Billie Eilish’s Time Is Now
“I have taken out my Invisalign, and this is the album!” Billie Eilish announces at the outset of her debut album. The 17-year-old singer then collapses into hysterical laughter with a male cohort — presumably her older brother, a fellow musician named Finneas O’Connell who’s been her close collaborator ever since she made waves with debut single “Ocean Eyes” three years ago. It’s an inauspicious way to be begin a collection of dark, stylish, futuristic pop music, but it also makes perfect sense. Eilish is a new kind of pop star for a generation born beyond Y2K, and her first LP evokes teenage living in all its modern complexities.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, out tomorrow, captures an unmistakably adolescent frame of mind, a headspace where goofball playfulness and maudlin brooding coexist. It is peppered with punchlines and inside jokes, but also extreme melodrama and abundant cool-kid posturing. That much will be familiar to anyone who’s lived through high school. Yet Eilish also exemplifies some of the unique aspects of being a teenager at the end of the 2010s. Or at least, as someone well into my mid-thirties attempting to wrap my mind around what it’s like to grow up today, her album feels like a prism for understanding an era when kids aspire to make a living as influencers, age-old binaries are disintegrating, and communities are constantly ravaged by mass shootings and suicide.
It also makes good on the promise her career has been hinting at. Eilish has concocted one of the last great pop statements of the decade, a natural culmination of many currents from these past 10 years. I have sometimes scoffed at Eilish, never denying her talent but viewing her through a condescending, parental lens. The more extra she’s become, the stronger my inclination has been to dismiss her as a kid playing out her undercooked idea of maturity, heavy on artifice and shock value but light on perspective. Her outrageousness still makes me roll my eyes, but writing her off as a magnetic persona with precocious inclinations is not so easy anymore. Her aesthetic is refined, her songs compulsively listenable. She’s no longer a phenomenon coming up from behind — she is here, fully formed, ready to dominate.
“If you still don’t know who Billie Eilish is, there’s a good chance you are old,” wrote Meaghan Garvey in a recent Fader cover story. She’s not wrong. Thanks to his teenage daughters’ obsessive fandom, even Dave Grohl knows Eilish is taking over. She’s doing it quickly, too, both by music-industry and human-life standards. Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell was born to actor-musician parents in December 2001, three months after 9/11 and 12 years after Taylor Swift. She was only 13 when she and Finneas repurposed one of his old band’s songs into breakthrough single “Ocean Eyes,” 14 when the song blew up on SoundCloud, 15 when Interscope released her debut EP, 16 when her discography topped a billion streams across all platforms.
Her youth comes through in the Fader feature, as do her distinct sensibility and knack for provocation. Eilish films herself dancing to Mac Miller and Anderson .Paak’s “Dang” in her Highland Park backyard while wearing what Garvey calls “comically oversized Dsquared2 sneakers, shoes you can picture Goofy wearing were he a hypebeast.” Those Invisaligns feature prominently; we’re told she got the orthodontic retainers the same day she did a fitting for Chanel, and that they prevented her from eating a bag of Takis. Eilish raves about the newfound freedom afforded by a driver’s license, describes a childhood immersed in homeschooling and contemporary dance and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, and laments the struggles that have dogged her since the dawn of puberty. On the cover, she appears with a plastic bag over her head bearing the logo of New York streetwear brand Alife.
— The FADER (@thefader) March 6, 2019
Her presence on the Fader cover is proof adults are catching on, but Eilish was already a budding generational icon before grownup gatekeepers anointed her. Although she does not yet have a top 10 single — “Bury A Friend” topped out at #14 last month — she counts more than 15 million Instagram followers. Her music defies genre to the point that she’s enjoyed airplay on both pop and rock stations, yet radio has mostly been an afterthought in her ascent. She is technically a teen making pop, but as the EP title Don’t Smile At Me suggests, her output is far too hip and jaded to be teen-pop in its traditional Disney-defined permutation. In another profile published today — in which Eilish became the first person to get the word “deadass” into the New York Times — reporter Joe Coscarelli sums up her appearance: “performatively dead eyes (bored, at best), hair dyed in shades of electric blue and pale purple, an all-baggy anti-silhouette — a collective middle finger to the strictures of teen-pop sex appeal.”
