WILW: Billie Eilish's When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
My History with Music
I’m a millennial—which means a lot of things—but specifically as far as music goes, it means I’ve seen the whole evolution of music: I grew up listening to cassettes, then CD’s. I had a boombox and listened to Harry Potter obsessively on tape as I was falling asleep, and would get out of bed to flip the tape.
My friends gave me copied albums and mixed CDs I listened to obsessively in my first car. Albums included: Sam's Town by The Killers, Narrow Stairs by Death Cab for Cutie, Soviet Kitsch by Regina Spektor, Silent Alarm by Bloc Party, and Back to Black by Amy Winehouse.
I entered the dawn of digital music with a fifth generation iPod in 2006-2007. I remember the days of begging for iTunes gift cards, which were something akin to gold at the time. I inherited a pretty large digital library from my music savvy friends Dakota and Chris. Frequented digital albums included O by Damien Rice, Dying to Say This to You by The Sounds, Kala by M.I.A, Rush of Blood to the Head by Coldplay, Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie, the Once Official Soundtrack by Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova, and Begin to Hope by Regina Spektor.
I witnessed a lot of torrenting, the rise of free and paid music streaming services, and got hooked on Spotify my senior year of college. Later favorite albums included The Story by Brandi Carlile, Barton Hallow by The Civil Wars, 21 by Adele, and Lungs by Florence and the Machine.
I listed all of those because I want you to know what I think solid albums are. I consider myself pretty well read when it comes to music these days, despite not hearing the Beatles for the first time until I was sixteen when my friend, Chris, put "Eleanor Rigby" on a mixed CD for me. It was mixed in with some pretty obscure alternative bands at the time, so you can imagine the reaction I got when I tried to "show" it to someone else, thinking it was just some obscure alternative pop song.
"I really like this song."
"Yeah, it's The Beatles, (you dumb ****.)"
Anyway, let me get back to the point: The last album I bought was 25 by Adele. I love Adele— I've been riding that boat since 19 was released (I went through a Brit Pop phase for a while)— but that album was a waste of my money. I was utterly disappointed. And ever since that experience, I have resigned myself to listening to Spotify playlists to avoid experiencing that disappointment a second time.
Listening to an entire album is not something I often do anymore. But there is something really magical about listening to an album all the way through for the first time, picking first favorites, and listening to the album on repeat until your favorites change to the songs in between, and you know all of the lyrics to every song.
It's been a long time since I've had that feeling, and this week, I have a seventeen year old to thank for bringing that magic back into my life.
I have not been able to stop listening to Billie Eilish's album since I realized it existed.
I heard Billie Eilish for the first time this fall when I found her song "When the Party's Over" on Spotify's New Music Friday playlist. That song on its own was an infection, and I listened to it on repeat for a week (Ries will confirm.) and found sheet music so I could try to play and record a cover of it. (I don't have a piano, so this hasn't happened yet.)
Every time a new Billie Eilish single was released, I would do the same thing. And then sometime last week I realized that she had released an entire album back in March, and life has been all Billie Eilish since then. You can listen to the album on Spotify here.
Ries and I rarely agree on music, but I had him listen to it with me this weekend as we were driving home from Indianapolis. This morning he pulled up a YouTube video created by the New York Times on how Billie and her brother Finneas co-wrote "Bury a Friend" and reports that he has not only watched all her music videos (more than I have) but that he's also been watching reaction videos to the music videos, and that some are saying Billie Eilish is the first "horror-pop" music artist.
Ries and I agree on a lot. Our musical preferences are wildly different. The fact that we are both admiring and intrigued by the same album is a real fucking anomaly.
Okay, so what makes her different?
Unusual Song Structure
If you watched the NYT video above, Finneas talks about how the song structure for “Bury a Friend” is very unusual. While most songs have a repeating form that goes something along the lines of: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, the structure of “Bury a Friend” was closer to something like this: Hook, Verse, Pre-Chorus, Drop, Hook, Verse Two, Alternate Verse Two, Bridge, Pre-Chorus, Drop, Hook.
Song structure is not something that we’re necessarily conscious of as listeners, but the unpredictability is fresh, while also contributing to the disconcerting feeling in some of the “horror-pop” songs, because we aren’t sure when we’ll get new lyrics or where the lyrics will repeat.
Familiar, and yet, Different Sound
I had to ask Ries for help when figuring out what Billie Eilish sounds like, because it's difficult to peg down. What we determined is this: her music sounds like it was originally 1920's jazz, which was then synthetically distorted, and set to something you might hear in a club. The destruction of the jazz sound strips the sexy identity inherent to jazz, and Billie reinforces that with her dress, which is often asexual and conservative in fashion.
