By Dani Blum
The beat drop in “Bad Guy” is a rip in time. It starts as a throb and ends as a vortex, unraveling a slick, muted pop song into a trap-drum, SoundCloud rap-adjacent cyborg. Pop has been building to this – the thump of bass in Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” the electronic thrums throughout Lorde’s first album – but the complete dissolution of a track into whispers and gasps, the tangled swagger from a neon-haired 17-year-old who is always seconds away from saying she wants to die, is its own revolution. “Bad Guy” was everywhere this year, in bars and strangers’ headphones and karaoke rooms that shook from the bass. Each time I heard it, the drop felt like an invitation to plummet. It gave me permission to sink.
Billie Eilish’s music doesn’t sound like anything else because it sounds like everything: rap and punk and EDM and every shade of pop from the last decade mashed together, rooted in anxiety. She started making music in her bedroom with her brother, Finneas, who has remained her producer; her first big hit, “Ocean Eyes,” wrenched a ballad out of an apocalypse, as she lilted about burning cities and “napalm skies.” Her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, centers on fear: that her friends will die, that the people she loves will leave. She presents all joy as jarring, a contrast — “The smile that you gave me / Even when you felt like dying,” she coos on the record’s singular love song. Even the album title speaks to the panic provoked by ordinary vacancies.
In that angst, she’s tapped into a zeitgeist. Ariana Grande’s “Breathin” was a bop about PTSD. Shawn Mendes wrote “In My Blood” about a panic attack. I dare you to listen to Billie Eilish without twitching — the claustrophobic bass-clogging “You Should See Me in a Crown,” the haunting lilt in “When the Party’s Over.” And yet there are pockets of sheer goofiness tucked throughout, starting with the slurps of her removing Invisalign. At so many points this year, I have wondered if irreverence is the answer to anxiety – not because of nihilism, but out of a protective hope to minimize what scares us.
Eilish is the soundtrack to endless scrolling. It’s the music we get when we are flooded by everything at once. Of course she samples The Office and croons about hell on the same track; of course we can stick out our tongues and shout, “DUH!” to the beat and a minute later whisper, “I can’t afford to love someone / Who isn’t dying by mistake.”
Pop music is approaching convergence, and in the next year, we’ll watch this intensify. We’ve already seen glimpses of it: Lil Peep smushing punk and rap, alternating flexes and cries. The three-songs-in-one shimmer of “Sicko Mode.” Tyler, the Creator swirling together genres and personas. The clearest lineage Billie Eilish inherits is Lorde’s, parsing through female adolescence with poetry and clarity and bass, but she’s more spiritually linked to a rap artist like Lil Uzi Vert, switching moods and genres and flows just to prove she can.
“Xanny” is the strongest track on the album, and the best indication of Eilish’s future as a poignant songwriter. References to the anxiety medication are braided into contemporary rap and pop, sluggishly hummed at the center of a Drake song and tucked into bars about bars. On a more predictable debut, a song titled “Xanny” might be some ode to the drug, a requiem for dissolving. Instead, the song flickers with compassion and rebellion. “I’m in the secondhand smoke, still just drinking canned Coke,” she sings, her voice dragging and glitchy. “I don’t need a Xanny to feel better.” It’s not an anti-drug anthem as much as a plea for feeling: to sit with all the mundane horror, to let it come just short of breaking you.
The first time I saw Billie Eilish live, I shook in a warehouse beside a man I’d break up with twice in four months. I kept trying to sieve the moments of our relationship into a narrative I could recognize: shouting on a sidewalk and then reading across from each other at IHOP the next morning, whimpering on opposite mirrored ends of a subway pole. Onstage, Billie murmured that she wanted to take a nap; instead, she stood, sighed, sang, “Don’t you know I’m no good for you? / I’ve learned to lose you, can’t afford to.” Smoke curled from the stage and sank before our faces. I grabbed his hand to make sure he was still there, and let myself feel everything at once.
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