The eyes in particular are a mainstay. Like all teenagers, Eilish’s look has been a work in progress, but she’s been staring a hole into your soul ever since the “Ocean Eyes” video. Upon premiering that video, I noted her interest in Tyler, The Creator, another transformative, transgressive LA prodigy with the confidence to win a staring contest with Satan. But the extent of Tyler’s influence wasn’t clear until last year’s video for “When The Party’s Over.”
Blue-haired, dressed all in white, and accented with a vast inventory of watches, rings, and chains, Eilish guzzles a glass of mysterious black liquid. Soon the oil-like substance begins pouring from her tear ducts, staining her skin and clothing and eventually flooding the floor. The song itself is a moody, bass-bombed ballad more in line with Imogen Heap or Lana Del Rey than the squealing boom-bap of Tyler’s “Yonkers,” but the echoes of that song’s star-making video were deafening.
That Odd Future vibe permeates When We All Fall Asleep, an album that could just as easily be called Teenage Nightmare. Eilish got jokes — cheesy reactions from sitcom audiences are spliced into “Wish You Were Gay,” a swaying torch song about being rejected and wishing there were extenuating circumstances; the crisp DJ Mustard synth-funk sendup “My Strange Addiction” is overrun by samples from an episode of The Office. Yet those are moments of levity on a largely ominous journey through the depths of her subconscious, one where she often seems to relish her own potential for evil.
On the front cover, Eilish is hunched on her bed, eyeballs fully white as if possessed by a demon (another “Yonkers” throwback). Inside, she slithers through an array of fashionably minimalist beats, painting herself as a villainous character, like every PTA member’s worst Marilyn Manson anxieties come to life. On opener “Bad Guy,” a low-key banger that sounds like Lorde overseeing a club remix of Fiona Apple’s “Hot Knife,” she states it plainly: “I’m the bad guy… DUH!” Also: “I’m that bad type/ Make your mama sad type/ Make your girlfriend mad type/ Then seduce your dad type.” No wonder she tacks on, “My mom likes to sing along with me, but she won’t sing this song.”
One of the poppiest tracks, the punchy piano number “All The Good Girls Go To Hell,” is built around the oft-recycled notion that eternal damnation must be a much more interesting destination than boredom behind the pearly gates. “Xanny,” a jazzy ballad about how she doesn’t need Xanax to feel good, finds her embracing the hedonist’s life: “Waking up at sundown, I’m late to every party.” Her biggest hit yet, “Bury A Friend,” pairs spooky shrieks and a subtly throbbing “Black Skinhead” beat with the realization that she’s the monster under her own bed. Her detached delivery is unnerving even before she intones, “I wanna end me.”
The suggestion of suicide becomes much more overt on “Listen Before I Go,” where glassy piano chords become a canvas for disturbing imagery of this ilk: “Take me to the rooftop/ I wanna see the world when I stop breathing/ Turnin’ blue.” It’s hard to know whether to receive that kind of talk as a genuine cry for help, inflammatory rhetoric designed to get a reaction, Eilish singing from another character’s perspective, or something else entirely. On one hand, the lyrics appear to glorify suicide in a way that calls back to 13 Reasons Why, the controversial Netflix series that boosted Eilish’s profile by including her song “Bored” on the soundtrack. The plastic bag over her head on the Fader cover is also a bit too suicide-chic for comfort.
On the other hand, the album draws heavily from her haunted dreams, and she tells Fader that in contrast to popular perception, “I give such a fuck.” Other tracks near the end of the album seem key to understanding her intent. On the skittering “ilomilo,” she declares, “The friends I’ve had to bury, they keep me up at night.” Over gentle guitar arpeggios on “I Love You,” she describes “the smile that you gave me even when you felt like dyin’.” In these moments she seems to be grappling with her place in a world wrecked by tragedy. Her last words on the album find her reckoning again with the darkness inside her, this time with more dread than delight: “What if I wake up and I’m the bad guy?”
Eilish has always been a lot, and now she’s given us a lot to unpack. I’ve only had When We All Fall Asleep for about a day, and I’m nowhere near wrapping my head around What It All Means. I do feel confident about this much: The album will endure. It will be a touchstone for others the way Lana and Lorde and Tyler were touchstones for Eilish. In hindsight, last year’s noise-addled industrial-trap lead single “You Should See Me In A Crown” feels like the moment Eilish found her groove. It’s when she and Finneas completed their evolution from the straightforward Spotify-pop of “Ocean Eyes” to the complex racket that courses throughout her LP. It also now seems more than a little prophetic. “Bite my tongue, bide my time,” Eilish sang. “Wearing a warning sign/ Wait ’til the world is mine.” In that context, the cackling at the beginning of the album makes even more sense. The boundaries of her kingdom remain to be seen, but the takeover is well underway.
