Pop Is Making Happiness Sound Pretty Dreary Lately

Lorde heads to the beach. Lana Del Rey sings of peace. Billie Eilish is happier than ever. But it doesn’t quite sound like a celebration.

An image of an eye crying tears with the faces of Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey, and Lorde visible in each drop
Getty ; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Billie Eilish has some scary problems, she tells listeners on her new album’s first song, “Getting Older.” A stranger outside her door is acting deranged. Loneliness and burnout mount in her mind. Abuse and trauma darken her past. She murmurs about these things over a synthesizer that pulses like a time bomb. It never seems to explode, but the final verse does contain a shock.

“For anybody asking,” Eilish sings, “I promise I’ll be fine.”

Fine has not always been Eilish’s thing. Her 2019 debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, swept the major Grammy categories and sold millions of copies with cleverly constructed tales of feeling not okay. Monsters, the apocalypse, and suicide swirled in her thoughts—and the drama of the songs lay in the sense that she could, in some awful turn, fall victim to the things that terrorized her. At the climax of the album’s runtime, she sang a farewell from the edge of a building. The song, “Listen Before I Go,” faded out in a din of sirens.

Speaking openly about depression and self-harm, the now-19-year-old Eilish became a powerful mascot for a generation of young Americans who are, according to studies, extraordinarily sad. Her success also capped off a decade during which popular music made more space for malaise in its melodies. The influence of Drake, that self-doubting superstar, permeated Eilish’s shadowy, rap-inflected sound. But she also joined a lineage coded along gender (and, more subtly, racial) lines. She was a Sad Girl™, building explicitly on the 2010s’ most important whispering divas, Lorde and Lana Del Rey.

All three women have released new music this year, and all three seem to be scraping off the sad tag. Lorde’s single “Solar Power” is a strummed summer gust. Lana Del Rey’s March album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, meditates on nature, community, and contentment. Eilish telegraphs a swerve with her album’s name, Happier Than Ever, and its associated visuals: blond locks and creamy colors instead of goth greens and blacks. But listen to all this music and gauge the reactions to it, and you still can’t quite make the case that our culture is perking up. In this summer of uneasy celebration, some of pop’s most thoughtful women are showing that pleasure—for themselves, for other women, for everyone—is anything but simple.

The joke embedded in the rollout for Eilish’s Happier Than Ever is that it’s significantly less joyful to listen to than When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? That debut had a kind of Nightmare Before Christmas playfulness to it, with shuffling rhythms and silly sound effects augmenting the haunted sing-alongs. The follow-up—created again by Eilish and her multi-instrumentalist brother, Finneas O’Connell—is muted, cold, and controlled. It contains many of the same ingredients as before, but they’re used in sparing proportions to create subtler and—in the best moments—richer payoffs.

Such restraint, we’re meant to feel, reflects hard-won self-assurance. Eilish’s first brush with fame horrified her, according to press interviews and footage in her 2021 tour documentary, The World’s a Little Blurry. Losing privacy and independence—and gaining judgmental audiences, industry pressures, and a grueling schedule—made her wish she’d never blown up. But with therapy and age (“like the actual chemicals in my brain shifting,” she told the Los Angeles Times), she got better. “I fucking love fame,” she said on a podcast this year.

Happier Than Ever is not really about this emotional journey. Instead it is a speech from the top of a mountain, directed downward—at grasping fans, prying reporters, crappy exes, and exploitative power brokers, all of whom she insists bother her less now. Accordingly, the album’s delicacies are dis tracks, which highlight Eilish’s oddly Broadway-ish knack as a performer-storyteller. Each interlocking line of lyric builds a kind of logical momentum; her variegated deadpan is so committed that it should actually be considered hammy. O’Connell’s ear-catching yet understated production—skeletal reggae with dog snarls on “I Didn’t Change My Number,” a charmingly lazy bass line on “Lost Cause”—helps her blows land cleanly.

Eilish’s supposedly peaceful inner sanctum, the self independent of others, remains gated. When she expresses desire, as on the chaotic bop “Oxytocin,” imaginary audiences intrude: “What would people say ... if they listen through the wall?” When she thinks about mortality, the concept that disturbed the narrator of When We All Fall Asleep, she becomes blasé: “Everybody Dies” spends three minutes and 26 seconds calmly explaining its own title. The lead single, “My Future,” flies into jazzland as Eilish dreams about the years ahead—while also holding back details of her hopes. You get the sense that she feels protective of her own satisfaction, and that singing about it would make her more vulnerable than any bleak confession would. Really, she has good reason to feel that way.

