The last time a young white woman in her mid-teens flipped over the tables of pop music, it was circa 2013 and it was New Zealand’s Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde. Now, mobilizing a not-dissimilar stylistic array, it’s Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell, aka Billie Eilish. She’s recently turned 17 but has been rising in the charts with singles and EPs since 2016—her streaming numbers are well over a billion—and today finally releases her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, which already set records for “pre-adds” on Apple Music.
For all the two share, though—their early discoveries, their elaborate given names reflecting their upbringings in artsy O’families, and their “indie girl voice” mixtures of mumbles and coos contrasting with harder-edged synth beats—Eilish is, crucially, a creature of Los Angeles, instead of Auckland. Lorde’s mother is an acclaimed poet, an inheritance easy to detect in her preternaturally mature lyrics. Eilish’s parents are minor screen actors: Contrary to a lot of observers’ assumptions, she hasn’t grown up rich by any stretch, but it was the kind of struggling family in which you could take horse-riding lessons as long as you also worked a part-time job at the stables. She and her older brother Finneas, who’s now reportedly her sole co-songwriter and producer, were both home-schooled, and Finneas had a locally successful teen band and appeared in a season of Glee. Eilish breathes the air of highway smog and burning hills, cool parties and showbiz workaholism, and don’t-give-a-fuck argot and epidemic self-harm. All of that is mainlined into her songs.
She’s also an avatar of a swift microgenerational shift that makes her music far trickier than Lorde’s for the olds to process. Call hers alt-stagram pop, the shadowy reverse of Ariana Grande’s or Selena Gomez’s music—a highly self-conscious but defiantly dark ongoing workshop of images, words, and music that copes with the inevitability of self-performance while striving for whatever could possibly have the ring of honesty. She may sound at first like a broader-strokes version of Lorde as well as transplanted L.A. indie sad-girl icon Lana Del Rey. Eilish’s earliest viral hit, “Ocean Eyes,” was a gently hooky ballad that fell neatly into the “Spotifycore” zone of easy-listening mood music. But she declares influences such as former teen-prodigy shock rapper Tyler, the Creator as well as the face-tattooed so-called SoundCloud rappers, often barely out of their teens themselves. (“Ocean Eyes” itself first got traction on SoundCloud.) Eilish was criticized last year for publicly mourning the shooting death of XXXTentacion, who was accused of more than one case of domestic violence but was also a supportive friend to her through various mental health struggles—she’s called him “a beam of light.”
Eilish’s own fashion stops short of face tattoos, no doubt to the relief of even her expansively tolerant parents. But she does rock an ever-changing rainbow of hair dyes, clunky sneakers, silver chains and rings, and baggy utility clothes (she’s bragged about wearing pants as shirts) in garish neon colors and crisscrossed with emo and metal insignias—part DIY and part designer, a hybrid of rapper, rave kid, and goth. While her singing may sound “girly,” her affect is not, with her quick-minded but California-casual conversation in interviews salted with bros and fucks and shits and straight trashes. (While her manager mother maintains loving watch nearby.)
Eilish’s love of horror movies is manifest in her more recent videos, which feature her being stuck with dozens of hypodermic needles, having tarantulas crawling out of her mouth, and drinking a tall glass of charcoal liquid until black comes streaming from her eyes. Her songs on When We All Fall Asleep sip from the same waters, but in a more grounded way, with frequent references to dead friends (XXXTentacion doubtless haunts a few of them, though not so many as online gossips assume) and more generally to monsters and nightmares within—Eilish has said she suffers from night terrors, along with depression and a mild case of Tourette’s that can produce facial tics under stress. Yet rather than go full-goth with that content, she also entices with beautifully crafted stacks of vocal harmonies and modestly placed nuances of breath control and speak-singing shrugs.
In every respect, these things have made her a hero to her peers and younger admirers, a high school cohort that seems more fiercely open about sadness, suffering, and sexuality than ever. “Wish You Were Gay,” included on the album, came under fire online for expressing a yearning that her crush object didn’t return her affections because of his sexuality rather than anything about herself. It got lumped in with Katy Perry’s “Ur So Gay” and “I Kissed a Girl” from a decade ago, as both denigrating and fetishizing queerness. It’s a fair critique. But I can’t help feeling, observing friends’ teen kids’ unblinkingly accepting relationships with their gay classmates, that she was just wondering nonjudgmentally if that might be the reason for their disconnect. And according to Eilish, her suspicion turned out to be right. Yes, she didn’t articulate it entirely eloquently. But that’s also what being 17 is.
Like Twenty One Pilots, Eilish also talks about suicide frequently, and often romanticizes it—she has been featured on the soundtracks for both seasons of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, which does the same—but the alarm over such art often seems to overlook how much it can mean for a young person to know they’re not isolated in such thoughts. Let alone that it’s not actually a songwriter’s job to present socially responsible stump speeches, as opposed to representing the human condition. If kids are feeling nihilistic, perhaps one should find out why (e.g., that the world seems to them to be on fire) instead of suppressing it. I’m not normally in the habit of endorsing the cultural recommendations of avuncular Foo Fighter rock spokesperson Dave Grohl, but when he discovered Eilish through his daughter, he felt that she was arousing some of the same ardent identification that his former band Nirvana did in the 1990s. This might sound absurd to a Nirvana fan listening to Eilish’s less sonically confrontational, more lilting melodies, but the idea that many young people suture themselves to her the way ’90s kids responded to the band that made “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” seems straight-up correct.
All that said, only about half this album is both musically and lyrically compelling to a distanced but believing listener. It makes me wonder whether Finneas—as lovely as their family-affair artistry is—will in the long run be the best collaborator through which to filter her alert instincts. “Xanny,” “Bury a Friend,” “Ilomilo,” “I Love You” (in which the key line is “but I don’t want to”), and others can wrongfoot a listener line by line via Eilish’s ability to set up intense dialogues with herself. But then there’s “Bad Guy,” “You Should See Me in a Crown” (a dumbed-down “Royals”), among others that feel too programmatically obvious to earn their place. No question, Eilish is a star who’ll keep burning as long as she does not burn out. But this is still a taste, not the whole smorgasbord of what she can do. How far she’s come in a couple of years proves that.
I’ve been reserving those reservations, because how I feel doesn’t matter compared with how this work is going to both confirm and elevate her listeners’ hopes for her. Lorde will remain my Teen Choice pick of the 2010s. I’m also not the audience for the outtakes of studio laughter and bad jokes that pop up here and there—though it’s hard not to both smile and be grossed out over the introductory snippet of her slobberingly pulling the inserts off her teeth and proclaiming, “I have taken out my Invisalign and here’s the album!” And while I’m glad to hear her thinking about structure, it’s too much to end with a song called “Goodbye” that cycles backwards line by line through each song on the album, an indulgently drama-kid-like pat on her own back.
But when fans listen back to these songs a decade hence, they’ll say, “Oh, I can never hear that without remembering that part where they start cracking up.” Hell, even I like the random samples from Season 7 of The Office that show up on the song “My Strange Addiction,” partly because I, too, am an Office fan and have been charmed to hear from friends that their teens binge it on Netflix, and partly because it’s a middling song that can’t lose much by it. More important, these are things to make listeners now and forever feel like they’re in Eilish’s club, and that she gets them. It’s the stuff pop love is made on.
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