Billie Eilish appears to the world as a series of recommended videos on YouTube, a testament to the marketing of a personality that has been described as “redefining teen pop stardom.”
There’s good reason for this. Since pop music took on the term, it has been dressed as an easy target for critics and music snobs alike — a sort of ‘anti-music’ postured towards giving meaning to bands like Sonic Youth in the great Hegelian dialectic of entertainment. As a result, popular music takes on all sorts of ‘dirty word’ connotations about being hedonistic, faithless and irresponsible. If Kim Gordon did it, it would be art.
But art reflects life and life reflects art. Popular music is popular because it lines up with what people want. Criticisms of modern culture only implicate society at large for giving power to the philosophers of our time, be they Slavoj Žižek or Cardi B.
Billie Eilish is somewhere in between. Stylised by mass media as the down-to-earth answer to a detached celebrity culture, California-based Billie and her brother write and produce songs about acting erratically, feeling insecure and not taking drugs.
‘Bad Guy’ sets the pace for the rest of the album. The reason it avoids falling into that counter-culture trap is that it isn’t afraid to laugh at itself. The opener is quite comfortable taking the piss out of its targets, but acknowledges that it too is a part of that culture and is deserving of the same critique. Billie litters her album with obscure references atypical of a pop album, but also borrows informalities and slang from the other end of the spectrum.
It’s these little juxtapositions that make WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? a valuable insight. ‘Bad Guy’ ends with a beat lifted from early-2010s trap music, before going on to a song condemning the abuse of Xanax. Billie chooses to identify with and understand the culture she finds herself in, rather than laugh from the sidelines.
As a result, we get a bizarre mix of themes and emotions pervading the album. ‘All The Good Girls Go To Hell’ contains lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place in a 70s rock ballad. ‘My Strange Addiction’ is the theatrical part of the concept: moody, elusive and suggestive, before suddenly becoming something quite tame, vanilla and direct. Listeners find themselves resonating with both sides of the proverbial argument.
‘Wish You Were Gay’ is the less-obvious highlight – beyond ‘Bad Guy’ and ‘Bury a Friend’. It throbs along coolly, a cleanly produced pop song on the exterior with sombre undertones. Billie holds on ‘you’, seemingly deciding that “wish that you were were gay” would be too blocky for what should instead be a light, upbeat song. It floats along, bounces, in spite of being clearly quite troubled under the hood. It’s a pretence, covered over with humour to good effect: “Don’t say I’m not your type / just say that I’m not your preferred sexual orientation.”
At its core, Billie Eilish’s debut album demonstrates a self-awareness we could all learn a thing or two from. The artist has managed to admit the suffering of existence, while accepting that one is responsible for the shape that existence takes.
Words by James Reynolds