Happiness, of course, is one of pop’s core ingredients: Katy Perry yelped about it in “Teenage Dream” and DJ Khaled exudes it every time he bellows his name. Yet Eilish exemplifies a strand of music that emerged to challenge the shiny, empowering silliness that ruled the charts a decade ago. “I’m kind of over gettin’ told to throw my hands up in the air” sang Lorde, then 16 years old, on her 2013 album, Pure Heroine, whose breakout hit mocked pop’s clichés of success: “gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom.” Lorde was touting a “new art form, showin’ people how little we care,” and millions tuned in.

Although Lorde would regularly be called “sad,” it’s worth noting that a big chunk of her catalog is about joy—the intimate, unsurveilled joy of a nice night in a suburban bedroom, or of a woman dancing alone. Her revolution was, more than anything, sonic: blue-y, ambivalent chords; textured, worn singing; eerily stacked background vocals; trap drums repurposed to feel like a songwriter’s heartbeat. These features became ubiquitous in mid-2010s pop, with her imitators filling Spotify playlists and 50 Shades of Grey soundtracks. But Lorde kept herself relatively scarce, releasing only one subsequent album until now (it is slated for later this month).

During much of that same period, the influential voice of Lana Del Rey also wafted through popular culture like a fog. Her 2011 single “Video Games” announced her template: languid, reverberating lounge singing about women sacrificing themselves for hot, callous men. Bold sonic choices—brazen rap appropriation, colossal rock arrangements, soppy soundtrack orchestras—and jarringly specific lyrics kept this formula fresh over a regular stream of albums and small controversies. In addition to her musical genius, her persona mattered too: Del Rey was pop culture’s head sad girl.

The much-discussed archetype of the sad girl is not just a musical category—it has pervaded fashion, TV, and, most noticeably, social-media platforms such as Tumblr and TikTok. In a 2014 Pitchfork essay, Lindsay Zoladz argued that it was liberating for women to buck expectations “to be warmly smiling Stepford Wives emanating sunbeams from their every pore.” Other essayists, such as Sydney Gore at The Toast, situated the sad girl as part of a broader move toward vulnerability—just one sign of the destigmatization of mental-health discussions. (Sure enough, a crop of sad boys emerged in the 2010s as well.)

But sadness can become a limiting stereotype too. In a tweet this year, the singer Lucy Dacus rejected the label “sad girl indie”—because her songs weren’t sad, and because of the “commodification and perpetual expectation of women’s pain.” Indeed, most “sad girl” music expresses complex emotions, and the public fascination with teary-eyed women can seem sadistic. “I ain’t no candle in the wind,” Del Rey sang on a 2018 song; the reference to Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana seemed to push back at those who projected tragedy onto the singer. The overwhelming whiteness of celebrities labeled “sad girls” seems telling too. One can’t help wonder if they’re sometimes fetishized for resembling old, identity-bound caricatures of helplessness and fragility: Here is another princess-like Ophelia, destroyed by desire, and all the more lovely for it.

This summer has demonstrated how difficult it can be to take off the sad badge when it becomes constricting. Take the case of Lorde’s “Solar Power,” her first single in four years. As I mentioned before, Lorde’s career has produced many songs about fleeting bliss; this new song extends the tradition, with her shaking off seasonal malaise (“I hate the winter / can’t stand the cold”) and hitting the beach. The sonic details, cadences, and harmonies are tricky and ornate, as they always are for Lorde; I compulsively replayed the song to take in the details. But the instrumentation of strummed guitar and congas evokes an era before the moody zeitgeist Lorde herself helped usher in. Accordingly, reactions have been very mixed—with many longtime fans complaining that “sad” Lorde is now “basic” Lorde.

Meanwhile, Lana Del Rey has entered her most uplifting, but challenging, chapter yet. As with Lorde, her catalog has long marbled ecstasy with depressiveness, but Chemtrails Over the Country Club made contentment central like never before. The title track describes “beautiful … deep normality”; the stunning opener, “White Dress,” relates memories of feeling “like a god” as a 19-year-old waitress. She followed the album with a clutch of intriguing singles, including “Blue Banisters,” on which she ponders a friend’s advice that “you can’t be a muse and be happy, too.” The anthemic swoon of her earlier catalog has been muted on most of these songs: Del Rey now spins intricate, somewhat cryptic narratives—I’m trying not to abuse the term Dylanesque—that analyze serenity like someone working out a philosophical proof.

Eilish, while happier than ever, is carving a middle lane—between Lorde’s cheerfulness, which some people dismiss as corny, and Del Rey’s dizzying inner voyages. If inspiration can be found in her new work, it is in the poise and care she displays while puzzling over how to share her emotions without having them used against her. Small bits of therapeutic wisdom do peek out too. On the poignant “Male Fantasy,” Eilish talks about drifting apart from a friend she thought she’d have for life, and she’s not exactly despondent about the loss. “Nothing lasts,” she sings. “I know the deal.” That’s not a sunny thought—but it’s still one that can fight off darkness.