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Billie Eilish’s WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

2,210 wordsCover of Billie Eilish's "WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?"

Billie Eilish is the youngest person to ever be awarded Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, for her debut effort WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? [1] At just 18, she swept the ceremonies, earning over 60 awards in categories that ranged from Best New Artist to Best Song. She appeared as stunned and grateful as she always does on stage whenever she receives such accolades; in general, Eilish is an amusing and polite — albeit coarse-mouthed — young woman who certainly has talent. Her work with her brother Finneas O’Connell, professionally known as FINNEAS, has led to multiple international hits from the time she was 13 years old. This collaboration also led to her renowned status as pop’s newest darling after the unprecedented success of her single “bad guy,” featured on WHERE DO WE GO. 

But is her album any good, really?

The overwhelming consensus that Eilish is behind some kind of watershed moment in pop music history isn’t based on any revolution or daring new technique that Eilish tried out on her records. Beyond about three stellar cuts, all of which became singles, most of WHERE DO WE GO is actually quite. . . boring.

Eilish has an angelic voice, so anything that she puts it to is bound to sound lovely to the ears, but pipes alone are certainly not the only ingredient needed for remarkable works of art. Eilish, if anything, is simply one of the most marketable musicians ever. She is young, hip, and her brother is a production phenom. Eilish as a product is very easy for people to consume, something easily inferred from her near-omnipresent media production in the form of interviews, Tweets, and Instagram posts, even when she makes it clear that she’d prefer spending her time doing something else.

The propulsion of Eilish to fame is not entirely unlike that of Britney Spears when she was a young woman, and it is just as distasteful. Eilish has said more than once in interviews that her eccentric and now oft-imitated fashion sense was motivated by a desire to hide her body from prying eyes, something she was especially concerned about as a minor. Many in the music sphere have leveled accusations against her of being an “industry plant,” as if such a charge is even relevant when pointed at someone born and raised in Los Angeles. Eilish has also spoken out about mental health, a very popular topic to broach in the current year. This is not without irony, given the root cause of many of these emotional battles could easily be attributed to the crushing pressures of fame.

Eilish was even seen mouthing “please don’t be me” just before her fifth Grammy win of Monday night. [2]

One could theorize about the aims of the group of people that made Eilish a popular phenomenon for hours, but I’m certain that much of our readership knows about these already. The substance of her record, the very thing we are told is the cause for her international stardom, is in question. And, to be frank, there is a lot on this album to question.

“!!!!!!!” is the opener. It’s not a song, but an interlude skit that quite humorously prefaces “bad guy.” Eilish yells, with her mouth clearly full:

My Invisalign has finally…
I have taken out my Invisalign
I have taken out my Invisalign, and this is the album!

Immediately after, the first pulses of the infectious hit “bad guy” begin.

This track has all the hallmarks of a pop hit capable of taking the world by storm. Over one billion plays of the track on Spotify are living proof; “bad guy” is painfully catchy, with a dance floor-worthy, yet simple bassline, a synthesizer people love attempting to sing along to, and uncountable layers of overdubbing that give Eilish’s breathy vocal performance an ethereal, sensual quality. “bad guy” is also very repetitive, its centerpiece being the melodic hook over which Eilish occasionally says “I’m the bad guy” over the top of. It ends with a trap beat that Eilish originally produced herself. “bad guy” is the true cause of Eilish’s international fame, and it is a masterfully executed pop song.

But it’s Eilish’s worst nightmare: Both for its portrayal of a teenage girl as a merciless maneater, and because it is her best track by far.

This becomes plainly apparent to the ear when the album’s second track, “xanny,” begins. It’s about a commendable, if somewhat depressing subject: Eilish discusses the self-destructive behavior of her drug-abusing, cigarette-smoking, binge-drinking peers. Unfortunately, it sounds like a rejected track from the sessions of Lorde’s most recent album, based loosely on a swinging, simplistic drumline. The chorus is pierced by an unpleasant, compressed kick drum that would be more appropriate on a Merzbow effort, perhaps. Eilish and Finneas are talented musicians, but they’re not the best experimentalists.

