Does it matter that Billie Eilish, this year’s buzziest new pop star, is a kid? Is it okay that headlines about her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, have led with phrases such as teen-pop prodigy, not your typical 17-year-old pop star, and defines 21st-century teenage angst? If labeling is passé—and Eilish’s relentlessly surprising music makes a great case that it is—isn’t it square to fixate on the number of years she’s been alive? Ageist, even? Can’t we just listen to the music?
I’m really asking because I’m trying to understand my own reaction to her rapidly exploding popularity. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? sent me, on first listen, on a cringe binge. She opens with the slurping noise of her dental braces being removed. She sneers “Duh” in a chorus like she’s Bart Simpson. One track has a bunch of The Office samples. Another comprises ukulele and baby talk. Everything is, in one way or another, “spooky,” but in the air-quotes, kawaii sense. Think The Nightmare Before Christmas. No, think Corpse Bride. No, actually, think Monster High dolls, which update Barbie’s cayenne-cleanse proportions with Pixar-character eyes and the glamour of rotting flesh.
Do you hear what I’m doing here? How predictable, closed off, and stereotype reliant it is? My first rejection of Eilish was just a blunt reaction to brattiness as brattiness, a taking of the bait. As subsequent listens have convinced me that something very exciting is actually going on with Eilish, and as further listens have me worrying that the album might be my favorite of the year, it’s all making this mid-pack Millennial feel pretty old. Not just because of the teen signifiers Eilish uses. But because of the poise, the connections being drawn, and the sharp craft on display. How did no one make music like this before?
For what it’s worth, the comparison to Monster High is particularly unfair. Eilish—an L.A. showbiz daughter who, working with her producer brother, Finneas O’Connell, has earned millions of streams since 2016—is not plastic. Fashion-wise she goes for XL sweaters, and posture-wise she gives a good slump, which might help ensure that she won’t get railroaded as a sex-kitten object like the then-18-year-old Fiona Apple—an obvious influence—was. Generally, her edge is of the straight kind. Spiders, blood, and light S&M are motifs. But she rolls her eyes at drugs on “Xanny,” which imagines if an Amy Winehouse ballad depicted partying only as pathetic. The NC-17 teases of “Bad Guy,” the album’s opening banger, seem rather sarcastic, and the ending scene of its visual comes off like a fake-out regarding girl-on-video tropes.
Her voice—especially on her songs before this album—somewhat follows this decade’s trend of ineffably Swedish, chubby-bunny torch singing, heard in its most tolerable forms from Lorde and Ellie Goulding. But Eilish is an intelligent and unpredictable performer who, on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, whisper-sings, whisper-raps, and whisper-hums more than she does anything that could be described as “crooning.” Cybernetic-soul vocal manipulation recalling Bon Iver and The Knife—and Kanye West’s knocking off of both—is omnipresent. O’Connell’s production follows in pleasing Yeezus style with sparse door-knock beats and jump-scare samples cut with bright, bent keyboard lines. If this all sounds a bit fussy and like ASMR bait, well, it is. But Eilish writes in melodies akin to nursery rhymes and ancient folk tunes. The balance of strange and simple usually works.
The early portions of the album trigger a sugar rush with fidgety tracks that are only a few clicks on the weirdness scale from the stuff of Taylor Swift’s Reputation. The romping is fun while it lasts, though some of the tunes feel interchangeable. Right now I’m finding myself stuck on replaying the lurching sing-along of “Wish You Were Gay,” which despite catching some Twitter flak is actually a decent corrective to the Katy Perry “Ur So Gay” tradition. Eilish isn’t shading a guy’s effeminacy; she’s just treating sexuality as no big deal by wishing that he had an ulterior motive for rejecting her. It’s not a groundbreaking sentiment, but it’s also not one that’s been expressed before in quite this manner, which makes it typical of Eilish’s relationship to originality.
The album’s deeper pleasures come later in velvety, sad ballads. O’Connell’s harmonic layers breathe and quiver while Eilish, gratifyingly, works with more ambiguous meanings than on the up-tempo songs. “Listen Before I Go” might be dicey in its romanticization of self-harm—it’s a farewell note from the top of a building—but there’s no denying its cinematic pull as the sound of police sirens fades in. On “I Love You,” the final song before an overture-as-finale track, Eilish’s performance draws a clear and breathtaking division between two modes: wanting to be too cool for desire and actually experiencing desire. It’s one more ratification that she’s not a shtick, she’s a songwriter.
If anything feels fundamentally young about the music, it’s the heaping amounts of self-identification. Eilish has decided who she is, and she wants to tell the world, with a bluntness of the sort that can soften as compromises and course corrections pile up over the years of someone’s life. She has a “soul so cynical” and renders her heartaches and head rushes in the gothic terms of sin, addiction, and secrets keeping: a pretty familiar character, really. Or maybe she—as well as other darkness-chasing chart peers—represents Gen Z cycling back to Gen X’s disaffected purity after the market-minded can-do-ism of the Millennials. (Are the Mansons of the ’90s, Shirley and Marilyn, that decade’s most underratedly relevant stars?) Now, arguing that age cohorts share some cohesive outlook is reductive. But Eilish clearly welcomes it. “We’re being ignored and it’s so dumb,” she told NME of the teens. “We know everything.”