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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

On Happier Than Ever, Billie Eilish Takes Us to the Edge of Burnout

Not since the days of grunge has disenchantment been such effective fertilizer for mainstream music

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Image: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Spotify (Getty Images)

If we are in the summer of our discontent—more lukewarm than hot-vax thanks in no small part to Delta blues—then Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever is the album for the moment. Which is ironic, not just on account of its title (itself a betrayal of the audaciously chill, frequently maudlin music within) but because the record is an account of one singular 19-year-old pop star’s growing disillusionment with that which she once desired or is supposed to have.

There’s a line from Happier’s opening cut “Getting Older” that I’ve already seen quoted all over the place since the set’s release on Friday, probably because it’s the first real ear-grabber on the album. It comes in after about a minute and a half of Eilish warbling self-consciously over a muffled keyboard being played like a trampoline: “Things I once enjoyed/Just keep me employed now/Things I’m longing for/Someday, I’ll be bored of/It’s so weird/That we care so much until we don’t.” This coming from someone who can’t be heard over the scream-singing crowds at her own concerts. This coming from someone who has redefined pop stardom (what it looks and sounds like) to a magnitude not seen at least since Lady Gaga (whose redefinition, to be precise, was a consciously derivative one, and as such may not qualify her as an Eilish forebear after all). This coming from someone who won a Record of the Year Grammy for an ostensibly similarly themed song, “Everything I Wanted” (“I had a dream/I got everything I wanted/Not what you’d think/And if I’m being honest/It might’ve been a nightmare”). If the American dream ever fit into Eilish’s scheme for cultural domination, Happier is what happens when insomnia sets in.

There’s something in the air, and like some kind of cultural drain tarp, Happier captures it. It’s hard to imagine an album with a higher barometric pressure—Happier manages to be summery (suffocating synths and more than a couple reggae grooves, which is infinitely more than I was expecting) without being sunny. It’s oppressive, a soundtrack for dog days whose release timing was a small act of artistry in itself—it dropped July 30.

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This is not an album about burnout, because that album, in its pure form, couldn’t exist. That album is Lauryn Hill’s follow-up to MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 and all the records that Erykah Badu didn’t write. That album is, as of the publication of this post, is Kanye West’s delayed-by-design Donda. And yet. There’s something in Eilish’s tone here that suggests the germ of inability or unwillingness to go on. A brushing up against apathy. A dissection of meh. The unsettled feeling that whatever this is, it was supposed to be different even in the absence of a precipitating vision. It’s underwhelmed as an existential state. These feelings are generally at odds with creativity, and yet Eilish and her brother collaborator Finneas O’Connell transubstantiate it into a fully realized statement on Eilish’s place in the world and her ensuing unease with it. Not since the days of grunge has disenchantment been such effective fertilizer. (O’Connell, incidentally, is so integral to Eilish’s output that to refer to the artist “Billie Eilish” is to include O’Connell implicitly, in much the same way that referring to imperial-phase Janet Jackson is to include Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and arguably, René Elizondo Jr.)

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Ambivalence is keeping the lights on. It’s in the meditations on fame, as well as the love songs. On another muffled keyboard tear-jerker, “Halley’s Comet,” we’re graced with the cleverest line Eilish that has sauntered out from between her lips yet: “I was good at feeling nothin’, now I’m hopeless.” It’s a song about not wanting to want, sung with the exact kind of longing Eilish reserves for songs about changing her mind—here she’s changing it in real time, and oh how she flips. It’s effortless. It’s like she’s not moving at all as she negotiates desire with conscience, a singing superego suspended in mid-air. Eilish’s tone is soulful beyond her years and increasingly complex in its body. So often on Happier, it sounds like there’s something more behind her voice than what she’s giving. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, she discussed both wanting to tell her fans everything about herself while drawing defined boundaries that prevent her from doing so. That’s how she sings: She gives so much but audibly keeps something for herself. She sounds like an eye filled to the brim with tears that never spill. The effect is fraught without catharsis. It’s high drama and yet restrained, one of those tricks that was unthinkable before a human body nailed it right in front of us.

At the same time, her directness can be devastating. “Wasn’t my decision to be abused,” she sings in “Getting Older” with little build-up to suggest she’s going there. It comes out like a shrug. Tossed off, that’s her life, deal with it. The matter-of-factness reaches spine-tingling heights in the acoustic indictment of abuse in the music industry, “Your Power.” It sounds simple, which is genius for a song that is anything but. “And you swear you didn’t know/You said you thought she was your age,” says Eilish before the most withering of refrains in pop music this year: “How dare you?” It’s a hook and a transcendence of a pleasure so earthly in three syllables.

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Eilish’s quiet seething and gentle interrogation of the fucked-up things she notices in the culture that she’s helping shape is louder than loud. Over a synth haze, she elevates the medium of addressing one’s haters with rhetoric, not ranting. “Do my shoulders provoke you?/Does my chest?/Am I my stomach?/My hips?/The body I was born with/Is it not what you wanted?/If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman/If I shed the layers, I’m a slut,” she murmurs. If she has answers—and I do get the sense that she does—she’s not offering any. It’s all Cheshire beguiling from her. “Is my value based only on your perception?/Or is your opinion of me not my responsibility?,” is how she concludes before the synths flicker out and then resume their buzz for a song about paparazzi pictures and public scrutiny, “OverHeated.” Many of Happier’s songs take on unconventional structures like the architecture of this suite, as if to shift points of view and interrogate from another perspective, or as if a different angle of squeezing will irrigate the pore.

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Eilish’s musings on fame are particularly poignant, because they come from someone who is rapidly understanding a world she has found herself in that she had no real ability to consent to entering. She was 13 when she recorded her breakout single “Ocean Eyes” and while I don’t doubt that ambition and a sense of will have played a role in her ascent to fame, I also don’t believe that she could possibly have had any idea what she was in for. To hear her sing is to behold a developing brain. Why shouldn’t she be disenchanted?

But there’s something about this particular moment that Happier Than Ever nails. It’s realizing how fucked we are even with Trump ejected from the White House. It’s “the great resignation” that finds people quitting their jobs en masse, now empowered to pursue better for themselves. It’s Simone Biles withdrawing from team finals at the Olympics for the sake of her mental health. “If you look at the pictures and my eyes, you can see how confused I am as to where I am in the air,” Biles explained of her decision on Instagram. Happier Than Ever is what being confused as to where one is in the air sounds like from a pop superstar.

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I see all of these decisions as related interrogations of power. I don’t know how much the no of now owes to MeToo, but I think one could reasonably deduce that the movement got the ball rolling. More than ever, people are demonstrating their refusal to submit to “well that’s just the way it goes.” It doesn’t have to be that or any way. Olympic athletes can say no; pop stars can make low-key idiosyncratic follow-ups to their gazillion-selling debuts with few guaranteed smash singles in sight. A great amount of hope can come from despair, a bright future potentially awaits after burning all down. At least that’s the endeavor.