Perhaps here is where the tragedy of Billie Eilish is on best display: She is clearly a sweet and caring young girl, but she is expected to churn out radio hits for people who truly couldn’t care less. We’re left only hoping her mental health doesn’t dramatically deteriorate as she becomes integrated into the machine, resulting in a Britney-style head-shaving meltdown. Let’s be nice to her, if not for that reason alone.

Eilish, being a Zoomer woman, has to sprinkle some feminist theatrics into her work. This is accomplished by the trap and dubstep-influenced “you should see me in a crown.” It’s reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” between the penetrating hi-hats and self-aggrandizing lyrics. Eilish’s pride isn’t entirely unwarranted — she includes an incisive reference to her breakout single, “Ocean Eyes,” on this track — but it does come across as flat within the grander context of her music and pop music as a whole. “crown” achieves absolutely nothing that any other hip-hop influenced singer and producer duo hasn’t over 5 years ago. “crown” isn’t even particularly catchy, but it is danceable.

The alarmingly named “all the good girls go to hell” follows, another track dripping with the viral combination of ska, rap, and funk influence. With references to wildfires destroying California, Eilish’s home state, and the amusement of a devil who watches mankind poison itself, one can assume this is a metaphor for some kind of catastrophe. Climate change weighs heavy on the minds of the younger generation — myself included. It is sort of macabre that this overwhelming anxiety about the apocalypse would be suitable songwriting material for a pop singer, but that is the world we live in today. “good girls” is also rather short, at two minutes forty-eight seconds.

No teen pop album is complete without a humorous regaling of heartbreak. Eilish delivers with the very 21st century “wish you were gay;” she describes how frustrated her rebuffed advances on a particular individual make her. In fact, Eilish wishes the reason she’s been rejected were because her object of desire was a homosexual. The song is amusing, but appropriately self-aware: Eilish exclaims midway through that she’s “so selfish” for feeling this way. “wish” is one of those songs that will likely stay on pop playlists for over a decade, a kind of inversion of Katy Perry’s early single “Ur So Gay.” Instrumentally, it’s fairly straightforward late-2010s pop: Lots of bass, lots of drums, lots of sidechain compression.

Eilish is much more somber on “when the party’s over,” one of the album’s most popular tracks. “party” is built around minor piano and endless layering of Eilish’s vocals; she laments the end of a relationship through the fault of both those involved, comparing it to the sense of deflation felt when one realizes that the party is over. It’s a strange metaphor, and the song lacks any true emotional depth. Eilish does demonstrate an impressive vocal range on this track, but absent anything particularly heart-wrenching, “party” is just a strangely quiet song on an otherwise uptempo record. It’s prime material for the “skip” button to get a workout.

“8” is structured around the gentle plinking of a ukulele, which is eventually given a tasteful chop-job, a simple bassline, and syncopated drumkit instruments. It has one of Eilish’s most unique vocal performances on the record; she begins the song in an almost infantile, high-pitched voice. It’s likely meant to be reminiscent of Eilish’s childhood, as her very first musical composition was on ukulele. Lyrically, “8” is another song about unrequited love. “8” relies mostly on the novelty of its chopped ukulele hook and Eilish’s strange vocals; there’s not much else here of note.

“8” is followed by what might be the worst track on the album, entitled “my strange addiction.” It’s a house-influenced song sprinkled with samples from the television show The Office. These sorts of jokes don’t write themselves; it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the only culture the average white woman born after 1993 has experienced is rap, mockumentary prime-time TV, and eating spicy chips. The titular “strange addiction” in this song is, of course, a love interest. While this doesn’t make for the most interesting art in the world, we do have to give Eilish some leeway. She is an 18-year old white girl living in California, after all; her songs not concerned with love or the lack of it are usually fixated on death. This is all far more authentic and preferable to the caricature of a pasty young girl talking about running the trap.