It’s a week of extreme stagnancy at the top of the Billboard charts. Both last week’s #1 album, Juice WRLD’s Death Race For Love, and #1 single, Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings,” remain at the summit this week. On the Billboard 200 albums chart, in fact, there are no new entries in the top 10, which beyond Juice WRLD comprises familiar titles from Grande, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Queen, Post Malone, Drake, Travis Scott, Meek Mill, and Gunna.
There are also no new top 10 entries on the Hot 100 singles chart, but the action there is slightly more intriguing. For one thing, with “7 Rings” logging its seventh nonconsecutive week at #1, Grande matches her previous longest run on top with last year’s “thank u, next.” Billboard points out that she’s one of only 20 artists to score multiple seven-week #1 hits. Here’s their handy breakdown:
Five such #1s: Drake
Four: Mariah Carey, Rihanna
Three: Beyoncé, Boyz II Men, Eminem
Two: 50 Cent, Adele, the Beatles, the Black Eyed Peas, Ariana Grande, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, JAY-Z, Maroon 5, Nelly, Santana, T.I., Usher, Pharrell Williams
The rest of the top 10, in order from #2 to #10: Halsey’s “Without Me,” Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower (Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse),” Post Malone’s “Wow.” (reaching a new #4 peak), Cardi B and Bruno Mars’ “Please Me,” Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier,” Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow,” Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker,” J. Cole’s “Middle Child,” and Meek Mill and Drake’s “Going Bad.”
Khalid – “Self”
BREAKING: Scientists have identified the exact midpoint between Sam Smith and Frank Ocean.
Kelly Clarkson – “Broken & Beautiful”
You can probably figure out what a Kelly Clarkson song from the soundtrack to a new animated film sounds like — decidedly not broken but at least marginally beautiful.
Kailee Morgue – “Headcase” (Feat. Hayley Kiyoko)
Here we have two rising queer pop stars interpolating “Where Is My Mind?” with impressively solid results.
Zara Larrson – “Don’t Worry About Me”
Tropical house lives!
Becky G – “Green Light Go”
Becky G has found herself a nice lane making Spanish-language pop, but her English material hasn’t fared as well. “Green Light Go” may not change that, but it’s good enough to — a casual trap-pop slow glide built to thrive in both the club and the car.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Justin Bieber is reportedly taking a break from music to focus on his health and marriage. [Instagram]
- Halsey said her new album is coming this year: “Writing this album has been a lesson in forgiving myself. In being proud of myself and kind to myself despite how much this world is designed to make you hate yourself.” [Twitter]
- Logic released his novel Supermarket and its accompanying original soundtrack. [All Hip Hop]
- Lorde will perform at a 4/17 benefit for the victims of the Christchurch massacre. [Daily Mail]
- Sigrid released a video for “Don’t Feel Like Crying.” [YouTube]
- Ariana Grande performed the unreleased song “She Got Her Own” with Victoria Monet in Washington, DC. [Billboard]
- Avicii’s family is launching a foundation for mental health and suicide prevention. [Variety]
- The UglyDolls movie soundtrack will feature Nick Jonas, Bebe Rexha, Why Don’t We, and a lot of lead voice actress Kelly Clarkson (including two tracks with Janelle Monáe). [Film Music Reporter]
- In other Rexha-related film news, she auditioned for the new stripper revenge movie with Jennifer Lopez and Cardi B but didn’t get the part. [Idolator]
- Diplo shared two tracks, “Hold You Tight” and “Bubble Up,” from an upcoming house music EP. [Mad Decent]
- BTS shared a trailer for their new album Map Of The Soul: Persona. [YouTube]
- BLACKPINK’s Kill This Love EP is out next week. [MTV]
- The Chainsmokers and 5 Seconds Of Summer released a video for their collab “Who Do You Love.” [YouTube]
- Adele and Jennifer Lawrence partied at a NYC gay bar. [NY Daily News]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
honestly this was the weirdest part of the Nav interview to me pic.twitter.com/iJ84Iw8RDY
— will (@HeisenBarry2) March 27, 2019