) with the brief, surprisingly memorable line-reading, “How great.” (As of this writing, Halsey has not yet earned any Grammy nominations as a solo artist.) But lack of acting experience or comedic chops hasn’t stopped musicians from taking on SNL in the past, regardless of their success: certified nonactors and non-comedians ranging from Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton to Frank Zappa and Justin Bieber have all had their shot at hosting. Why not Halsey?
That question could be asked in more ways than one, too. Over the past several years, SNL has become positively loaded with star-wattage celebrity cameos — specifically, in its cold opens, which more often than not take on a thinly satirized recitation of political-sphere current events. Tune in any week and you can see the legendary Robert De Niro doing his best Meet the Parents mugging as Robert Mueller, bankable comedy vet Ben Stiller weaseling his way through a Michael Cohen impression, or Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump take — a celebrity-on-celebrity impression so discourse-swallowing that future generations will likely look back at this era of the show and remember little else. Like a cook who’s too heavy-handed with the salt, these appearances can overpower the efforts of whoever’s elected to take on hosting duties on any given week; viewed in another light, as long as the Matt Damons of the world are still game to fly in for a quick cameo, it arguably doesn’t matter who the host is anymore.
Still, the relative lack of star wattage Halsey possesses when measured up to the other SNL hosts this season is hard to ignore. The still-ascendant Awkwafina is a close second, but at the time of her appearance she already had a star-making role in one of the most successful comedies of the last few years; even Game of Thrones actor Jason Momoa was widely identifiable by mainstream audiences through his face, if not by name (that is, before Aquaman became the most successful DC Comics film in history).
It’s more than likely that your SNL-viewing parents have heard Halsey’s music on the radio without knowing it, but there’s a palpable feeling that not enough people know who she is just yet — a sensation unintentionally amplified when, while commenting on her recent hair-color change earlier this week, Refinery29 ran the headline “Halsey Is Hosting SNL This Week — But You Might Not Recognize Her.” In an otherwise perfunctory news post rounding up Halsey’s jack-of-all-trades SNL promo, Deadline writer Greg Evans aptly noted that “Halsey might need a stronger-than-usual introduction for some viewers.” Typically, SNL hosts (both musicians and otherwise) face the unenviable task of coming across as somewhat funny over the course of a 90-minute live show aired in the practical dead of night; Halsey has to do so while also essentially justifying the perceived level of fame that typically accompanies hosting duties.
It’s possible that Halsey wouldn’t be facing such potential scrutiny were she just this weekend’s musical guest. Despite its recent chart-dethroning, “Without Me” is still inescapable, and its performance bodes well for the new album that she’ll undoubtedly be rolling out in the near future. (Who knows — maybe she’ll perform a new song, too.) But Halsey isn’t even really at the center of pop’s current cultural axis; that honor goes to Ariana Grande, whose second album within 12 months Thank U, Next sees release today, armed with two chart-topping singles (the title track and the aforementioned “7 Rings”).
Grande (whose own acting background dates back to her teenage years, starring in Nickelodeon teenybopper comedy Victorious) hosted and performed back in 2016; last fall, she was scheduled to perform opposite host Adam Driver but pulled out at the last minute, replaced by a barely trying Kanye West. It’s not hard to imagine that SNL producers attempted to bring her back for this week’s show but were stymied by her scheduled appearance at this Sunday’s Grammys — which has since gone up in flames due to a public spat with longtime producer Ken Ehrlich. The Grammys’ own inability to command star wattage this year has been well-publicized in itself, and it joins the Oscars and the Super Bowl halftime show in the growing trend of pop-cultural megaevents struggling to attract talent. Although she might not measure up in terms of fame when compared with SNL’s other musician-hosts, Halsey’s SNL stint is far from the first time in recent pop-cultural history in which talent booking has — by virtue of choice or necessity — turned its gaze toward less-visible celebrity tiers; and as the nature of celebrity itself becomes increasingly fickle in the digital age, it’ll likely be far from the last, too.