There is a huge leap in quality from “addiction” to the track that follows it, “bury a friend,” which is a strong candidate for the album’s most innovative cut. It’s minimalist, somewhat frightening, and disarmingly autobiographical. Centered around a gnarly, throbbing bassline and clattering, echoed percussion, it’s clear that the early industrial movement of the 80s was a point of reference. Eilish describes a monster beneath one’s bed, confused as to why its prey doesn’t run screaming from it. The catch, of course, is that this monster is Eilish herself. “bury a friend” is one of the album’s most popular songs, which is surprising, given its atonal influences and spine-chilling messages. It ends perfectly, with a synthesizer squeal and the introduction to the next song.

“ilomilo” shows elements of nu-disco and the “bleep” acid of the early 90s Leeds rave movement. It’s another short track, arguably filler, that concerns teen romance. It is cute, but it’s not groundbreaking or particularly enthralling. Acidic basslines and chimes are not new to the world of music, and at the rate contemporary pop musicians are churning tracks with this gimmick out, you’d think it would have gone out of style by now.

“listen before i go” is up next, another piano-oriented song that lacks substance in the same way “when the party’s over” does. The faint sound of sirens ring in the background, while Eilish tells the listener that she “can’t be saved now,” an unmistakable reference to death once more. Midway through, a crunchy bass riff punctuates the semi-depressing spectacle. “listen” could easily be what The Antlers would have produced if they owned Massive presets and have never seen someone die before. Themes of regret and the insincerity of an apology dominate this track, but it’s still not much of a meditation.

“i love you” is the penultimate song, and it’s another snoozer. A single repetitive acoustic guitar riff is the basis of the track, which plays with swelling synthesizers and Eilish’s voice. At this point in the record, there’s not much else to say except that it suffers from bloat. Shorter LP lengths are becoming more common in pop music nowadays, leading one to wonder why Eilish didn’t simply package together her most invigorating work for her full-length debut. The title “Album of the Year” is truly not appropriate.

The final track is the aptly named “goodbye,” an interpolation of the leitmotifs on all the album’s songs in reverse order in one minute, fifty-nine seconds.

Pop music is an excruciating business. This record, like many others in the genre, is not particularly enthralling or innovative. However, it is one of the most candid releases to come from a teen idol; a truth not without its own cruel irony. There is some hope, however. Eilish has evaded disgusting sexualization, tabloid scandals, and the prying eyes of the paparazzi, mainly by being relatively open about her personal life to begin with. It’s easy to critique the “product,” as I’ve done in the last several paragraphs, but it’s crucial to remember there is a human being beneath the veneer of entertainment. We can see her straining to get out in her music; it’s not unreasonable to think that Eilish would have created something more daring were she not under pressure to release a bestseller. The consumerization of art, and more directly, our emotions, is one of the most potent tools that our enemy has ever used against us.

Billie Eilish is in the unfortunate predicament of having her depressed, teenage image cleaned up and sold to the general public as a consumer good. Let’s all hope this girl turns out alright.

Notes

[1] Style has been preserved from the tracklist. The album title is fully capitalized, while track titles bear no capitalization.

[2] Sparks, Hannah. “Grammys 2020: Billie Eilish caught pleading ‘Please don’t be me’ before fifth win,” The New York Post, January 27, 2020. [http://archive.is/NSEZc] [https://nypost.com/2020/01/27/grammys-2020-billie-eilish-caught-pleading-please-dont-be-me-before-fifth-win/]

 

22 Comments

  1. Doug
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    So many words for something so simply banal. Yawn.

  2. cfomally
    Posted February 1, 2020 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Music for children.