Going back to the NYT video, the interviewer asks about a couple of the sound effects used in "Bury a Friend." Billie shares that when she was having her Invisalign attachments removed, she loved and recorded the sound of the dental tool. Another sound on the track was an Easy Bake Oven timer. These are familiar sounds to most listeners, but we aren’t expecting to hear the sound of a dentist drill (which is frightening to most adults) to come out of our car speakers.
Even if you listen to the last track, “Goodbye,” it might sound familiar. If you can’t figure it out, don’t feel bad—I had to ask Ries what song is was mirroring, and he was able to identify the similarity to The Beatles’ “Because.”
Subverted Lyrical Themes
Remember I studied poetry in college, so I apologize in advance for the term paper I’m about to bust out.
Theme #1: Rejection of Societal Drug Norms
It’s not any accident that the song that sounds most similar to speakeasy music has contrasting lyrics over the top of it rejecting today’s commonly used substances character alienated by her peers' substance use.
I must be missing something
They just keep doing nothing
Too intoxicated to be scared
Better off without them
They're nothing but unstable
Bring ashtrays to the table
And that's about the only thing they share
I'm in their second hand smoke
Still just drinking canned coke
I don't need a xanny to feel better
On designated drives home
Only one who's not stoned
Don't give me a xanny now or ever
What's interesting to me is that despite the refusal of drugs, the song is evocative of other songwriting centered around substance use. I’m thinking now of songs by Amy Winehouse.
Theme #2: Elevating the Bad Guy
Another female vocalist I’m reminded of when listening to “Bad Guy” is Lana Del Rey, who was one of the first modern artists to effectively glamorize drugs, chasing bad boys, and cars through song. We see something similar in “Bad Guy” which explicitly says, “I’m not the kind of girl you want to bring home, I’m the kind of girl who will mess up your life, and I’m cool with it.”
My mommy likes to sing along with me
But she won't sing this song
If she reads all the lyrics
She'll pity the men I know
I'm that bad type
Make your mama sad type
Make your girlfriend mad tight
Might seduce your dad type
I'm the bad guy, duh
We also see this in the lyrics of “You Should See Me in a Crown”:
You Should See Me in a Crown
Come over baby
I think you're pretty
I'm not your baby
If you think I'm pretty
You should see me in a crown
I'm gonna run this nothing town
Watch me make 'em bow
One by one
Sparknotes: If you think I’m cute, wait a little bit and I’ll destroy you.
There are two music videos for “You Should See Me in a Crown”—the first one involves spiders, and the second one is an animated collaboration with Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami.
Theme #3: Self-Destruction
Another reoccurring theme in Billie Eilish’s music is self-destruction, which is found in the lyrics of “Bury a Friend,” but seen in a few other places.
Bury a Friend
Today, I'm thinkin' about the things that are deadly
The way I'm drinkin' you down
Like I wanna drown, like I wanna end me
And is seen again, in the music video for “When the Party’s Over” where Billie drinks a cup of black liquid and shortly after it comes out of her eyes and mouth—the music video concluding with the camera zooming out as the black spills out and fills the tile floor.
But the best example of the self-destruction theme is in the song “Listen Before I Go,” in which the lyrics read much like a suicide note or a conversation between a character and her significant other before she kills herself when the relationship fails.
Listen Before I Go
Take me to the rooftop
I wanna see the world when I stop breathing, turning blue
If you need me, wanna see me
Better hurry 'cause I'm leaving soon
Sorry can't save me now
Sorry I don't know how
Sorry there's no way out (sorry)
I'm not okay, I feel so scattered
Call my friends and tell them that I love them
And I'll miss them
The song even ends with the sounds of sirens and people in shock, if we weren’t able to piece together what has happened to the character singing. I say our character, because Billie herself refers to writing as a character in the NYT video above. As a mom and a recovered victim of depression, I’m hoping this is just a character. Really hoping.
Other Favorite Lyrics
Wish you were gay
Baby, I don't feel so good
Six words you never understood
This goes along with the self-destruction theme—a character dating someone who doesn’t understand depression.
When the party’s Over
Don't you know I'm no good for you?
I've learned to lose you, can't afford to
Tore my shirt to stop you bleedin'
But nothin' ever stops you leavin'
Call me friend but keep me closer
I love the line “call me friend but keep me closer”—they’re friends, but a little more than that, because they can’t let go of each other. They don’t go to each other’s parties, but they call each other after.
Bury a friend
Bury the hatchet or bury your friend right now
I love this line—it’s surprisingly violent. Bury the disagreement or bury
In the interview with NYT for Diary of a Song, Billie says:
“I don’t want to be in the pop world. I don’t want to be in the alternative world, or the hip-hop world or the R&B world, or whatever ***, you know? I want it to be like, what kind of music you listen to? Billie Eilish kind of music, you know? The other kind.”
After listening to this album on repeat for a week, I have to give it to her. Call it what you want, Billie Eilish has created her own genre and it’s addictive.