The music media has made a lot of Billie Eilish’s debut full-length album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, and for good reason. The 17-year-old, a Soundcloud phenomenon, is doing something that any young pop singer could do, but almost none have dared: be different, and often disturbingly so.
We’ve seen the pop success template before. A young, attractive singer, very often a woman, ties in with a producer who writes the beat and the lyrics. The singer doesn’t even have to sing well, and now that auto-tune is a style choice, not an invisible corrective measure, it’s almost an advantage that the singer is not spot-on. The subject matter is almost always about sex, in all of its phases from meet-up to break-up. Occasionally, it will also be an empowerment “love who you are” kind of song or a “bangin’ at the club” kind of song, but the topic of choice tends to be the one that exposes the most young flesh to the audience. (Corollary: This is also more effective for the cover art and music video.)
It’s no wonder that all the songs and images tend to bleed together after a while, to the point where the next big star seems little more than a mutation of the last big star. This makes Eilish’s ascendance all the more intriguing.
First off, she writes the majority of her music herself, and is in close collaboration with her producer/brother Finneas O’Connell. His music backdrops owe as much to Nine Inch Nails at Reznor’s spookiest as it does the digital sample-and-paste ethic of modern trap music. It is seldom explosive but still tense and anxious. Over the top of it is Eilish’s voice, a jazzy, indie-rock-influenced warble that doesn’t blast as much as it insinuates. In this, Eilish comes off as something that few pop stars – male or female – have in a very long time: dangerous.
“You Should See Me In A Crown,” while being a stretch to say it is conventional, certainly is most in-tune with the present music sound. It namechecks her first big Soundcloud hit “Ocean Eyes,” and turns the tables on the standard “I’m going to run this town” narrative. Her voice sounds calculating, plotting, and eerily calm. When she sings, “You should see me in a crown, your silence is my favorite sound, watch me make ’em bow, one by one…” she isn’t demanding it, shouting it, or projecting it. She’s expressing it like a done deal.
There are songs with sexual overtones, of course, but they’re handled in unique ways. “My Strange Addiction” is more interested in the spaces between musical notes than filling every corner of the sonic spectrum with noise, leading to a curious tension between the digitally processed instrumentation, Eilish’s voice, and holes of silence.
The subject matter also demands attention from being off-trend. “Xanny,” referring to the often-abused and street-sold prescription drug Xanax, would seem on the outset to be more a tribute to the anxiety medication. That is a continual theme among a lot of Soundclouders like Lil Xan, 6ix9ine, and the recently passed Lil Peep. Eilish, however, is refusing the drug and mourning her peers: “Please don’t try to kiss me on the sidewalk on your cigarette break/I can’t afford to love someone who isn’t dying by mistake in Silverlake.”
Even the album cover is designed to be provocative, but in unexpected ways. When’s the last time an up-and-coming pop star emulated not Demi, Selina, or Miley; but Linda Blair’s Regan from the movie The Exorcist?
The point is this: Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is a completely modern, thoroughly pop-oriented (if dark) entry, but because of the singer/songwriter’s singular vision of herself and her productivity, the record may be the most “punk rock” thing that comes out in 2019. That’s not a bad start at all.