  3. Benjamin
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Billie Eilishs is freakin’ weird. But, I’ll still take weird over the stereotypical and overdone bleach blonde bimbos that historically have typified Hollyweird and the music industry

  4. Eihwas
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 4:00 am | Permalink

    I actually like her and her brother and this was the album of 2019. This music was everywhere last year. I went on a cross country road trip and it even came up in semi-rural pub quizzes. I heard it coming from a neighbor’s living room back home. It’s fun, edgy music that uses space well. Do I think the music or album is great? Not exactly. However, it and Billie’s image connects with millions.

  5. Stronza
    Posted January 29, 2020 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    I’d never even heard the name Billie Eilish until I saw this article. So I went to youtube and saw a video of her singing Bad Guy. SMH. She looks as if she is either on Thorazine, or needs it. This is singing?

    The video has 742,701,770 views as of January 30th, 2020 Anno Domini – and counting.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyDfgMOUjCI

  6. GMT
    Posted January 29, 2020 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I listened to two Eilish songs out of curiosity a few months ago, and remembered nothing from them. Perhaps I’m a demanding critic, but nothing about Eilish’s persona makes me want to be more sympathetic. Eilish has a vibe similar to Kurt Cobain, with the exaggeratedly bored, flat facial expressions in particular. A lot of people seem to interpret this as high-status and “cool”; to me, it’s narcissistic and trashy, and I think a more polite society would share this opinion.

    I’m tired of “quirky” people like Eilish, to be honest. “Quirkiness” seems to be a bad substitute for character and interesting insights. There are too many millennials and zoomers who’ve copied all of their beliefs from a political platform, and then try to compensate for their lack of personality with these meaningless aesthetic details. I wish I could just meet more people with character and who actually have something interesting to say.

    • Daveonator
      Posted January 30, 2020 at 3:51 am | Permalink

      I would never of heard of this girl were it not for this article, but boy oh boy, do I get sick to the guts of people throwing the word “narcissistic” about, to describe anyone they wish to place themselves above, it’s just so smug.

      • GMT
        Posted January 30, 2020 at 4:28 am | Permalink

        It’s not smug, it’s the appropriate description.

        High-status people have a choice of belittling those under them or respecting and elevating them. Much of communication is non-verbal. It’s polite and respectful to act engaged with those around you, to make them feel like their input is valuable and that they are appreciated. What this kind of exaggerated flat-affect demeanor communicates is the opposite: That they’re boring and what they have to say is of no value. The most generous and kind-hearted high-status people I’ve met have all acted in the former way, and I’ve met plenty of petty and-yes, narcissistic-people who are never comfortable with their position, and act in the latter way to console themselves. It seems to have a big appeal to a lot of people with low self esteem, especially in Anglo countries, where there is unfortunately a cultural habit of trying to act nonplussed as a way of showing off.

        • David
          Posted January 31, 2020 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

          “High-status people have a choice”, what? And other people don’t? Do you believe yourself to be “high status”? If so, why?

          Some people are not trying to put on a flat expressionless face. I myself have never been able to put on a smile just for a photo, it never looks remotely natural with me.

          The problem I have constantly found in promoting white culture is this pushing only of an aspect of it that only applies to the top end of town, thus alienating every else. Other peoples seem to have something that unites them more.

          Interesting when reading “Hitler’s Revolution” by Richard Tedor, I was impressed by how Hitler united his people and respected both high art and folk art without the type of class rubbish one would see in the UK. This was true of Mussolini’s Italy, but of course the “betters” in the UK & USA knew better 😂

    • Vehmgericht
      Posted January 30, 2020 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      A strange young lady: the carefully cultivated air of porcelain ennui is (as they say) subverted by her nose-bleed and garish attire and yet also upheld by her cadaverous vocal delivery.

      But the lyrics of her ‘rap’, insofar as I could make them out, seem to me neither interesting nor edifying and I am afraid I find the simian ‘urban’ dance style both repellant and ludicrous.

