At 17 years old, Billie Eilish has been deemed a new face in the ever-changing “teen” music scene. Her combined youth and lyrical themes of crushes, vulnerability, sadness, and rejection have made her a promising new addition to teen pop. Eilish is increasingly apparent in young pop culture: she is featured on the soundtracks of The Hate U Give, “13 Reasons Why,” and “Pretty Little Liars.” She is decidedly teen pop, but somehow simultaneously the antithesis of it. Regardless, she seems to embrace that label, which could otherwise be patronizing or belittling. In interviews, online, and certainly in her professionally produced work, Eilish channels a DGAF aura. She is consistently funny, reckless, and downright weird, but her music is less predictable. One may have heard her breathy, smooth “ocean eyes” or “bellyache,” but she has made a clear thematic break from all previous work in WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, her debut studio album, and it is certainly, well, darker.
The album opens with gesture towards Eilish’s relatability and sense of humor— audible slurping sounds, then Eilish’s voice: “I have taken out my Invisalign, and this is the album.”
In “bad guy,” Eilish asserts herself as an archetype we have been warned against by playing on the old fashioned stereotypes of the “good” versus “bad” kids. At first, listeners are not sure if she is presenting a serious song, as the bouncy and playful beat is light, even with risque lyrics: “I’m that bad type, make your momma sad type, make your girlfriend mad type, might seduce your Dad type.” Close to the end of the song, a trap-esque, slow, heavy drop destroys that mood, and listeners realize that she means business.
The songs “all the good girls go to hell” and “you should see me in a crown” are fantastic examples of Eilish’s distinct vocal power. Something between a half-whisper and the muffled, nasal hum of someone with a cold, her vocals are always clear-cut and crisp, hushed, but right in the ear. It is as if she is singing ASMR into a binaural microphone.
Eilish creates a modern sound with the use of synthesizers and plenty of sampling. One track, “my strange addiction,” is full of dialogue clips between characters of “The Office.” She remains appealing, though, with more traditional, straightforward vocals, often with clear messaging. “xanny” offers a rejection and criticism of drugs. Other tracks are disturbing for the seriousness of their subject. In “listen before i go," Eilish alludes to a suicide note: “Call my friends and tell them that I love them, and I’ll miss them, but I’m not sorry.” In “bury a friend,” she fantasizes about murder to synthesizer sounds and a fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping rhythm. This track, which turned heads for its success on normally sunnier pop charts, is a testament to Eilish’s out-of-the-box talent: according to a New York Times article, the haunting mechanical whirring sound is a recording of the buzz of a dentist’s drill. “i love you” is a softer close to the album—all soft acoustics and heartfelt, simplistic lyrics.
Billie Eilish deserves the hype. She is fascinating, and so is WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?. One of the album’s greatest strengths is the diversity of the tracks; each is starkly original and stands alone. In an age where pop music is churned out more quickly than ever before, this is a notable achievement, especially for such a young artist. The contrast between tracks does make for lacking flow, but the unpredictability feels purposeful and fitting. Lyrically, Eilish has some room to grow. Certain songs are shocking, with biting or fresh lyrics, and those evidence her promise as an artist. Others are a bit more clichéd, with the angstiness becoming perhaps a little forced and less authentic. But I would bet that Eillish is no passing fad, and her work will only grow in depth and body.
The best part of this original album might be that it is so popular, particularly with young people. Eilish has managed to top charts that are typically unforgiving to artists who push pop boundaries. She is a walking middle finger to everything that teen pop represents, perhaps even everything that young female celebrities are supposed to represent. She wears baggy, tomboyish clothes and light or no makeup. In interviews and online, she’s vulgar and borderline manic, cackling at her own jokes and palling around with anyone in her vicinity. Part of her appeal is that realness. If you come with bias, you might find Eilish and her music strange, even off-putting. But give WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? a chance— it just might grow on you.
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