When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? by Billie Eilish

Sep 09, 2019 19:42

I get really self-conscious talking about music, because for whatever reason, musical taste is one of the rare things that even we in fandom seem to have no trouble judging other people for. I don't even know what Nickleback sounds like and I am automatically defensive of Nickleback fans at this point. (You can't tell me they don't have fans, because somebody's funding their ongoing career. Wikipedia tells me they're coming out with their tenth studio album this year.) My tastes are in no way sophisticated or informed; they are literally just a descriptor of "stuff I like." Usually I can't even describe what I like, however useful that would be; I operate on a strict "I know it when I hear it" basis.

That aside, it's not that often that I really fall in love with a body of musical work, so that I actually have something to say about it. A single song, yes, but an entire album, or multiple songs by one artist, that I am absolutely head over heels for as opposed to just listening to for a week or two? Very, very rarely.

However! I think people talking about stuff they like, even if they don't know very much about it, is generally a good thing in the world, and also I have so many feelings about Billie Eilish's first full-length (? is that even what we call it?) studio album right now that they have to go somewhere, so here we are.

So: if you don't pay much attention to popular music, Billie Eilish is a 17-year-old (!) girl from LA who built up some buzz over the past couple of years and then, about five months ago, released the album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (link to YouTube playlist). The songs were co-written with her older brother Finneas O'Connell, who also produced them. Among other things, Eilish has become known for a breathy/whispery singing style, edgy/emo lyrics, dark and disturbing imagery in her music videos, and an almost aggressively non-sexualized personal image. She also recently revealed that she suffers from Tourette's syndrome, after someone released a video compilation of a bunch of her physical tics, because that is the world we live in.

I want to say a bunch of stuff about her music, but first I want to get into the personal image thing. I think the best introduction (or at least, the introduction I got) to her style is her Billboard #1 single "bad guy." (All the titles on this album are lower case.) It's also the first song on the album.

image Click to view

This is maybe her peppiest, most upbeat song on the album. It happens to also be one of maybe two songs that are moderately sexual, this one probably more than the other. However, her look in the video is very, IDK, candy-coated goth? (Yes I just made that up.) It opens with a glorious yellow tracksuit thing with the hoodie, and then you've got her in a loose white button up and creased white chino shorts, and pretty soon after she's making snow angels on the floor in a matching bright floral shirt-and-shorts combo. Several times she repeats the refrain "I'm the baaaad guy. Duh," which pretty much sums up both song and video, I think. Her other videos trend less colorful, and her general fashion philosophy seems to be that white is goth, but I enjoy that, too.

" Eilish’s personal style is what is most disorienting and subversive for a Billboard chart-topper: ever-changing shades of blue hair paired with a skater streetwear-meets-haute couture tomboy look, which she describes as "super-cheap meets fancy." -- Billie Eilish, the neo-goth, chart-topping 17-year-old pop star, explained (Vox)

I don't want to come off sounding like I'm congratulating Eilish for not being like other girls, because the sexualization of female stars in the music industry is a huge, messy issue that involves a lot of women bargaining with what they have to get what they want from men in positions of power, and also, there is absolutely nothing wrong with women expressing their sexuality on their own terms. There were a lot of factors that went into Eilish being able to craft and keep this image, and many entirely out of her control, even leaving aside the fact that she’s a minor.

However, prior to really getting into this album I spent some time bingeing a decade of videos for pop music hits and getting smacked in the face, over and over, with the fact that as far as the music industry is concerned, woman exist for men's viewing pleasure. So it was even more refreshing than it might otherwise have been to watch Eilish's videos, which are often weird as hell, several of which I would put horror-type content warnings on, but none of which had even a whiff of objectification about them.

On to the music. I can't speak with authority on what exactly she's doing musically on this album or how it fits in the larger context. House and jazz are two influences I’ve heard people suggest. There’s a beat on "ilomilo" that sounds kind of Caribbean to me. But here are some key characteristics of her music that I've noticed:
- The aforementioned breathy/whispery vocals. She's definitely going for effect rather than volume. I've been meaning to look up some live performances to see what she's like in that context.

- BASS. Wow does this girl (and/or her brother and produce Finneas) really love bass. It's the big underlying beat in "bad guys," and it's at rattle-your-teeth levels in "xanny" and "you should see me in a crown."

- On a related note, a lot of vocal distortion and vocal layering.

- Aburpt transitions from quiet, meditative verses and bass-heavy choruses, also on "xanny" and "you should see me in a crown."

- A really strong sense of rhythm throughout, from the peppy upbeat tracks ("bad guy," "good girls go to hell"), the moody weird tracks ("my strange addiction," which inexplicably has several samples from… The Office??) and the most meditative ballads ("i love you"). It extends to the lyrics, too. I think my favorite example comes from the big chorus from "bury a friend":
What do you want from me? Why don't you run from me?
What are you wondering? What do you know?
Why aren't you scared of me? Why do you care for me?
When we all fall asleep, where do we go?

I'm really feeling my lack of expertise as I try to explain this, but it feels like the lyrics reinforce the rhythm instead of being supported by it, and I didn't realize how much I loved that until I listened to this album, which does it a lot. I think that's one of my favorite songs for Eilish's vocals, as well.

- Ballads that break my heart instead of boring me. Um, obviously this is a very individual observation, but like 90% of the time I am that person who skips the slow tracks because I just don't care, so I was completely unprepared for how much I loved "i love you," which really, honestly knocked my socks off. "when the party's over" is also pretty great. On the other hand, I tend to zone out during "listen before i go," which is kind of a late-night jazz lounge ballad, so not every single track on the album was a hit.

I think one of the important things to take from this is Billie Eilish is doing all these things, none of which sound much like typical 2010s pop music to me, especially not in combination, and she's topping the pop music charts. "bad guy" was the song that finally broke "Old Town Road's 19-week reign at #1 (and then Lil Nas X congratulated her on social media, which charms the hell out of me). 12 of the 13 songs from When We All Fall Asleep charted on the Billboard Hot 100, the most ever for a female musician, per Forbes. She is breaking records wearing a spiky collar and skater pants.

Finally, re: her videos, I'm going to issue a general warning for body horror, spiders, and needles, because all of those show up more than once. She's leaning hard into weird, depressing, and dark; some of it's just unadulterated teenage edginess, and you know what, I love her for it. However, if you only watch one other video of hers in addition to "bad guy", I really recommend the one that is genuine nightmare fuel - "you should see me in a crown", animated by Takashi Murakami, in which animated Eilish turns into a giant monstrous spider and runs roughshod over a cute little town of flat people, a la Godzilla. If anything about that description sounds appealing to you, you should check it out. Alternatively, watch this Arya Stark vid set to the same song.

Anyway, in conclusion, I am in love. I love that this 17-year-old is out there very much doing her own thing, and I appreciate that her own musical thing happens to be something I'm super into.

Crossposted from Dreamwidth. Comments welcome over there. (
DW replies)

topic: music, entry: long thoughts

Previous post Next post