      I do not think I shall want to listen to more of her work: its only benefit has been that it brings on a strong urge to revisit Bach or Wagner.

  7. Mike Ricci
    Posted January 29, 2020 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Billie Eilish mainly just seems like today’s version of an “edgy teen girl who doesn’t fit in”. She’s talented, but nothing really special, in my opinion. Her brother is probably the real brains behind the scene but maybe less attention seeking than her.

    One interesting thing is she stands out immediately as a zoomer; there is already a different way about them compared to millennials……..something vaguely GenX-like.

    • Dazz
      Posted January 29, 2020 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      The brother is a musician separate from his collaboration with sister and an actor, so the assumption he doesn’t want the attention is laughable, and while in percentages he may be contributing the most brains, it seems to be a genuine collaboration, plus its only the first album…having said all this, the music and lyrics are awful and boring, the highest thing of quality is her voice, so the bro’s brains ain’t looking good here…if we are being cynical we could say the brother and the industry just know she’s more marketable as the face of the project.

  8. Razvan
    Posted January 29, 2020 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to write about the country music. It’s popular (they fill up huge stadiums), the singers are beautiful (maybe I should say exceptionally beautiful and 99.99% white), and the music is at least listenable comparatively; but some is much more than that. It is much healthier to see and listen real men and women than a tortured and malnourished kid…. sorry about that.

    • Mike Ricci
      Posted January 29, 2020 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      Modern Country music is too lame to even discuss. Now it has more in common with 80s-90s rock than roots country and most of its fan base are dorky white suburbanites. It’s a good example of how stunted white culture has become.

      • Razvan
        Posted January 29, 2020 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        No matter how commercial or pop has the country music become, anything is better than this freak.
        Now tell me that the girls from “Little Big Town” are ugly, Blake Shelton is no match for Hank Williams Sr., and Chris Stapleton is not country enough. Of course Stapleton is great with Steeldrivers and less than anything with Timberlake. But, anything is better than this freak.
        You can’t have a Johnny Cash born everyday. Of course there are many bad songs, but also there are little musical gems and good singers/songwriters, many of them probably almost unknown.

    • Scott Weisswald
      Posted January 29, 2020 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      There is nothing of cultural relevance occurring in country music released today. This is at least a sign of the times.

  9. Dennis
    Posted January 29, 2020 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Just listened to the first minute of that “Bad Guy” song (couldn’t stomach staying for the whole thing), which you call “masterful.” Astonishingly bad (sounds like an infinite number of similar c. 2010-2020 pop tripe), utterly banal lyrics of course, affected delivery, etc. Disgusting that this garbage wins awards. Also, watched about 30 seconds of her live performance at the Grammys. If this is what passes for talent these days, we are doomed.

    My ears are bleeding and I feel sick. Queueing up some good music now to wash away the hear pollution.

    • Posted January 29, 2020 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      I heartily agree, only I muddled through the whole song, hoping for anything to redeem it. After that, to be “masterfully executed” is a consummation devoutly to be wished. This actually has over one billion hits? And meanwhile a girl like thisis consigned to oblivion. We are indeed doomed.

      • Corday
        Posted January 29, 2020 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

        “Seek not the favor of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them.” – Immanuel Kant

        I agree with your sentiment, but don’t give up hope based on this. The promotion of heinously ugly art in every form and a pervasive culture of shallowness actually drives many people to embrace the Dissident Right (myself included). Go to the comments section on any YouTube video of classical music or something like Bing Crosby. Without fail, you will see people who are otherwise “normies” expressing deeply illiberal sentiments about cultural regression and opposition to modernity.

  10. Oilish
    Posted January 29, 2020 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Everything that Poppy symbolizes seems to be coming true for this young woman. It is very sad.

    • Scott Weisswald
      Posted January 29, 2020 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      Salient.

  11. Simon Drew
    Posted January 29, 2020 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    The question is : ‘When We All Wake Up, Where Do We All Go?’

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